A Matter of Trust

April 13, 2016
By Marla Cimini

There is no doubt about it. Trust is a major issue when it comes to booking a hotel reservation. Potential guests have faith that the hotel will provide the services and amenities promised, while properties work on the assumption that consumers will be fair and honest when writing online reviews.  

Websites and review services today give travelers a glimpse (sometimes an in-depth view) into a property’s rooms, lobby, bathrooms, restaurants, and more…but how can potential guests confidently gauge the accuracy of a specific hotel review? And can hotels truly know for sure if those reviewers are sincere in their intentions?

For this often-debated hot topic, we asked experts of hotel reviews at TripAdvisor. Founded in 2000, TripAdvisor is considered to be the largest travel site of its kind, with more than 40 million unique monthly visitors, 20 million members, and more than 45 million reviews and opinions.

“TripAdvisor wants to help travelers find the most relevant travel information by tapping into not only the wisdom of the crowds, but also the wisdom of friends,” says Brian Payea, head of industry relations at TripAdvisor. “We hear from hoteliers that this results in hotel guests whose expectations are aligned with the hotel’s offerings and, therefore, happier guests. The hotels that are most successful on TripAdvisor are those that actively engage with our large community of travelers and build strong relationships with them.”

TripAdvisor encourages every hotel owner to register and actively participate on the site’s free “owner’s page,” which opens doors to communication with TripAdvisor, as well as past and potential guests.

“One of the single most powerful things a hotel owner can do is to begin taking advantage of the free TripAdvisor tools and engage with the community by becoming a registered owner,” Kevin Carter, TripAdvisor’s public relations manager, adds. “It’s easy and it’s free.”

Level of Engagement

By registering, hotel owners can respond to reviews and gain access to a wealth of information on the site about best practices. This allows the hotel to post photos, videos, add fresh content, and monitor their performance.

Payea reveals that many hotel companies are not currently taking advantage of all that the site offers. In fact, according to the company, only 15 percent of all registered hotels have added their own description at all.

“A hotel can change its description as frequently as they want,” he says. “It’s really a missed opportunity for a lot of properties if it is not done. Interestingly enough, the B&B community is about 30 percent, so they are a little more active in that area.”

In addition, hotel owners and GMs may not be aware that TripAdvisor offers the industry other free tools, including its “Trade Talk” monthly e-newsletter, educational webinars, and master classes with speakers discussing topics such as marketing. TripAdvisor also creates custom webinars for major brands, and believes that hotels understand the value of interacting with the online community.

Not surprisingly, one of the major recommendations to the hotel industry is to engage guests. Working closely with AH&LA’s Lodging Industry Ratings Advisory Committee, a group of hoteliers and industry professionals, Payea provides industry updates. And the hotels are listening.

“About 60 percent of management responses are replies to positive reviews,” Payea says. “A few years ago those responses were only at 4 percent (to negative reviews) and now it’s at 7 percent. But there is still a long way to go.

“We’ve seen a big jump in the number of responses, typically 300 percent year-over-year growth in the total number,” he continues. “This is the first year we offered a special webinar to management responses alone. The response was overwhelming. We received 1,500 registrants for each webinar—that’s just in the U.S. That’s really a big demand.”

Candid Cameras
TripAdvisor also encourages the nearly 500,000 properties represented on the site to post more photos and videos, emphasizing that candid photos engage customers. Payea says Hollywood-caliber photography and films are neither required nor necessary.

“Statistically, a property that has more than 20 photos will get more than 150 percent more engagement from travelers than one with just a few photos,” he says. 

“We’re also encouraging properties to post a lot of video because travelers value those so much,” he continues. “There is an entire generation out there that grew up with YouTube and online video, and it’s more important to have interesting, quickly produced content than to miss the opportunity to communicate. No need to make each video glossy and perfect. People want a sense of the ‘experience.’ Trying to sugarcoat it or make it look like something it’s not is usually counter-productive.”

Representation and Response
So what happens when an inaccurate, mean-spirited review threatens a hotel’s reputation? If a negative comment from a disgruntled employee or a jealous competitor tarnishes a glowing roster of positive comments, TripAdvisor should be alerted immediately.

“Whatever the reason, TripAdvisor wants to know about it and we take information like that very seriously,” Payea says. “We track it down with our team of fraud detection investigators, who are basically online detectives. We routinely remove that kind of information from the site.

“We have a very sophisticated, constantly growing and constantly refined set of automated tools that look for patterns and clues to identify potential fraudulent sources,” he continues. “We also have the power of this tremendous community of more than 20 million members and the hotel owners and operators are also part of the community.”

On the occasion when a hotel misrepresents itself or unethical activity is suspected, TripAdvisor communicates with the property, ensuring they are aware of the policies. If the hotel purposely continues to violate policies without intention of stopping, the site removes anything they deem suspicious. If necessary, a penalty is placed against their popularity rating. In worst cases, the property receives the dreaded “red badge,” which is a red box next to the listing that details what TripAdvisor found and advises travelers to keep this in mind when making decisions.

San Francisco-based travel writer Janice Nieder believes hotels should use common sense when describing their property online. “With the power of the Internet, there is really no reason for a hotel to exaggerate or position itself other than what it is,” she says. “If guests are unhappy, they will immediately post reviews on TripAdvisor and the hotel’s entire marketing campaign instantly becomes worthless. I don’t understand the point of it.”

Offering a hotel company’s perspective, Gigi DesLauriers, Carlson Hotel’s senior director of online strategy and optimization, says that Internet reviews are a huge focus for her company.

“We require that every hotel registers with TripAdvisor, and recommend that they respond to every single comment, positive or negative,” she says. “The concept of TripAdvisor and public perception is very real for the hotels because they understand that they will be judged on those comments.”

When responding to online complaints, she suggests that the hotel acknowledge the comment publicly, thank the guest, and then take the conversation offline to directly work with that customer to resolve the situation.

Carlson actively recommends its hotels take advantage of available resources. The company has recently published a strategy and guidebook for its hotels with TripAdvisor tips, as well as social networking recommendations.

DesLauriers emphasizes that social media is a time requirement and should be approached strategically.

“It’s an investment and not a one-time deal. If you are not already participating in areas where customers are paying close attention, such as TripAdvisor, that’s where your time, albeit already tight, is better spent, focusing on being responsive and earning new customers,” she says. “As our hotel owners have limited resources, we try to help them understand where they should concentrate their efforts.

“In a world where customers trust each other more than they trust what hotel companies are saying, a site like TripAdvisor is a valuable tool for the consumer and also for the property,” she adds. “If a property is participating and the audience sees they are engaged and they care about what customers are saying, they are more likely to want to book a room at that hotel.” 

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