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No more flying solo: Business travel's social revolution

By Tim Hume, for CNN
September 5, 2012 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
A new generation of companies are looking to restore the social aspect to air travel.
A new generation of companies are looking to restore the social aspect to air travel.
  • New services are offering to introduce travelers to others in the air
  • Some use travelers' social media profiles to find a compatible match
  • One service allows fliers to specify their preferred seat neighbor
  • Another aims to "liberate" solo women travelers from their hotels in new cities

London (CNN) -- On paper, a work trip to an unfamiliar city can look like a great opportunity to mix business with a little pleasure.

But in practice, without good company at hand, business travel can just as easily amount to nights holed up in a hotel room, ordering room service and watching movies.

A new generation of online services are looking to change that, promising to turn business travel into a more rewarding and social experience by introducing professionals to like-minded travelers, either on the plane or at their destination.

Planely is an introduction service for fliers to meet fellow passengers, with the goal of making the most out of the hours of downtime spent while traveling.

"Air travel has got to be one of the most uninspiring, unexciting customer experiences that we subject ourselves to," said Nick Martin, CEO and founder of the company, which has operated for the past year and a half.

"Making it social and opening it up so we can leverage each other's skills and abilities whilst we're traveling -- and either side of our travel -- has got to be a good thing."

Planely users submit their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles to the service, which then uses an algorithm to produce suggestions for compatible travelers on the same route. Users of the service can then choose to make contact via email with potential matches on their flight, or in transit at the same airport.

Martin said the service was proving popular with travelers heading to large events -- conferences or music festivals -- where it gave them the opportunity to forge relationships with similarly-inclined attendees before arriving. But it was also attractive to frequent solo business travelers looking for company while on the road.

Prior to this kind of service there was no choice at all regarding the kind of seat neighbor you would get on a flight
Satisfly chief executive Sergio Mello

"We have tons of other people who just put their flights into the system on the off-chance they'll have a social interaction," he said.

Read more: BA Googles passengers

Satisfly uses a different model, allowing travelers on participating airlines to indicate their ideal preference for a seat partner on a flight. "We can cater to all passengers," said co-founder and chief executive Sergio Mello.

Passengers select one of four profiles for their desired neighbor: the "privacy" options of work or relaxation, or the "sociable" options of business chat, or more general discussion.

The service uses travelers' social media profiles and information on their frequent flier accounts to find a match, and sends them "ice-breaker" emails prior to the flight to indicate the reasons their seat partner has been selected.

Satisfly is currently only available on airBaltic flights, which has been offering the service since June, but will soon be offered on other airlines, said Mello.

Feedback had been positive, he said, with about 60% of users of the service opting for a "sociable" experience on the flight, and 60% of those opting for the "easy chat" option rather than business talk. "Prior to this kind of service there was no choice at all regarding the kind of seat neighbor you would get on a flight. So the fact you can manage that expectation is an improvement."

As a woman being stuck in a new city by yourself, you're not going to get the best out of it
Maiden Voyage chief executive Carolyn Pearson

For women looking for company once they reach their destination, Maiden Voyage has been offering female business travelers the opportunity to meet other female executives on the road.

"I always think of business trips as a good opportunity for a bit of a mini-break," said chief executive Carolyn Pearson. "But as a woman being stuck in a new city by yourself, you're not going to get the best out of it in terms of exploring cool bars and places to hang out."

Read more: The next generation of supersonic flight

Women business travelers often have to contend with unwanted male attention if venturing out alone, and having a new companion on the trip could encourage them to get more out of their stay.

"My ultimate goal is to liberate them and let them meet up with other ladies and go out for dinner," she said.

The service's 2,000 members submit information about themselves for Maiden Voyage to build a profile of their interests, so a good match can be found. Some women also use the service to host and network with executives visiting their own city.

AirBaltic is not the only airline getting in on the action. KLM's free Meet and Seat service gives passengers the option of sharing their Facebook or Linkedin profile with fellow travelers participating in the scheme.

Participants can choose to sit next to anyone who looks like an interesting neighbor, by selecting the spot next to them on a seat map. And if the idea of social travel suddenly strikes them as a bad idea, there's always the opportunity to opt out by removing details from the service and changing to another available seat.

What do you think of the "social travel" concept? Are you a sociable traveler or do you prefer your own company on the road? Leave a comment below.

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