Thursday, 29 November 2012

OTAs - are they fair? Are they good value for the guest?

This debate has been bubbling away since Thomas Cook took 540 temperance campaigners the eleven miles from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841, and was paid a commission by the railway company.

It has been accelerated since online OTAs became the dominant force in travel, and there are very much two sides to the argument...

Those in favour:

And they include hotels who pay commission willingly and travellers themselves - say that the OTAs:
  • Reduce the hotels' own marketing costs
  • Enable travellers to access the widest choice of accommodation
  • Provide value to hotelier and traveller alike

Those against:

Overwhelmingly in the hotel trade, say:
  • Commissions ramp their rack rates to the detriment of guests
  • That OTAs are unresponsive to their needs
  • That users are unaware of the financial arrangements between them and the OTAs
What is undeniable is that the OTAs now have a stranglehold on the hotel booking market. And this is not entirely their own fault. It is possible that hotels have become over-reliant on OTAs (we meet hotels every week who have cut back on all their non-OTA marketing, even letting their own websites suffer). 

Here's a link to a quite remarkable blog post on a small hotel's own website - we would very much like to hear your opinions - so feel free to comment below...

Make your website as good as you are

While we're not web-designers, we do look at dozens of client websites every week, and most of us come from marketing backgrounds. On top of that we see just how many negatives posted relate to the business's website. This article in Hotels magazine resonates with us and we thought we ought to share our thoughts:

What do you want visitors to your website to do?

Book (hotels); contact you (estate agents) - so your whole site should be dedicated to this end.

Most common errors...
Not quite the hotel! Definitely not the estate agency!
Photos of Buckingham Palace. Awful photos (out of focus/mobile phone). Small photos (with no way of enlarging). 'Stock' photos - a 'receptionist' but not the agent's receptionist). Lots of text that never gets read, links that don't work, links to sites that take your business away.

Examples (real, but no names!): 

"Within easy reach of [Buckingham Palace]" - again - 3 miles and 6 tube stops (that 'looked close' to their web designer who was in Manchester) 

"Park view" [4 rooms out of 60] setting the hotel up for a constant stream of complaints on TripAdvisor: 'Our view was of the hotel opposite.'

"Quiet" [unless the nightclub is open, which it is - until 2 am - Thurs-Sat] - enough said

One lonely testimonial (for an estate agent), from 2009 - from a client called 'Mr P'

A link from an estate agents' site to a site that ranked them 213th in the UK

Last Christmas's special offer still on the site in May

What the visitor to your website wants in 2012

It's all about first impressions. And that impression has to be made instantly. In the early days of the web it was all about telling everything, now we know you have seconds to convince the consumer. By all means include detail but keep your home page clean - the detail can be kept behind tabs.

We are constantly surprised by the contrast between websites and reality; estate agents who spend huge amounts of money on their offices, but next to none on their websites, lovely hotels with awful websites. Great websites need not cost a fortune, but cheap ones will cost you a fortune in lost business.


According to TripAdvisor the average guest visits seven websites before booking. And one of those will be the hotel's own site - so the hotel has at least a chance of getting the booking (and getting it direct) if their website does what the potential guest wants. 

You want them to book through your website, so...

Where DO I start?
  • Photographs - the bigger (and more professional) the better, with accurate descriptions - of bedrooms and other facilities the guest will use - exterior shots are great, but remember they will be staying in the hotel
  • An easy way to book - with all the options - booking engine, phone, email
  • The credible opinions of people who have stayed recently
  • Biographies of the owner/gm/key staff - it's a people business

Estate Agents

Most visitors to estate agents' own sites are, by definition, potential sellers/landlords (purchasers/tenants visit once the transaction is underway). What do they want to see? 

Just like hotels, it's all about first impressions:
  • Clear and informative
  • The answer to the question: 'what value will this agent add?'
  • Biographies of key members of staff - again 'its a people business'
  • The credible opinions of clients who have done business recently
Staff photos are great - but steady with the gel!
In summary:
  • Lavish the same care as you do with your hotel/office
  • More images - less words (unlike this blog!)
  • Personality - people buy from people
  • Credible reviews - up-to-date

Friday, 23 November 2012

Show reviews live!

This week we launch Dynamic Display - you can now show live reviews to visitors to your website before they click through to your Dialogue module - now every visitor to your website sees reviews.

For hotels:

Reviews give visitors to your website the confidence to book - direct! Up until now the Dialogue module performed that function for our clients; the addition of Dynamic Display gives every visitor to your website current guest opinions...

