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Originally published Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 1:29 PM

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Travel Troubleshooter

Travel industry, including Disney, using vacationers' videos for promotion

The travel industry — which for years considered videos as byproducts of a happy vacation, if not liabilities that occasionally found their way on to the Internet — has had a change of heart and is using them as promotional tools.

Tribune Media Services

In one video, a little boy dances during a parade at Disney's Magic Kingdom. In another, a young girl dressed as a princess embraces her father. And in a third, two women explore Cinderella's Castle.

All are part of Disney's new campaign called Let the Memories Begin (http://memories.disneyparks.disney.go.com) — a promotion that relies on what the company refers to as "guest-generated" content.

"Let the Memories Begin is about real guests making real memories in our parks," said Leslie Ferraro, executive vice president of global marketing for Disney Destinations.

Disney isn't alone.

The travel industry — which for years considered videos as byproducts of a happy vacation, if not liabilities that occasionally found their way on to the Internet — has also had a change of heart.

User-generated videos aren't exactly new. They've been popular for years and have big audiences online. According to ComScore, 178 million U.S. Internet users watched online video content in August, the latest month available. That's an average of 14.3 hours per viewer. Many of the clips online are produced on the cheap, using a cellphone and rudimentary editing software on a PC.

But Disney's campaign marks a turning point. The grainy videos with the tinny sound that occasionally went viral are now being accepted and even celebrated as authentic representations of a vacation experience.

"They're real," said Jason Stein, a writer, producer and director for Laundry Service Media. "No script, no actors. I understand why the travel industry wants to employ more user-generated videos: It's a real person documenting a real experience."

It's about more than lowering production standards and handing over some of the creative control to a customer, said Hawk Thompson, the content director at the marketing firm Springbox. "It's more like a convergence," he said. "Consumers and smart brands like Disney interact with each other and share similar aesthetic values because digital media has leveled the playing field."

Travel companies could get a boost from that trend, in terms of improved sales and visibility. But travelers might be the real beneficiaries, in the long run, because they'll gain power.

"This is all about curating the content that helps sell the virtues of Disney through the experience of its consumers," said Frank Sinton, CEO of MeFeedia. "This appears to be an attempt to better harness the user-generated content movement with hand-picked selections to help the company put its best face forward."

The potential downside

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But letting the user-generated content genie out of the bottle could also backfire. While Disney's experiment is carefully orchestrated, other initiatives haven't gone as smoothly. An often-cited case is TripAdvisor, which is best known for its written user-generated hotel reviews. Hoteliers have long complained that the reviews are false or inaccurate, and now several hundred have reportedly banded together and are considering filing a defamation suit against the company.

"The pitfalls are the same," said Kaleel Sakakeeny, the chief executive of New Media Travel. The content, he added, reflects the experience of the traveler and not necessarily the interest of the company or destination in the video.

For example, a customer with a video camera in the wrong place at the wrong time could easily create a clip that negates all of the positive effects of a hundred user-generated videos. And since video can be more influential than a written review or a posted photo, the risks are greater.

Industry-watchers warn that encouraging users to document their vacations with their video cameras and post them online may, in fact, lead to more headaches than heartwarming moments.

"Individuals may have an ax to grind either because they are getting incentivized by the resort or they received bad service," said Johnny Boston, the president and chief creative officer of Raw Digital. "In other words, people who post videos may have motives of their own."

Not the end of professional video

Social media professionals say the move toward user-generated video content doesn't mean the professionals should pack it up and go home.

"I definitely think we live in an online world where professional and user-produced content cannot only live in harmony, but embrace and benefit from each other in a way that's not competitive," said Dana Detrick-Clark, the founder and producer of Serious Vanity Music Entertainment Resource Group. "I believe Disney will take this raw footage they're collecting from travelers and frame it in a professional way that makes it more engaging to view and learn from."

But Andy Newman, whose public relations firm represents the Florida Keys and who has been an early adopter of video to promote travel, said viewers still prefer to watch professionally shot and edited footage. For example, the Keys runs a weekly video on its website (www.fla-keys.com/) on subjects ranging from how to make key lime pie to a tour of Dry Tortugas National Park. Many of these productions have tens of thousands of views.

"There's still a place for good, news-style video production," he said.

Disney agrees. Ferraro, the Disney executive, said the company notes the new campaign includes some professional video, "the combination of which takes our campaign to a new level of creativity."

Still, Disney's acceptance of user-generated content is an important milestone in the evolution of online video. It shifts some power to travelers — power that they never imagined they'd have. And there's more to come.

"Digital media is evolving constantly," Thompson said. "Today's smartphones shoot HD video. Tomorrow they'll shoot 3-D footage."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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