In preparation for my trip to Taiwan during this year's Chinese New Year holiday, I purchased a ticket through Ctrip.com, a major Chinese online travel agency that I often use, for a flight on China Eastern Airlines on Jan. 26, two days before the start of the festivities.
I bought the ticket several months in advance, and as the date of departure drew near, I received a text message on my smartphone. It said, "Would you like to chat with your fellow passengers traveling together to Taiwan on the same flight?"
The message seemed to have been sent to all the customers who had purchased a ticket from the company for this flight. It came from Ctrip's customer service team, which was acting as a tour guide of sorts.
Customers can participate in the group chat using the proprietary Ctrip mobile app or the WeChat mobile social networking app. The group eventually grew in size to about 180 members, with people asking and answering questions about traveling in Taiwan and sharing information on a wide range of topics.
The chatting continued for about two weeks, running between Jan. 20 and Feb. 2.
Conversation ranged from tourist attractions and the business hours of restaurants during the holiday season to means of transport and the time required to get to places.
Someone in the group gave tips about which Muji retail outlet is large enough to offer a vast array of products. Another mentioned that Nike shoes are cheaper to buy in Taiwan.
Food was a common subject. One member recommended a cafe that serves delicious tea with milk. Others asked for restaurant recommendations.
While Ctrip's staff gave polite answers to various customer queries, such as those about duty-free procedures, they did not solicit nor push people to participate in optional tours or buy souvenirs in local shops.
When someone wrote, "I want to call a cab," another member quickly replied, saying, "I've just taken a comfortable cab ride at a reasonable cost, and I found the driver to be very kind. Let me introduce you to him." And with that reply came a photo of the cab driver's name card.
Even though they did not know each other, the members frequently shared news.
They passed along helpful information, such as tips about popular restaurants. For instance, one chat said, "As Din Tai Fung -- a wildly popular Taiwanese restaurant that is known for its soup dumplings -- now has seats available, it is a rare opportunity to taste its signature dish."
When I was young, I traveled abroad clutching a copy of the "Globe-Trotter Travel Guidebook" in one hand. Those were the good old days, and I have fond memories of them.
In contrast, I was taken aback by the rapid increase in China's smartphone penetration rate, which has given rise to new business models for online travel agencies that are shaking the foundations of traditional tour operators.
Kosuke Okame is a Shanghai-based business and market research consultant.