Click to enlarge

For estate agents:

This week two independent reports - one by the RICS ('Renting: Property's Wild West') and one by Which? - address the issue of regulation of letting agents. Whilst we are sure their findings are justified, they damage the reputations of good agents. So It is increasingly important for our clients to differentiate themselves from the so-called 'cowboys'...

Click to enlarge
Here is a live demonstration: for hotels and for estate agents

You will see just how powerfully the live reviews support your key marketing messages.

The Dynamic Display can be tailored (size/font/colours) and can be used on any web page you decide. Dynamic Displays will be available for each service you have a module for - 'weddings' and 'conferences' for hotels, for example; 'sellers' and 'landlords' for estate agents.

For full details please contact Karen ( or your business member advisor

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Horror stories (3) - Restaurateur jailed!

All our clients know that responses to reviews have to be:
  • Polite
  • Conciliatory
  • Constructive
...and above all - legal! Only last week one of our moderators spotted a potential PR nightmare in the making where the hotel guest was demanding compensation for a sleepless night and the hotelier seemed to be suspecting a mild form of blackmail and was about to include an allusion to this in their response. We spoke to the hotelier and suggested that an offer of 'three nights for two' next time the guest stayed might be a more constructive solution - the hotel adopted this strategy and the guest was satisfied (and did not go on to post a negative review).

In Ottowa things panned out slightly differently - and the result was 90 days in jail for the business owner.

Read the full story as reported in the Ottowa Citizen here

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Don't think they're reading about you?

Helpful votes are a good guide to the number of people actually reading a review...

One of our directors wrote a review of a small hotel in France in June this year - the hotel gets about 1 review a week from guests, but just look how many potential guests have read that review in the last four months (and it's now down on page 3 of their TripAdvisor listing). 

He's a bit miserable about the number of 'helpful' votes he's received, but we don't think that's a particular reflection on his review, just a good guide to the proportion of readers who bother to vote (about one in 75).

This is also a good rule of thumb for our clients to apply to their reviews on Dialogue...

Click to enlarge
...on that basis just how many people have read this review on a client's Dialogue module?

Not just a bed for the night

Many hotels provide more than just a bed for the night - and for their customers it is vital that they are able to judge the service they want. One of our clients, for instance, does a roaring trade in weddings... they have a Dialogue module dedicated to that service (see how many potential clients have voted the review above 'helpful'). 

As well as weddings they have two restaurants, conference facilities and a wine bar - and Dialogue enables their guests to review them all... guests can instantly access reviews for the specific service they require.

Dialogue is tailored to every client - so whatever service you provide (and whatever questions you want to ask your guests about that service) we will accommodate you.

Learn from the Top 20

If you look at the shining examples (and the hotel industry, which has been subject to consumer reviews more and for longer than any other is a good case in point) - you will see that hotels that rank in the top 20 out of over 1000 hotels in London on TripAdvisor aren't always the obvious ones (the Ritz is at 47, Claridges 63, the Connaught 135 and the Westbury at 329).

So what are the top hotels on TripAdvisor doing right? The answer is simple: they have strategies in place to manage their online reputations.

The benefits: higher occupancy, higher relative rates, better staff morale (and retention) and maybe best of all - more direct bookings from returning guests who don't need to check their online reputations at all.

While Dialogue cannot guarantee you a place in the top 20, it can help you do what so many of the top 20 hotels are doing at a fraction of the cost - and a fraction of the effort

On top of that...

Click to enlarge

...showing credible reviews on your own website to attract more direct bookings.

All it takes is an email, Dialogue will do the rest.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mobilising the silent majority

Yesterday TripAdvisor released the results of a major survey of traveller behaviour - you can read a good summary by here

This survey needs to be taken in context. According to a report by Market Metrix which compares TripAdvisor users' behaviour with results from hotels' own surveys "there were nearly 300% more negative responses (1- and 2-star ratings) when compared to survey research, and positive responses (5-star ratings) were underrepresented by 35%." They call this the 'Negative Tilt':

This dovetails with our own analysis and anecdotal evidence from hotel clients. In reality the 'tilt' is even greater. Why?

Because the silent majority don't write reviews (and don't respond to guest surveys either). 

Let's expand on this:

Point 1

On average only one in 1400 guests write any kind of review on TripAdvisor

Point 2

Response rates to guest surveys average less than half of one percent

An example:

A recent client - a hotel in London which has recently undergone a change of ownership and complete refurbishment (significant enough for TripAdvisor to delete previous reviews) has had nearly 5000 guests since then. They have received less than 20 reviews on TripAdvisor - almost half of those being negative. 


They have done 'better than average' (on the figures above you might expect them to have about 4 reviews) but has this helped them? No - because unhappy guests are MUCH more likely to post a review than the 'silent majority' of happy guests. And everyone in the hotel trade knows how damaging negative reviews on TripAdvisor can be - driving the hotel's relative ranking down and impacting on bookings/occupancy/rates, especially when the negative remains on page 1.

