by Courtney Eckerle
Costa Rican Vacations started as a two-man shop in 1999 led by fresh-out-of-college roommates, and grew to the 100-person operation it is today because of its ability to adapt to the quickly burgeoning Internet.
"The strategy of going 100% Internet before everybody was on the Internet really worked out for us," said Casey Halloran, Chief Marketing Officer, Costa Rican Vacations.
Costa Rican Vacations is more or less a virtual company, according to Halloran, with most sales agents working remotely all over the world, and the operational staff is a mix of locals and foreigners.
"Because we were small, we had to rely on technology and not people. And, it's really allowed us to grow in a measurable and sustainable way," he said.
From the genesis of Costa Rican Vacations, his marketing team had always "relied heavily" on search engine optimization and pay-per-click, quickly adopting the then cutting-edge marketing techniques.
It was ironic the company was a late adopter of marketing through Facebook, he continued.
Selling high-end, customized trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, its clients are mostly from the United States, although some hail from the U.K. and Canada. With the niche, older demographic (40s to 60s) to cater to, Halloran said social media never appealed to him as particularly valuable.
In the spirit of constantly evolving, Halloran said it eventually became clear the team needed to figure out how to use social media effectively for its organization.
Costa Rican Vacations' marketing staff began clamoring about the necessity of adopting social media. Halloran said it became clear his staff needed to sit down and figure out what they were going to do with Facebook.
They came to the conclusion the best way they could use social media was to persuade clients to advocate on the company's behalf.
"Because we're a customer service company," he said, "we like to believe we provide exceptional service, we've got a lot of fans of our business."
Costa Rican Vacations turned its Facebook page into a tool for clients to leave testimonials, and then integrated those testimonials onto the website and into marketing emails.
Step #1. Integrate Facebook with email survey
Costa Rican Vacations staff set up a custom "Testimonials" tab on their Facebook page
allowing "people to go in there and basically see a new wall dedicated only to testimonials."
Collecting those testimonials involved setting up a system to integrate it into existing marketing materials, establishing how best to utilize them and offering an incentive for clients who gave reviews deemed the most "helpful" to staff.
Costa Rican Vacations sends out a survey to all clients after they have arrived back home, and the last question asks if they would mind posting a testimonial to Facebook
The testimonials tab didn't really "take off," Halloran said, until the marketing team decided to integrate it with the already existing survey in the post-trip email send. Previously, it was up to the sales team to persuade customers to leave a post-trip review.
"That worked OK," Halloran said about having the sales staff encourage using Facebook, but "not nearly as well as when people had their survey open."
With 40% of customers taking the time to fill out the survey, it was the logical place to include a prompt for the Facebook testimonials.
The Costa Rican Vacations survey is ten questions split over three pages, and clients are told at the beginning to expect to be asked to post a review on Facebook at the end of the survey.
The client is then led directly to the Facebook page to post their review
, and of course, browse others if they so choose.
Encourage sales staff to interact
"We're trying to really encourage our staff to interact with their clients post sale to thank them, discuss and see what more we can do," Halloran said.
Many sales staff actually meet with clients face-to-face during the client's vacation, and "become pretty good friends."
To continue that interaction between the sales agent and client, agents check up to see if clients have posted a testimonial on Facebook, and respond
"My little marketing staff is watching that thing like a hawk," Halloran said, adding an agent is notified immediately if one of their clients posts. Continuing a conversation
based-off of a customer's review achieves Costa Rican Vacation's goals of keeping them as helpful to the company as possible while fostering a long-term relationship with current clients.
Because the company only offers trips to three destinations, Halloran said, "We've taken this business just about as far as it can go in terms of new clients, so now we're trying to do more with our existing clients. And, I think this is a great format for that."
Don't delete negative comments
Not all reviews are the glowing tributes all marketers hope for, of course, and Halloran said he and his staff deal with negative reviews by "going into full attack mode — in a positive way."
Halloran said it is a rarity that a client's issue isn't resolved on their vacation, but if they’re still unhappy once they hit home soil, and go as far as wanting to air their grievances publicly, "we honestly did something wrong."
To deal with the complaint, the marketing department will quickly call a meeting with the customer service department and contact the representative who sold the vacation to figure out what went awry.
"We figure out the message we want to deliver to the person, and whoever has been elected to deliver that message will go and resolve the issue," he said.
Halloran said the company is willing to go to great lengths to resolve an issue because they know how important it is to have a stellar reputation online.
"We don't make anything, all we do is provide a service," he said.
It can be frustrating to see disparaging remarks about the company put up so publicly, Halloran said, but it is imperative to acknowledge those occurrences as an opportunity.
"If we can turn some of those people around … we want them to come back then and say, 'They fixed my issue, they did what they said they were going to do,'" he said.
Step #2. Offer an incentive
To encourage people to go through to post a testimonial on Facebook, Halloran said the team decided to offer an Amazon gift card to "the most helpful review."
Halloran said Amazon was chosen because "it's almost like money" and less restrictive than other gift cards, and was consistent with other incentives and rewards they have done for referrals. They tweaked the amount over the course of the campaign, and have now settled on $100.
"We went from $50, up to $200 and back down to $100. It seems like $100 is around the sweet spot where people felt motivated enough, but it doesn't feel like a bribe," he said.
Once testimonials started coming in, "it kind of snowballed, and once everyone was doing it, other people felt more comfortable," he said.
Halloran said the team has gotten to the point where they receive one or two testimonials per day, and now have over 200.
The team has not shied from rewarding bad reviews with the gift card offer, he said, which definitely fit in the "most helpful" criteria.
"We're just trying to encourage people to go public with their feedback," he explained.
Step #3. Integrate testimonials across other channels
Because the company is using a custom page on Facebook, Halloran said, "the cool thing is … you can embed that anywhere you want."
He said Costa Rican Vacations embeds the testimonials in two places:
- Testimonials page of the website, "which I love as opposed to most testimonials that are copy and paste, so … you're seeing live headshots," he said.
- Sample itineraries sent to prospective customers, where "it's embedded right there in part of the itinerary, so clients can see past client reviews."
Integrating the testimonials across channels has two goals, which are to increase conversion on the website, and to increase sales gross and percentage.
"It's hard to know empirically if one is impacting the other, but we've never had a better year," he said.
One of Costa Rican Vacations' goals for this year was to increase its referrals and repeats, which had been running at "around 6%," according to Halloran. That number has doubled, currently at 12%.
"I have to believe that part of that is allowing our clients to see each other," he said. "It's such a small world of people who are willing to buy a luxury vacation to Costa Rica, a lot of these people know each other."
The results of Costa Rican Vacations' efforts have been:
- 203 Facebook testimonials
- 15% of clients who fill out the survey also leave a Facebook testimonial
"Sometimes the best innovations are small ones," Halloran concluded. "This was not any mind-blowing or technologically difficult feat, but it took a few attempts at it to make it work, and once it did, it took off."
- Costa Rican Vacations testimonials Facebook tab
- Facebook testimonial prompt in survey
- Facebook testimonial
- Testimonial with agent response
- Additional Testimonial with agent response
- Website page for testimonials
SourceCosta Rican Vacations
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