Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Are hotel groups ready for total transparency in traveler reviews?

Here's an excellent blog post we found by Daniel Edward Craig. The original piece can be found here. We also recommend the rest of his blog if you have time to read around!
As traveler reviews continue to grow in influence and pervasiveness, more hotels are debating, “Should we post reviews on our website? Do we dare?” 

Even hotels with rave reviews and top ratings are hesitant. Hotels are highly controlled environments, where everything is “my pleasure” and beds are made for you. Websites work hard to evoke this utopian image. Why expose them to the anarchy of social networks, where people can be irrational, mean-spirited, or a competitor in disguise?

And yet despite the risks, in October Starwood joined a small minority of major international hotel groups and took the bold step of posting raw, unedited guest feedback to its official website. Visit the W London page on Starwood.com and you’ll find a range of opinions, from “Groovy, bling ambience” to “It sucks! Avoid at all cost”.

To willfully allow negative commentary—doesn’t that contravene everything we know about marketing? Or is it a shrewd, forward-thinking move that shows confidence in the product and will ultimately convert more travelers?

Reviews are everywhere these days. Independent properties from B&Bs to boutiques post TripAdvisor widgets and feeds. Online travel agencies have been amassing reviews for years, and recently Expedia announced big plans to go even more social. Even destination marketing organizations like VisitScotland.com and Quebec City Tourism have gotten into the action. On VisitLondon.com and WhistlerBlackcomb.com you can view TripAdvisor ratings, rankings and recent reviews without leaving the site.

But you won’t find reviews on Hilton.com, Wyndham.com, Fairmont.com, Hyatt.com or BestWestern.com, nor on InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental or Taj websites. Many now post Facebook and Twitter links, but feeds of raw commentary are rare.

It’s a particularly complicated dilemma for hotel groups, which must answer not only to guests but to owners, members and franchisees. One black sheep in the family can tarnish the reputation of other properties and the brand as a whole.

And yet an increasing number of travelers won’t book a room before consulting the opinions of other travelers. Reputation has emerged as a major factor in influencing decisions, rivaling price, location and brand. If travelers can’t find reviews on the hotel’s website, they’ll look elsewhere, and they might never come back.

So slowly but surely hotel groups are devising ways to integrate reviews and commentary into their websites. The solutions so far, however, involve compromise.e reputation of other properties and the brand as a whole.

And yet an increasing number of travelers won’t book a room before consulting the opinions of other travelers. Reputation has emerged as a major factor in influencing decisions, rivaling price, location and brand. If travelers can’t find reviews on the hotel’s website, they’ll look elsewhere, and they might never come back.

So slowly but surely hotel groups are devising ways to integrate reviews and commentary into their websites. The solutions so far, however, involve compromise.

Choosing to bypass TripAdvisor, Starwood allows guests to post reviews of its brands, which include Westin, Sheraton and W, directly to its website. Reviews are checked for profanity but are otherwise posted warts n’ all. A verification process alleviates concerns about fake reviews.

Will travelers trust reviews vetted by the company that’s trying to sell them rooms or will they continue to seek out independent review sites?

Starwood’s system seems heavily weighted toward members of its loyalty program. Of the 63 reviews of the Westin New York all but one are from Starwood Preferred Guest members. As presumed fans of the brand won’t they be more generous in commentary? My suspicions were quickly confirmed when I encountered one five-star review after another. Then I realized reviews are listed by star rating, with the best first. You can change the default setting, but isn’t this a bit sneaky when we’re used to chronological order on review sites?

Overall Starwood’s system is well organized and detailed, with information about reviewers, rating categories, and the ability to comment on reviews. Management has responded to select reviews of the Westin, but the responses are virtually identical, as though scripted, even in reply to complaints.

On the heels of Starwood’s announcement, Marriott announced it too was going full frontal with guest reviews. But reviews are nowhere to be found on Marriott.com. You’ll find them on the Marriott Rewards Insiders site, and you need to join to post a review. My theory that loyalty club members would be more generous was quickly disproved here, where some commentary is downright nasty. New York’s Marriott Marquis is rated two stars—far below its four-star rating on TripAdvisor.

Unlike Starwood, Marriott doesn’t list the best reviews first, but, bizarrely, lists the oldest reviews first. There are no filters, categories or reviewer details. I couldn’t find any management responses—though I too might be speechless in face of some of these comments. As a whole the system reminds me of reviews on Google Places: sparse, a bit messy and mostly unhelpful.

Of major international hotel groups, France’s Accor was the trailblazer, having integrated TripAdvisor reviews and ratings on Accor.com back in 2010. The move was all the more impressive given that its portfolio includes a range of brands, from economy to midscale to luxury. As Executive Vice President Jean-Luc Chr├ętien explained to me in an interview in late 2010, “We want to be very transparent and to provide our web visitors with all the information they need to make their decision.”

 The most recent hotel company to join the party is Four Seasons, which this week introduced a “Reviews at a Glance” widget on property pages as part of its new (and vastly improved) website. It looks similar to a TripAdvisor widget, with three partial reviews displayed and a TripAdvisor logo and link, along with tabs, links and sample posts for Facebook and Twitter

If any hotel group can risk total transparency it’s Four Seasons, which goes to great lengths and expense to please its guests. And yet it’s a brave move nonetheless for a company that so carefully cultivates its image. “It really does require that incredible sense of confidence that says we deliver our promise," Executive VP of Marketing Susan Helstab told USA Today’s Barb De Lollis.

Upon closer inspection, however, the reviews, tweets and posts displayed on the site aren’t pulled from a live feed; they’re cherry-picked and glowing with praise. To see all commentary you must click the TripAdvisor, Facebook and Twitter links.

No big deal, right? Well, yes and no. The widget can easily be mistaken for a live TripAdvisor feed, which in my mind diminishes the value and impact of the raw, unedited feeds on other hotel websites. Will travelers notice the difference?

So kudos to these hotel groups for making these leaps toward transparency. But to really earn traveler trust in social media we need to resist meddling in order to ensure our best foot is forward. Social media changes the rules of marketing. Travelers don’t expect perfection, but they do expect transparency and authenticity. The days of glossy brochures with fairytale descriptions and ecstatic supermodels are behind us.

So until a hotel group comes up with a better system, I think I’ll continue to consult third-party review sites before making my purchase decisions. 
 Daniel Edward Craig
http://www.danieledwardcraig.com

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