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Facebook’s Lee McCabe shares how Travel can move forward by getting back to basics

Why no travel company should have the objective of being social

A few years ago, Facebook revealed that more people share travel and vacations on the social network than anything else. What about the platform lends itself so nicely to travel?

It’s the utility of the platform. And travel is mobile, and Facebook is a mobile business. We made that pivot four years ago and have evolved since.

When I travel, I turn to the Facebook family of apps. I can message friends and colleagues. When I visit a new city, I can see which of my friends has been there before and get ideas for restaurants, hotels and places to visit. This context from people you know is so much more useful than guesswork.

And of course, there’s the photo sharing during your trip and after you get back home. Facebook is now the biggest repository of photos in the world. Because the platform makes it easy to post and share. So its communication, context and photos that make Facebook such a great platform for travelers.

What’s surprised you the most about the evolution of social media in the hospitality/travel industry?

I would say it’s been how slow the industry has been to move. If I look at industries like consumer goods, ecommerce and gaming, it’s clear that travel is behind the pack in adopting new technology quickly.

Looking within the verticals of the travel segment itself, the digital native start-ups and OTAs were the first movers, with traditional hotel, airline and travel companies lagging.

The biggest hurdle for these traditional players has to do with the word social. It means different things to different people and can actually cause confusion and unnecessary complexity. Companies have tried to work out how to value “likes” and “shares”—how to tie them to business metrics.

But the reality is that no company should have the objective of being social. The companies that “get” Facebook understand it as something different than a social network alone. They see it as a media and advertising platform that allows them to granularly target 1.65 billion people.

We work with these companies on their awareness, sales and loyalty objectives, not their social objectives. They're measuring brand uplift and direct conversions for sales through Facebook.

How is mobile usage growth impacting how hospitality companies should interact with their customers?

Mobile is changing every business, travel too. Just think about the proliferation of mobile devices. There are 2.5 billion smartphones on the planet today. And by 2020, there’s projected to be 5 billion.

The smartphone is becoming most people’s gateway to the Internet. Everyone essentially has a supercomputer in their pocket. We’re seeing that in emerging economies in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific where people are bypassing the desktop and going straight to the smartphone.

People are using three or more devices a day. This is a massive opportunity and a massive challenge. Companies can’t track people across multiple devices using cookies, and we’re helping them get cross-device visibility.

The challenge for travel companies is the huge investment gap when it comes to mobile. People are spending 12 hours a day consuming media—25 percent of that time on a mobile device. But in 2015, just 5 percent of marketing dollars targeted mobile users.

What is the biggest untapped opportunity for hospitality companies in disruptive technologies?

We could talk trends forever. Travel has to contend with new disruptors every week. There will always be another next-big-thing around the corner when it comes to disruptive technologies.

What I think people forget, however, is that the real unsung opportunity is to do the basics well. In a digital-driven, technology-rich environment, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’ve known for years.

Fifty-years ago, people loved travel just like they do today. It was a luxury, and there weren’t a lot of choices. The big hotel chains and airlines did three fundamentals well—connection, content and convenience.

Digital technologies and data insight allow companies to deliver these at scale. Personalization is easier than ever. With 1.65 billion people on Facebook, companies can do it at scale. It’s a marketer’s dream.

What do leaders maximizing platforms like Facebook do differently?

Start-ups do it best. They aren’t constrained by organizational structure. They can move fast. They have a test-and-learn mentality, that’s probably the most important. They have data science departments that can help them to understand what works quickly.

These companies have also left the world of the cookie and do cross-device well. They know how to tell stories and interact with consumers no matter what devices they’re using. Lastly, I think leaders here are changing their attribution models and how they value partners.

What should the hospitality/travel industry know about dynamic ads?

This is essentially retargeting, and Facebook is having a lot of success with this. It works like this. Say a consumer visits a hotel site and shows intent to book a room over a particular weekend, but leaves the site before doing so.

The next time she logs in to Facebook, she sees an ad for that exact hotel with an offer for that weekend. She clicks on the ad and it deep links her to the hotel’s check out page, and the transaction happens on that site.

