Virtual Friendships (VF) - seems like a good name for it - is a niche sector that I don't think anybody in the travel industry has spotted yet.
Some market trends just stand out, like the sudden growth in the number of middle-aged parents visiting their teenage children on gap year placements, spotted by a small travel agency in Wales a couple or years ago. They now specialise in making the, sometimes quite domestically delicate & diplomatic (!), arrangements for such visits.
More recently, the marketing intelligence company, Euromonitor International, has just published its 'World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2007' highlighting a few of the latest market trends: Pet Travel (a rise in the number of people travelling with their pets and hotels & travel companies catering for them); Diaspora Tourism (driven by Diaspora tourists who wish to discover their heritage and ancestry, particularly at festival or event times such as Christmas, weddings, christenings, etc); and Debaucherism Tourism (hedonistic young travellers, particularly 25-34 yr old Americans, heading to the Caribbean, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Vietnam, Macau & Dubai to emulate tabloid celebrities by 'partying hard').
I began to think about the possible existance of a VF market a few weeks ago when my son and I were invited by some friends to visit them in Romania.
When I say 'friends' I mean people we spend time with, most days of the week...yet we have never met them.
These are online friends who play and chat together in the world's largest MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), The World of Warcraft (WoW). Over the last year we have got to know each other (and what we look like, what we sound like, what we do, and what we are like) really quite well. Joe and I play on a European server with regular friends from Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, Croatia and Romania. Three of our Romanian friends live in the same Black Sea town, Constanta and one of our UK online friends will be visiting them a couple of weeks before we go. As things stand at the moment another good online friend from Antwerp is planning to join our trip, and others might too.
It got me thinking. If we are doing it, the chances are other people are also making Real-Life ("r/l") travel arrangements too. It's a common subject in WoW circles. There's even a mini-movie about r/l encounters currently doing the rounds on YouTube.
"Um......yes" I hear you say, "but the fact that you happen to be organising a trip to see some other people from a bizarre fantasy world..... doesn't really indicate a travel 'trend'!"
Ok. Try this on for size.
World of Warcraft may be the biggest, but it is by no means the only MMORPG. It has over 9 million users worldwide including 2m in N. America, 1.5m in Europe and 3.5m in China. (Oh, and by the way, this is not a boy thing. My guess is that at least a third are female).
Now add to that all the other "Web 2.0" places that online friendships are formed...
Not just the well-known ones like Facebook (more than 54 million active users, and doubling every 6 months), Myspace (100 million users); Bebo (40 million users aged 13-24); Second Life (2 million accounts), or even dear old Friends Reunited (9 million members). Nor Windows Live Messenger which last year (can't find more up-to-date figures) was used in more than 60 countries by more than 240 million active accounts...
Think about all the hundreds of thousands of blogs, chat rooms and special interest forums where friendships are kindled and professional relationships developed.
For example I joined a forum of Search Engine Optimisation experts in 2002 and even back then there was a high level of collaboration that spilled over into the real world with people arranging to meet each other at and around overseas conventions, conferences, business and social trips.
So you reluctantly recognise that there may indeed be a significant number of real world travel arrangements born out of digital world encounters.... so what? What is in it for the travel industry?
Well, a couple of things.
- Marketing strategy. Maybe re-allocating some advertising budget from traditional travel media to keyword targeted campaigns online would be a smart move for a travel company who wants to develop a new market. If you are a specialist tour operator specialising in battlefield tours or factory visits, perhaps you should be running Google or Yahoo ads on history or motoring forums.
- Product. In a lot of cases VF travel requirements will be no different to any other. But a few tweeks might make a product more suitable. Using the battlefield/factory tour example above, if you designed a tour for small groups assembling from multiple start points, that would make it very suitable for the VF market. There might be other ways in which a travel provider could develop VF-specific products. Safety and security could be an issue for people meeting in real life for the first time. So a travel agency might offer escorted travel or a 'get me out of here!' facility for clients who find their r/l encounter is not as enjoyable or comfortable as they hoped and want to curtail their visit.
I think that VF could be an un-discovered market for the travel industry and perhaps it is time researchers tried to evaluate its size and potential.