Whether you’re an airline, cruise ship, hotel, amusement park, casino, restaurant or a destination marketing organization – effective social media marketing and engagement is crucial to the success of your business.

Tourism is an important pillar in almost every country’s economy – and in the last few years, some countries and organizations have been leading the way in leveraging social media to entice tourists to visit their locations and businesses, with some truly amazing and innovative social media marketing initiatives.

These successful social media-fuelled marketing pursuits have provided the travel, tourism and leisure industry with inspiration and best practices around leveraging social media to create buzz around their destinations and businesses, and for providing world-class, real-time customer service through social listening.

1. Be Your Community’s Concierge

Planning a vacation can be very difficult. There’s so much to plan – where to go, where to eat, where to stay, how to get there – social media gives travel & tourism organizations the tools to develop creative ways to help tourists plan their vacation. Inspire, engage and add value for your customers and community by providing them with useful insider travel information and a holistic overview of the destination.

Virgin Atlantic’s award-winning travel website vtravelled.com links travelers around the world through an online community. It uses a special recommendations service to suggest site content from similar users, to provide helpful and relevant travel information tailored to each community member. The site includes real-time updates on the top 50 events happening in the destination a traveler is visiting.

2. Create a Social Tourism Information Booth

Use your brand’s social media channels to provide useful updates and information on local events and situations that may affect their vacation, with helpful ways to plan around these events.

Big Five Tours & Expeditions Takes Proactive Approach in Egypt Crisis: Concerned about their guests amid the crisis in Egypt, Big Five directors recorded a series of audio messages and videos and uploaded to their Facebook page. They also posted real-time reports to Twitter.

3. Encourage Travelers to Share their Stories

Travel stories are typically the most engaging and fascinating stories – they’re colorful tales of discovering new places, people, and food – full of excitement and wonder. They tell a very personal experience, but they inspire and entice your audience to create their own adventure. Find innovative and exciting ways to encourage your community to share their own experiences, through stories and photos.

In Tourism Queensland’s 2009 “Best Job in the World” campaign they created a global search for an Island Caretaker, whose job was to live on Hamilton Island for 6 months, explore the islands around the Great Barrier Reef and blog about it. Tourism Queensland saw over 34,000 video applicants from 197 countries, over 8 million website hits, 378,735 Facebook referrals, a 93% increase in followers and over 610 hours of user-generated content.

4. Show Them What They’re Missing

When it comes to traveling, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Images are a great way to excite your community and inspire them in planning for their next trip. And the more beautiful and enticing photos you post, the more your community will pin your photos to their Pinterest boards. Also, encouraging your community to upload their own photos is a great way to curate content and build a community around your brand.

Explore Canada Like a Local: The Canada Tourism Commission’s microsite and app allowed users to curate and share lists of destinations around Canada they’d most like to visit, as well as upload their own photos.

5. Encourage Travellers to “Check-In”

Whether you’re encouraging tourists to check in to your bar, airport, hotel or casino – implementing mobile geo-location apps into your social media strategy is an excellent way to create buzz around your brand or destination – and an even better way to leverage mobile apps – is to get creative with fun promotions and contests.

For a Thanksgiving promotion, the San Francisco International Airport tweeted photos of a turkey named Pardon at spots throughout SFO. Users who tweeted or checked in (on Foursquare) to the correct location were entered into a sweepstake.

6. Listen to Your Community’s Travel Experiences

People are constantly sharing their experiences from your destination, hotel, airport, aircraft or cruise ship on social media – so you need to be listening in order to be aware and ready to chime in with help. Chances are you’ve seen frustrated tweets or facebook updates in your network, complaining about the delay of a flight – the airlines that respond to these complaints with helpful information are regarded highly throughout social media. By listening to these conversations and helping in real-time – you will turn a negative situation into a winning customer experience, and develop strong, lifelong relationships with your customers – some will even become active advocates for your organization throughout the social space and beyond.

American Airlines not only informs and responds to customer questions on Twitter but does so in a sincere and human approach.

7. Inject Some Fun Into Your Brand

Traveling is fun and exciting, but for many people, it’s just another day of work. Lots of travelers spend more time sitting in an airplane than sitting in an office, so for them hearing the same safety video three times a week can be pretty tedious.

Peter Shankman recently blogged about United Airlines’ new Youtube video, pointing out that the airline has managed to take the most boring part of traveling – the safety video – and inject some fun into it.

8. Engage on International Social Media Sites

Four Seasons is by far one of the most engaging luxury hotel chains on social media. From virtual wine tastings on Twitter to active participation in location-based apps such as Foursquare to their highly curated content on YouTube, Four Seasons clearly ‘gets’ social media engagement.

Not only are they actively engaged and creative in their social marketing campaigns and compelling content marketing, but Four Seasons also understands the importance of branching out off our social channels here in the West, and tapping into international sites to connect with the rest of their global community. Four Seasons has an active presence on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network (with more than 250 million users) and they’ve even launched an online magazine site there.

Your customers are from all over the world and they are discussing their experiences with your brand, in a variety of languages on international social media channels. Shouldn’t you be listening? Learn how to get started here.