This concept isn’t new, but it’s ideal for our platform. We’re allowing companies to retarget real people—we know their identities. Companies can also retarget regardless of device. Recency is a big advantage too. People use Facebook multiple times a day. Companies are likely to get back in front of consumers within an hour. The more time that elapses, the weaker customer intent can become.

Hospitality companies can offset revenue loss to third parties with data monetization. What sage wisdom from Facebook, the giant of data monetization, can the industry apply?

For a long time, hotels focused on booking, going head-to-head with OTAs to get direct booking revenue. The focus needs to change to the stay. There’s a lot of money in this, but hotels need to think differently to capture ancillary revenue opportunities because today’s model is being entirely disrupted.

Hotel guests are not tied to the services that the hotel provides. They can use their smartphones to make calls. Who even uses the hotel phone anymore? They can watch Netflix on their tablet and don’t need the hotel’s entertainment system. And they can use countless apps to order meals from local restaurants, find a gym, get their laundry done or schedule spa services. All of this is independent of the hotel’s services. All the hotels control is access to the last 50 yards.

It’s getting to the point where what guests rely on hotels for during their stay is the room itself and reliable Wi-Fi. But hotels can change all of this. They have data about their guests, and people are willing to share more if there is a clear value exchange.

I think hotels should look at developing their own platforms, providing useful data for third parties to deliver useful guest experiences. Ecosystem partners could develop new services on the hotel’s open API, creating new revenue sharing opportunities for hotels.

Do you think hospitality companies are open to developing these platforms?

This is a very different model for them. I think it will be a challenge for them to get past rigid organizational structures—all of the necessary sign-offs and legal approvals. But there are so many untapped revenue opportunities here for the industry, leaders will figure a way through old ways of thinking and working.

How can media platforms create richer guest experiences to help hotels “own the stay”?

We often get asked what makes a good ad on Facebook. Just like I said earlier about untapped opportunities, what works is going back to basics. Just like they did decades ago, people want personal relevance. Hotels need to know their intent, target them well, and hit them with a personalized message. Do this, and it will work all day long.

Hotels can use our platform to get the right message to the right person at the right time at all the stages of the travel journey—before, during and after their stay. This is so critical in today’s environment. We spend 12 hours a day consuming media—that’s 75 percent of our waking hours. So hotels are not just competing with other hotels. They are competing to get consumers’ time and mindshare with everything else that’s out there.

Do you travel often? What are your most memorable personalized hotel guest experiences?

This is a good question. The sad thing is that as much as I travel, I can’t think of one stand-out experience. Maybe the television will say, “Welcome, Lee” when I turn it on. Or maybe I’ve gotten some cookies in my room or a welcome note from the general manager of a hotel I stay at a lot. These are underwhelming examples, though.

The fact that a frequent traveler like me sees no personalization speaks volumes about massive untapped opportunities in this industry. There’s so much data that hotels I stay at could leverage about me—what media I read, what services I use, what my room preferences are, and so much more.

What could that hyper-personalized experience look like?

The sky’s the limit with the platform model we discussed earlier. I could walk into my room, my Netflix account could be ready on the in-room entertainment system, my most played song on Spotify could be playing, and the mini-bar could be stocked will all of my favorites. That’s just a start. There’s so much that hotels could be doing.

What does the future hold for hospitality/travel companies leveraging Facebook?

We have this saying at Facebook that, “The journey is only 1 percent finished.” We’ve done so much in 12 years, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

I think the same is true of this industry. Mobile is changing everything. Technology is allowing companies to connect with everyone, everywhere. There are countless opportunities to personalize better than ever. All of this adds up to massive opportunity. I think the future is bright.


Lee McCabe

As Global Head of Travel & Education Strategy at Facebook, Lee leads the company’s development and implementation of a holistic strategy for how it thinks about and works with Travel and Education marketers. As global head of this effort, Lee works closely with these verticals to set the course for how to best utilize Facebook’s family of apps and services.

Prior to joining Facebook, Lee held several roles at Expedia. Notably, he oversaw and managed hotel partner strategy and operations across several regions including North America and Asia Pacific. With more than 20 years of sales and marketing experience, he has also held roles with eBay, Telstra and Warner Music.

Lee holds a Master of Arts in Media from Sheffield Hallam University and a Masters of Business Administration from Warwick Business School.