Practical Traveler Online Reviews
The Web Gives Hotel Guests the Last Word
By MICHELLE HIGGINS
NEARLY every morning, over his second cup of coffee, Tom Brady, general manager at the Affinia Chicago, logs onto his computer and surfs over to TripAdvisor.com to see if there are any new postings about his hotel.
“It’s an obsession,” he said. If the review is positive he moves on. If it’s unfavorable — like the complaint posted in March from a guest who had received a $90 parking ticket because of a valet’s error — he’s on it immediately. In that case, he marched straight out to the valet to find out what had happened. After identifying the guest, he made sure that the company issued an apology and a reimbursement for the ticket.
“This is all over the world,” he said, describing his concern about any negative comment on TripAdvisor. “Everyone is looking at this. I’ve got to make sure it’s solved quickly, so God forbid someone else doesn’t have the same problem.”
The individual traveler’s word is weightier than ever. Before the advent of travel review sites like TripAdvisor, IgoUgo.com and MyTravelGuide.com, customer complaints about dirty showers or threadbare sheets typically went to hotels directly and discreetly in the form of comment cards, phone calls or e-mail messages. But as review sites have become more popular, customer feedback that was once viewed only by a hotel’s staff is increasingly being posted online for all to see, enabling guests to share their praise or air their gripes publicly.
“We love it and we hate it,” said Steven Pipes, vice president at the Jack Parker Corporation, which owns the Parker Meridien in New York and the Parker Palm Springs in California. He regularly checks TripAdvisor. “We love it because we really look for feedback and want to know what people are thinking about, and we know they don’t always tell us to our faces,” he said. “We hate it because it’s anonymous.” The anonymity of the comments makes it difficult to respond to guests and find out exactly what happened, he said, or to know if they truly stayed at the hotel.
Nevertheless, the growing influence of such sites is hard for hoteliers to ignore. Three out of 10 American travelers who do travel research online read reviews written by other travelers, according to Forrester Research. Of the people who book hotels online, 30 percent have changed their hotel plans because of comments written by other travelers.
Because of the importance consumers attach to guest reviews, some hotels have gone to great lengths to boost their ratings. Some encourage guests to write flattering reviews; some even submit phony write-ups or hire outside companies that specialize in online reputation management to monitor and respond to comments. Review sites, in turn, work to weed out bogus reviews.
Now, interest in the review sites is taking a new turn. As more travelers post detailed comments on everything from room service to décor, hotels are looking at their postings as market-research tools — sources of new ideas, feedback on new concepts and even promotional material.
“What this does is give you the information you need to improve,” said Tony Fant, president and chief operating officer of the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand hotels in New York. “You look at it, evaluate it and learn from it.”
For small hotel groups like his, Mr. Fant said that online hotel reviews have helped level the playing field. “I have the same exposure through these Web outlets as Starwood, Marriott or Hilton, and they give me access to millions of customers I didn’t have access to,” he said.
Some hotels have taken to publishing TripAdvisor reviews on their own Web pages. In response, TripAdvisor, which says it has a stockpile over five million reviews and opinions, has started to offer them to hotels and other travel companies in order to expand its reach. Last month it began allowing hotels to publish TripAdvisor reviews directly on their own hotel Web sites through R.S.S., or Really Simple Syndication, which transfers the comments directly, as they appear on TripAdvisor. So far about 200 hotels, including the Barclay House in Vancouver and Chanters Lodge in Zambia, and at least one hotel group, Affinia, have begun posting the reviews through R.S.S. Most of the customer reviews these hotels receive on TripAdvisor are positive, making the new feature an attractive option for them, regardless of the risk that some negative comments are bound to creep in.
TripAdvisor says there is no opportunity for hotels to manipulate reviews because they are automatically fed to the hotels as is, but it does allow hotels to post their own responses to comments.
“The hotels are saying, ‘We have nothing to hide,’ ” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research.
By publishing the TripAdvisor reviews on its site, Affinia Hotels hopes to reinforce the message — to both customers and its own employees — that the guest’s experience is important to the hotel. “It raises the stakes for everyone when we make it that open,” said John Moser, Affinia’s chief marketing officer.
Since the reviews went live on its site, Affinia has begun developing a policy to monitor and respond to negative TripAdvisor comments. In the last month the company has begun asking general managers at its six hotels to monitor TripAdvisor and post responses to negative comments within five days.
Not every hotel is paying so much attention to consumers’ reviews. Neither Marriott nor Hilton has a formal corporate strategy in place for monitoring hotel review sites, though both keep tabs on Flyertalk.com, a frequent-flier Web site where travelers obsess over getting the most out of loyalty programs.
“We’ve got so many hotels it’s impossible to scan everything that’s going on,” said Bala Subramanian, senior vice president for global distribution services for Hilton Hotels. Hilton, he said, “makes a tremendous amount of investment in collecting feedback” through customer surveys. But as more hotels do take careful notice of guest reviews online — and even stake their reputations on them — posting one may be a surefire way for a customer to get a hotel’s attention. “I can tell you that you’re going to get a response,” said Mr. Moser of Affinia. When a complaint is out there on the Web, he said, “there’s no one to sweep it under the rug.”