The Solution

There are two alternatives - denial (and we do come across this) or a proactive effort to engage with the 'silent majority'. 

Dialogue™ - engaging with the 'silent majority'

Response rates to Dialogue vary from 4-6% (more for hotels who maximise* their engagement). And Resolution's success in enabling clients to manage negatives means that very few of those are ultimately published.

This gives our hotel clients a much better chance of getting the satisfied 'silent majority' to voice their opinion - both to their own websites and then on to TripAdvisor - with a fighting chance of enhancing their rankings - leading to wins in occupancy and rates as well as the potential for increased direct bookings through their own websites.

* Contact Karen or your business membership advisor for details

P.S. This works for and the other OTAs as well - see this recent post

Monday, 12 November 2012

Dialogue vs. conventional CRM

Clients often ask us...

"Why does Dialogue get such a high response when compared to our own CRM?"

We have collated a wealth of evidence, both numeric and anecdotal, over the years; here's our answer:

First - the promise to publish

When consumers know that they will be heard by more than just the business, they are more likely to respond.When they know that their review will definitely be published they are even more likely to respond

Second - the opportunity to get an issue resolved

Most people who post negatives don't want to hurt the business, they want to get an issue that's important to them resolved - and Resolution™ does just that for them. Often they actively want to continue to use the business concerned, providing they get a meaningful response to the issue they raise

Third - it's non-confrontational

Some people hate the thought of complaining face-to-face (or even direct by email). Dialogue gives them a completely non-confrontational channel to communicate issues that concern them - a massive benefit for businesses as well

Fourth - independence

They like the fact that HelpHound is verifying that they are a 'real customer' and that we impartially oversee the conversation.

Fifth - the 'thank you letter' syndrome

It's used as a modern way of writing a 'thank-you letter' for good service, and Dialogue gives consumers that opportunity at the click of a mouse

Sixth - it's not seen as 'an invitation to help the business run its business'

A lot of consumers we have spoken to have stressed this aspect - they expressed an aversion to the kind of CRM that 'simply helps the business'

Seventh - and perhaps most important of all:
The overwhelming majority of people who complain through Dialogue want to use the business again! In effect they are using Resolution™to get reassurance - that 'they'll get a better room next time', that 'next time they ring the [estate agent] they won't be put through to a recorded message' (Yes - it's happened).

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Resolution™ - why it works

Resolution works so effectively that some clients 'know it works, but don't exactly know why it works'. This is understandable, so in this post we address the 'Why?'

First - some statistics:
  • about 3% of all reviews we moderate are put into Resolution for a response from our client - and they can range from an outright complaint to an issue we feel our client should have the opportunity to address privately
  • Of those, just over 98% result in a satisfactory outcome - a improved final review or...
  • In over 95% of cases - no final review at all
Let's examine these further...

Why are only 3% of initial reviews negative?

All of our clients are paragons! Seriously though, only good businesses join HelpHound. Dialogue simply doesn't work for a badly run business. But no business is perfect, and that's why Dialogue exists - not to give consumers a way of hurting businesses, but a way for them to get mistakes rectified. 

For some, let's call them the 'mildly dissatisfied', the simple act of inviting the review through HelpHound will be enough to make them think again about posting anything, anywhere - they simply say to themselves 'never mind' and nothing happens.

How does Dialogue achieve such a high rate of 'satisfactory outcomes'?

The answer to this is partly because our clients take reviews in Resolution seriously - they respond immediately and the reassure their customer that their point has been taken on board and acted upon. 

And its partly because our moderators are very good at overseeing the process - they won't let a reviewer 'rant' and they won't let our clients 'rant back'.

Why do so few customers go on to post a 'final review'?

We know the answer to this because we see both sides of the conversation: it's because they didn't really want to write a review in the first place. They simply wanted an acknowledgment from the business that it had a point to answer.

Examples of this include:
  • Mistakes - Customers who say "Something went wrong - if you can reassure me that it won't happen again I'll continue to use your business."
  • Financial issues - Customers who wanted clarification: "I didn't understand your charges."
  • Misunderstandings - customers who thought the service included something when it did not: "We were expecting a spa at your hotel."
  • Personality - the customer who 'got out of the wrong side of bed' - often resolved by explanation or simple apology "We're sorry." 

The bottom line is that Resolution works - it's one of the core features of Dialogue - helping our business members ensure that their customers have a way of communicating with them without having to post publicly on the web.

We hope this helps, if you would like further clarification please contact Karen Hutchings ( or your business membership advisor.