If I can make it through an airport without setting off alarms and tripping over my own belt, I consider it a win. Without fail, the chaos that starts at the airport follows me throughout my business trip, as my wallet quickly becomes overloaded with receipts and my laptop bag leaks cables out of each of its 17 pockets. Alas, I am not a graceful business traveler.
And yet, my travels are fruitful, as I've learned a few tricks from the smoothest of business pros on how to use social media to maximize the benefit of going on the road.
Realizing these benefits required a mindset shift: I had to stop viewing social media as a set of one-off tactics and start viewing it as a set of tools that could help me carve out my overall strategy for a given trip. I finally learned that social media can be useful far beyond conference hashtags and LinkedIn contacts.
In this light, it's helpful to consider specific social media uses for each phase of business travel: pre-trip, in transit, on-site and post-trip.
If your work world is anything like mine, business travel is typically the culmination of a hectic surge of activity in preparation for the event you're traveling for. More often than not, the pre-trip rush is more stressful than the trip itself. As a result, not a lot of planning goes into the logistics of the trip beyond flights, hotels and rental cars. This is where a little social media planning can make your travels so much more enjoyable.
First, a week before your trip sit down and block out a full trip schedule. Be on the lookout for "opportunity blocks" where you will be fully in control of your time. Find three such blocks, and plan on using each to: connect with the city you're visiting, deepen your relationship with your professional network and improve your craft. This process will not only get you organized, but help you be deliberate about how you use your time while traveling. Binging on room service and Game of Thrones is great, but optimizing business travel is all about finding better uses for this unstructured time.
Second, use your social media connections to create a plan for achieving these three objectives.
Yes, your business obligations will take priority, but if you can also carve out time for personal enjoyment, personal connection and intellectual fulfillment, you'll find yourself looking forward to, not dreading, your travel.
Beyond this specific strategy, make sure you've covered off on the pre-trip social media fundamentals. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date and representative of the image you want to be projecting on the trip. Similarly, spend the week before your trip tweeting out content relevant to whatever that trip's focus is (or what your "improving your craft" activity is about). When the people you meet during your trip research you later, make sure they see evidence that you're the thoughtful and smart thinker you were in-person.
Whereas pre-trip use of social media is largely about tapping into existing networks, in-transit social media use is all about connecting you with the people in the service industry who can make your travel less painful. In my experience, airline and hotel chains are very responsive to social media engagement – questions, complaints or pleas for help.
The smartest business travelers I've met have formed relationships with specific customer support people from airlines. I tried it myself during my last trip, tweeting to the TSA team. Within 10 minutes they had helped me navigate the SeaTac airport using their Pre-Check service and I breezed through airport security without setting off a single alarm. Make sure you foster these relationships and add the helpful people you find to your Twitter network. If you travel with any degree of regularity, you'll use these connections repeatedly.
Even when you don't need any assistance, it's nice to give a particular airline or hotel chain a social media shout-out when things go well. Trust me when I say that your favorable social media mentions of these companies and their employees matter a great deal. Plus, karma.
This is the facet of business travel where there's the widest range of options for social media usage and where they tend to be the most obvious, though usage is so contingent on what you're doing (e.g. the strategy for events is entirely different than travel focused on wooing prospective clients). Suffice it to say, it's worth spending the time in your pre-planning phase to set out specific objectives you want to achieve via social media. Here's an easy example: "engage in Twitter chatter using the conference hashtag in order to gain five new prospective clients or partners."
Think about how you can use LinkedIn and Twitter during your travels to show that you are plugged-in and highly engaged in the space you work. Whether it's posting a LinkedIn update on the class you went to in your free time, or a tweet at your new client's Twitter handle, use social media to affirm, educate, expound and applaud.
As a general rule, business travel is only as good as the follow-through you exhibit after you've returned home. Beyond the obvious (adding LinkedIn contacts), my favorite post-trip social media tactic is to create a Twitter list of everyone you met on the trip and keep each such list in your TweetDeck for at least six months. Find opportunities to interact with these contacts—a tweet every now and then to keep the relationships alive. It won't work for every person you met, but invariably you'll vibe with one or two of these people.
Such relationships are the key to turning people from contacts to connectors. The former being people that you simply know, and the latter being people who like and are invested in connecting you with their world (their boss, friends, etc.).
Social media-savvy business travelers understand social media in its various roles: as a source for information, as grease for the wheels of travel, as a way to show one's business excellence and finally as a means of solidifying relationships formed.
The next time you hit the road, with mismatched luggage and the smartest of phones in tow, try out this approach and you'll be pleased with the results.