Nearly every morning, over his second cup of coffee, Tom Brady, general manager at the Affinia Chicago, logs on to his computer and browses 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 unfavourable—like the complaint posted in March from a guest who had received a $90 (Rs3,870) 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 traveller’s word is weightier than ever. Before the advent of travel review websites such as 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 Corp., which owns the Parker Meridien in New York City 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,” 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 travellers who do travel research online read reviews written by other travellers, according to Forrester Research. Of the people who book hotels online, 30% have changed their hotel plans because of comments written by other travellers.
Because of the importance that 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.
As more travellers post detailed comments on everything from room service to decor, 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 City. “You look at it, evaluate it and learn from it.”
For small hotel groups like his, Fant said 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 of over five million reviews and opinions, has started to offer them to hotels and other travel companies in order to expand its reach.
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.