For business travellers, Facebook and Twitter are much more than places to share family photos and sneezing-puppy videos. These social media can also help road warriors wring extra value from a two-day conference in New York.
"You can have an extensive network that is intimate without having to do the 'circuit,' and then when you do hit the road it allows you to meet a wider range of people," says Alexandra Samuel, the director of the social and interactive media centre at Emily Carr University in Vancouver.
As co-founder of Social Signal, a social media strategy group for business, and a blogger on social media for the Harvard Business Review, Ms. Samuel has spent considerable time advocating for social media at meetings and conferences around North America.
Ms. Samuel uses tools in particular:
LinkedIn - The business-oriented networking website allows Ms. Samuel to search for people involved in particular business fields necessary to her work in whatever city she is visiting, whether she knows them or not. She then can use her time to make new contacts and reconnect with others.
Twitter - The microblogging site allows her to send short messages to tell her followers where she is, what she is covering, and in turn they can send her messages about what they may be doing at the same conference or in the same city.
TripIt - The travel itinerary organizer allows her to find out which of her colleagues are due to be in the same place as her while she is travelling, which can be useful for impromptu meetings and even sharing cab fares.
"I am super-obsessed with using LinkedIn right now. I am doing an e-book project and the last time I went to New York I did a search on e-book projects on LinkedIn, and looked for people who either I knew who were working on projects related to that or contacts," Ms. Samuel said.
Previously, she added, she had also used LinkedIn when she was selling her company to search for people whose titles included the words "vice president" and "marketing." "Up pops a list of every VP of marketing who is in my broader network, and I can identify people who I might want to meet with when I am in their city," she said.
Social media sites have also helped her get more bang for her buck. She has connected with far-flung colleagues and clients from home, saving the most essential face-to-face meetings for times when she can double-up on the reasons for travelling.
This, she says, saves money and allows her to spend more time in her office and with her young family. "I am able to handle a lot more clients relationship work online and I am also able to do a lot of networking online that used to only happen when I went to conferences."
Social media are also useful when things go awry during a business trip, said David Eaves, a consultant and writer on public policy, including social media and open government.
"Twitter comes in handy for travellers when things go bad. When people start updating each other on cancelled flights, or an airport is closed," he said.
Mr. Eaves said his 3,300 followers on Twitter play an interactive part in his business travel. "Something like this becomes useful is when stress is put upon the system. When things go bad it becomes a really powerful distribution mechanism of information."
Business travellers can have quite an impact on companies when service is not satisfactory. He cited Air Canada's response to a drubbing of its revamped frequent flyer upgrade plan, a plan that seemed less generous than in the past.
"What was supposed to be a good news story was turned very quickly going negative [in an online forum}. Air Canada was quiet, but then they show up on the forum and they were saying 'We've learned a lot from what was said here. As a result, we are changing this, this and this. And then they sent an e-mail to all their users,' he said.
"It was the definition of what you should do with social media and business travel."
Angie Ryan, a spokeswoman for TripIt, said the company has grown since its 2007 launch and today receives more than 500,000 unique visits per month from around the world, including Canada. User numbers have almost tripled in the past year, she said.
"Business travel is growing again and getting more healthy. When it comes to these trends and social media usage, a lot of it has to do with making the most of your travel spend," she said.
"We try to help users have insight into where fellow travellers are going to be, to really maximize your productivity on the road - and to arrange your travel yourself or have office arrangers do it easily. It frees up time to spend in the office," she said.
Ms. Ryan cited a recent American Express study showing that half of corporate travel professionals and 59 per cent of mid-sized American companies are now using social media for travel management.
Twenty-five per cent of respondents said reducing travel costs was the main benefit for using social media, followed by 18 per cent who use it mainly to look for preferred vendors and services. An additional 18 per cent use it to stay on top of the latest travel information.
"People are much more comfortable with the technology and understand the positive impact it can have on their bottom line," Ms. Ryan said.