In recent years, there have been numerous marketing articles and communication strategy workshops concerning the need to have a social media presence, how to get one’s company’s feet wet in social networking, and nebulous case studies that attempt to illustrate how a Facebook page or frequent tweeting can turn online followers into brand ambassadors. However, one aspect that is rarely discussed is the influence of travel review websites.
With tens of millions of hotel reviews on websites like TripAdvisor, IgoUgo, Yelp, and Travelocity, what customers are saying is of significant value to those in the hospitality industry, especially those who own or manage hotels.
“Generationally, people are going to social media sites to make decisions about where they will stay,” says Raj Chandnani, vice president of strategy for WATG and vice president at large for the Urban Land Institute’s Hotel Development Council. “There is a lot of distrust for third-party ratings sites like Forbes and AAA. Instead, people want a real, down-to-earth review of a hotel.”
According to Warren Marr, ULI Hotel Development Council membership vice chair and PricewaterhouseCoopers managing director of hospitality and leisure, online review sites tend to be of higher worth for the leisure traveler. Business travelers, who are usually making quick trips, will often book through their company’s travel website, staying at the company’s preferred lodging choices, while those leisure travelers who intend to stay at least a weekend will often consult online review sites or their social media connections for travel recommendations. However, research has shown that once information is gathered and travelers have created a short list of lodging options, all types of travelers will consult online reviews.
So, should hotel management and other businesses in the hospitality sector develop a reputation management plan to respond to online review comments?
Brian Payea, head of industry relations at TripAdvisor, says, “It is almost mandatory for an owner to manage and optimize what is said about them. Online reputation management is a big part of your overall reputation—your brand is determined by what your guests say it is.”
TripAdvisor, which was launched in 2000, is now the world’s largest online travel review website. The website now has more than 50 million reviews and opinions from travelers all over the world. While the number of user-generated reviews may be daunting for hotel marketing teams, Payea claims that studies have shown that travelers not only pay attention to customer reviews, but also are making their decisions based on management responses. In fact, they want to hear the property owner’s or manager’s side of a negative review.
In fact, a Forrester research survey of more than 2,100 travelers, conducted on behalf of TripAdvisor, revealed that while user-generated reviews were helpful in helping them make lodging decisions, both the presence and tone of management responses were rated as having a significant influence on their decision of where to book a hotel. The majority of travelers surveyed said that if they were considering between two lodging options, the presence of management responses would be the ultimate factor in swaying them to pick one hotel over the other.
After hotel owners decide to manage their reputation on review websites, how do they develop an action plan?
Bill Carroll, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, says that there is a formalized process to hotel brand reputation. According to Carroll, it involves two reactive steps: monitoring and response. When this process is done properly, a hotel can then evaluate itself relative to its competition and produce an analysis of the sentiment around the hotel.
Earlier this year, TripAdvisor launched its Management Center, a revamping of its previous section for hotel owners. The Center provides hotel owners with user-friendly resources for analyzing their online reviews, tip sheets, and simple how-to videos. In addition, the company’s popular TripAdvisor for Business blog is now integrated into the Center.
Below are two case studies of hotels that have effectively developed marketing strategies for managing their reputation through online reviews:
Case Study: HKHotels and Top-Five Rankings
A few years ago, HKHotels, a family-owned group of four luxury hotels in New York City—Hotel Giraffe, Casablanca Hotel, Hotel Elysee, and Library Hotel—launched an online reputation management marketing initiative that incorporated social media. Adele Gutman, vice president of sales, marketing, and revenue for HKHotels, headed up a marketing plan that aimed to get all four of the company’s properties into TripAdvisor’s top-ten rankings for New York City. By September 2010, Gutman exceeded her goals by having the properties take the top four rated spots among 400 New York City hotels.
But according to Gutman, TripAdvisor was not always the primary focus of her marketing team. Originally, she created Facebook and Twitter pages in addition to blogging frequently. However, she soon discovered that while these platforms were important, they were not nearly as influential as TripAdvisor.
