April Thompson has sat next to some interesting people on planes. She once struck up a conversation with the pilot of Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001. Another time, she listened to a French pastry chef talk about starting a bakery in Alabama.
But there were many other instances when she sat next to someone with whom she didn't want to spend hours talking. So last year, when she heard about Planely.com, a social travel-media website that connects fliers on the same flight or airport, she was eager to join.
"I've had some really great experiences on flights," Thompson, a travel blogger, says. "I always thought it was a great opportunity to meet cool people, so I figured this tool would facilitate it and keep me from sitting next to crazy people."
Traveling, especially by plane, has gone from glam to glum. To try to reverse the trend, social travel-media websites linking travelers around the world have popped up. Many help travelers plan trips and share their experiences.
Now, a number of start-ups, such as Planely and Satisfly, are taking the concept to another level by helping travelers meet not only online, but in person. Call it the Match.com of travel.
"It's about real connection," says Asaf Engel, co-founder of IMGuest, a social-networking site for business travelers staying at hotels. "It's about being engaged. We push people to get along and meet up."
Airlines such as Delta have already been experimenting with social media by selling tickets on Facebook. Now, some carriers are trying to tap more aggressively into customers' social circles.
KLM, the Dutch airline, recently started its Meet & Seat program, which lets people choose seatmates based on their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. So far, passengers have shared their profiles 1,100 times on 34 intercontinental routes.
Last year, Malaysia Airlines introduced the MHBuddy application, which allows fliers to share their itineraries on Facebook and choose to sit next to any Facebook friend on their flights. A spokesman says that 20% of the airline's Web check-in is now done through MHBuddy.
The start-ups and airlines are tapping into a niche market to distinguish themselves among all the social travel-media sites out there. But analysts say they face the same challenge the general sites do: There are only so many travelers. That's made it difficult for travel companies to make money from their social-media efforts.
"Effectively, two out of three travelers only take one to two trips a year," says Douglas Quinby, senior director of research at PhocusWright, which studies the travel industry. "For social-travel sites, the challenge is: How do you keep people coming back?"
Nick Martin, founder and chief executive of Copenhagen-based Planely, won't disclose how many members the site has, but says that it's facilitated more than 1,500 meet-ups since launching in December 2010.
Members first book flights, then get access to the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of other registered users who'll fly with them. "It's up to them to connect with each other," he says.
In the year she's been a member of Planely, Thompson has exchanged e-mails with other users but hasn't met any. She came close with a competitive fencer who travels the world for tournaments and another time with a graduate student. The fencer missed his flight, and the grad student didn't show up for an early morning check-in.
"We never made that final connection at the airport or plane," she says. "It was a little disappointing."