On Tuesday February 9th at 4:30 in the afternoon, a Continental Airlines representative casually told me that all flights from Newark on Wednesday would be cancelled due to the pending storm. I was in a state of shock because just hours earlier I received an email from Continental indicating that I was upgraded to first class. In a matter of hours my vision of a relaxing flight to Orlando to get ready for the NADA Convention and the Automotive Marketing Boot Camp the day earlier was shattered.
I called select members of the PCG Digital Marketing
team into my office who were heading to Orlando and told them they had two hours to go home, pack and get ready for a road trip through a blizzard. I informed them that I had called all area airports and that all outbound flights on Tuesday evening were booked solid. Since I was co-organizing an Automotive Marketing Boot Camp that started on Thursday Night, I told the team that we had no choice but to drive to Florida. It was their turn to be shocked.
Google Maps plotted the course at roughly 17 hours under normal driving conditions. No one, including me could predict what we would experience over the next 34 hours on our way to Orlando. I have learned to ask myself what this turn of events was trying to "teach me". I would not start to get that answer for at least 48 hours.
The PCG employees drafted for the road trip included Carrie Hemphill, Jessica Guida, Matt O'Such and Sal LaMarca. We also transported Kim DePalma, our promotional marketing consultant, who had provided all the gear for the Boot Camp event. The six of us departed Little Silver New Jersey at 7:30 pm on Tuesday night.
Creating a Road Trip Twitter Hashtag
The first hour of travel was uneventful but soon the snow coming from the South was determined to slow our progress. As we crossed over to the NJ Turnpike heading for Delaware the roads became treacherous.
The PCG team, hiding their fears, decided to start a Twitter hash tag called #PCGRoadTrip
and started to use Twitter to track our progress Interestingly, many of the PCG Digital Marketing Twitter followers decided to follow the adventure by searching the hash tag we had set up.
We had created a virtual cheerleading team for our trek through the blizzard of 2010 using social media. The team also decided to use FourSquare.com to "check-in" to the many retail establishments that we visited along the way.
The 32 hour road trip yielded many interesting revelations about the power and influence of mobile GPS enabled phones and social media applications that are location aware.
We also decided to use a Flip-Cam to document our travels to Orlando and you can see the actual footage if you Google "PCG Road Trip".
We have posted over 14 segments on YouTube representing our travel from New Jersey to Orlando in a storm that most people would consider crazy to cross.
Consumer Reviews Impact Team Spending
After four hours of travel, we just crossed into Delaware; a trip that would normally only take two hours in normal driving conditions. We hit a wall of snow as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge. We were quickly schooled on the definition of driving in "white out" conditions. The view from the driver's seat was best described as the warp drive effect you see in Star Trek movies when they engage in warp drive.
Needing a place to sleep for the night, Matt O'Such used his GPS enabled Motorolla Droid phone and started a search for local hotels on Google Maps. The first three hotels were completely booked and hope was dwindling that we could avoid sleeping in the car. We had a break when a Quality Inn said that they had three rooms available for $58 a night; we told the desk clerk we were on our way.
When Matt O'Such got off the phone announcing the score, one of my first learning lessons was revealed. I had a premonition that Carrie Hemphill, our social media specialists would have something to say, Carrie asked Matt what the hotel was rated by travelers. The $58 a night rate concerned Carrie's sense of good taste. Indeed, as Matt used his phone to look at the reviews, the hotel was rated at two stars.
Without any deliberation, I instructed Matt to search for a hotel that was located in our path down I-95. I have to admit that I was more than comfortable staying at ANY hotel because I could barely see more than a few hundred feet ahead on the highway. I wanted to make sure the team had comfortable and clean accommodations on this road trip so if it meant a few more miles down I-95 to find something better, I was up for the test.
Matt used his web enabled GPS phone to locate a hotel 15 miles down the road that had availability and a 4.5 star consumer rating on Google Maps. The PCG team cheered at the discovery and we changed our reservations. At that moment, I learned the second lesson of many from the PCG road trip. Driving in a white-out blizzard, we were able to find a hotel that had great reviews, all while driving in our car. We did not need a road map, a GPS unit installed in the car or a printed travel guide.
It wasn't until Thursday night that I was able to fully reflect on just how powerful web enabled, GPS integrated mobile applications can be to change our way of living. The trip demonstrated how discretionary spending was influenced by consumer reviews; online reputation management will be marketing 101 for the coming year for business owners.
The next day we awoke at 6:00 am to get on the road by 7:00 am and after a quick continental breakfast, we were battling for southern momentum. Maryland and Washington DC were formidable opponents
. We could only safely travel at 20 miles per hour and visibility was extremely limited. It was a bit discouraging at times but the Twitter tweets and FourSquare.com check-ins at local gas stations, rest stops and even Hooters broke up the tension.
Clear Driving After Richmond
By the time we reached Richmond Virginia
, the blizzard and snow was gone but we still had a long way to travel. We had weathered the brunt of the storm and now it was just a challenge to stay attentive for the remainder of the trip. We had just less than 13 hours to go and the PCG team was more optimistic that our decision to drive through the night was the right choice.
What we didn't know until we arrived at the Automotive Marketing Boot Camp was that hundreds of people knew about our trip. We were greeted by attendees that knew what we were going through and who were following our Twitter hash tag for updates. People had a new found respect for the dedication of our team, not only to our responsibility to get to the event, but also for our intuitive nature to utilize social media to our advantage.
It was then I learned my third lesson from this experience; social media and mobile applications are game changing technologies that can link friends and acquaintances in ways never imagined.
On the day we departed, Google announced Google Buzz
and during the trip the PCG team tested the platform and found that they could participate in local "conversations" along the way. We gave I-95 travelers driving conditions updates at key checkpoints and reflected on the local chatter in each state.
The fact that while driving we were researching, communicating, connecting and participating in something bigger
that what made up our six passenger Escalade was something beyond comprehension in retrospect.
When we arrived in Orlando on Thursday morning at 3:00 am, we were exhausted. In just 14 hours we would be responsible for running an automotive digital marketing conference and Matt and I would be speaking for over eight hours on Friday. We made it, and in retrospect, that was the best 32 hours of social media education
that I could ever ask for.
Social Media Revelations
During the Boot Camp and NADA people came up to the PCG team and commented about the trip; we created a following. We continued to use Twitter, FourSqaure.com and Google Buzz to let people know about our team's location, NADA commentary and PCG sponsored contests. Attendees commented that the PCG team was very visible. I even became the mayor of the Starbucks cafe in the Rosen Centre lobby.
The 32 hour road trip was a primer to remind us that social media can be leveraged in so many ways to create a virtual community of like minded people. Web enabled apps combined with GPS enabled devices created such a rich data set that I'll never think of traveling the same.
The rules of engagement for digital marketing are changing. What looked like a curse turned into a blessing for my team. The road trip crew were enriched by the experience. They can better serve our clients who seek news ways to engage consumers with social media and digital marketing solutions.
I dare say that I enjoyed driving through a blizzard but the rewards were priceless.
Brian Pasch, CEO
PCG Digital Marketing