“The Casablanca Hotel’s Facebook page has 1,500 fans, [most of whom are] people who already know our hotels. Compare that with TripAdvisor. Fifty million travelers a month visit TripAdvisor to plan their travel, making it the greatest source of travel information online and, in my opinion, the most important social media platform for hotels,” says Gutman. “According to TripAdvisor, each of our hotels [that] TripAdvisor profiles gets 70,000 to 100,000 views a month. Imagine the impact that has on our boutique hotels with just 48 to 100 rooms each. When we walk around our clubrooms and ask our guests how they heard of us, what we hear back is ‘TripAdvisor.’ ”
Gutman and her team devoted time and resources to encouraging guests to write reviews after their stay in addition to responding to the negative ones. Her team focused on positive reviews since they found that travelers write about their stays when they are inspired to do so. She sent all guests a follow-up thank-you e-mail with a link to TripAdvisor. When a negative review was written, her team responded by thanking the guests for their comments while maintaining a nondefensive tone.
“Since we get 25 to 50 reviews a month per hotel, TripAdvisor members serve as a built-in focus group, helping us make decisions on how to improve our services and facilities year after year,” says Gutman. “If we get a review and reply to it online, that response is going to be read by hundreds or perhaps thousands of travelers [who] are at that time planning or ready to book a trip to New York. I will never have that kind of exposure from my own blog, so I believe my time is better spent on review sites.”
Gutman says that review websites have had a dramatic impact on revenue and that the influence of word-of-mouth reviews has allowed HKHotels to reduce its dependence on traditional marketing tactics. “The impact of review sites on revenue is amazingly powerful, and reviews from past guests deliver a far more credible message to travelers than advertising ever could, right at the moment they are ready to buy,” she adds.
Case Study: Chateau Bourbon Achieves Number-One Ranking
Chateau Bourbon, a Wyndham Historic Hotel
A few years ago, Chateau Bourbon, a Wyndham Historic Hotel in New Orleans’s French Quarter, approached Milestone Internet Marketing, Inc., about creating a system that could monitor, manage, and respond to the hotel’s reviews and ratings on major social media websites.
“Chateau Bourbon wanted to find powerful reporting and an ability to provide actionable reports that can help improve service to their guests and eventually increase profitability through these channels,” says Brad Brewer, Milestone’s senior business development manager.
What Brewer and his company offered to Chateau Bourbon was eBuzz Connect. This social media management system helped the hotel manage its online reputation by helping it identify what words were often being used to describe the hotel and provided the general manager with a summary of its status on a variety of social media channels.
“Spending the time to review these channels helped Chateau Bourbon understand their consumer behavior—learn about guests’ experiences, spot customer trends, and determine influential factors to consumer buying decisions,” says Brewer. “It also gave feedback on customers’ perception of their product and brand and provided useful suggestions to improve their product. With increased awareness at the upper management, directors, and front desk, the hotel has been able to improve [its] guest satisfaction, which results in better reviews.”
After Chateau Bourbon started using the system, the hotel increased its number of submitted online reviews by more than 70 percent within the first six months. From March to May 2010, the hotel achieved the number-one ranking by channel in Expedia and Hotels.com. To accomplish this, the hotel’s general manager set aside a little time each week to review travelers’ reviews and react by taking action on items needing attention.
“Social media and online reviews will continue to increase in importance and will have a direct impact on your revenue and profitability. With the proliferation of channels where consumers are leaving reviews, the complexity of monitoring and managing reviews increases significantly,” Brewer adds.
Hotels and the Future of Online Reviews
Hotel review websites have already proven critical to a property’s online reputation. The hotels that have already taken reactive roles by monitoring and responding to reviews understand how online reviewers can serve as powerful brand advocates by producing testimonials that are read by thousands of travelers.
According to Payea, hotel review websites are often overlooked in discussions of corporate media strategy. He says that in addition to reviews, sites like TripAdvisor offer discussion forums for every destination, which allows people to interact and share travel tips.
When asked about hotel marketers giving higher priority to sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter over travel review sites, he says that every hotel should devote all resources to working on its TripAdvisor ranking first, since it has far greater influence than Facebook.
“Marketers make the mistake of being hung up on a specific technology platform,” says Payea. “Instead, they should be paying attention to the conversation. Getting hung up on a label is missing a big part of the market.”