TripAdvisor: Great Enabler Or Evil Empire?
After I wrote my last Marketing:Travel column addressing the debate over whether or not hotels should link to the TripAdvisor site, I got an email from Adele Gutman Milne, vice president of sales & marketing for HKHotels in New York City. For her, there is no debate—of course, you link to TripAdvisor. Her four hotels are all ranked in the top 10 when you search New York City and, for her, TripAdvisor is definitely the great enabler. It’s given her small collection of hotels an enormous amount of visibility and that has translated into bookings. Lots of bookings.
It was clear that Adele had great confidence in her guest experience and that the properties focus on a lot of added-value offers, providing travelers with a great deal for their money. It’s a product well suited for these economic times and it’s translating into lots of very positive reviews on TripAdvisor. To the point that HKHotels proactively invites all its previous guests via email to post a review and even includes a direct link to the TripAdvisor site. At last look, its top-ranked Casablanca hotel had over 2,000 reviews and all their other hotels had well over 1,000.
Adele made a point of telling me they’ve really embraced TripAdvisor and that they work hard to monitor the reviews and respond when necessary to posts that are both favorable and not.
On the other side of the equation is the general manager of a branded property in downtown Boston who asked that I withhold his name. He respects TripAdvisor but feels like it does more bad than good. As he said, “Opinions are like bellybuttons. Everyone has one.” His property assigns someone full time to monitor TripAdvisor and other social media sites and they diligently respond to guest complaints and criticism. He feels that the reviews are not really representative of the quality of his property and that hotels that participate in TripAdvisor business listings and other marketing programs have advantages that skew public perception. He said it’s important to see if there are patterns with negative listings and try to mitigate them. In his instance, it was a room type they were offering through Priceline that wasn’t what people had been expecting and it led to a consistent skewering on TripAdvisor. They stopped offering that room type through that channel and the negative reviews on that subject quickly stopped.
But it’s not just TripAdvisor that he’s had issues with. He quickly pointed me to www.bedbugregistry.com and lamented that once you’re on that list it’s difficult to get off, even after the issue has long been corrected.
I also talked with Kathy Misunas, an industry veteran who was formerly the CEO of Sabre and has been an innovator across lots of technology and marketing channels. She pondered my question for a moment, and thoughtfully answered that despite all its issues, if she had to choose one, she’d ultimately rank TripAdvisor as an enabler. For her, the ability of independent and small hotels to get noticed by such a huge traveling public outweighed all the potential negatives having to do with false posts and the fact that so many travelers have wildly divergent perceptions and expectations. As a possible solution, she offered that she’d like to see consumer input done in a more organized fashion that could also include the results of independently conducted surveys that provide an additional angle or perspective for consideration.
I next turned to Mark Hoare, a partner in The Prism Partnership consulting group, and he was drawn to reference TripAdvisor as having been seduced to the dark side. He felt they had lost their way when they were originally bought by Expedia and that as they continue to try to monetize their business (and answer to investors) that they’ll develop more and more business practices that offset the company’s original vision of unbiased traveler reviews. He said that the aggregated scoring has diminished value due to the potential for gaming the hotel’s placement and that you’re virtually forced to read all the reviews in order to develop any kind of useful view on a property. From his perspective, TripAdvisor is suffering from the consequences of not building in any mechanism to validate and pre-qualify reviews before they are exposed on the site.
To add further fuel to this debate, it should be noted that several vacation rental management companies have recently begun adding non-disparaging clauses to their rental agreements and are charging guests up to $5,000 on their credit card for posting reviews without written consent. While finding ways to gag guest commentary may be extreme, the idea of finding ways to address and mitigate problems before negative reviews are posted certainly has merit.
No doubt your perspective on TripAdvisor is shaped by where you sit in the industry and the extent to which the reviews are helping or hurting your business. What continues to remain clear is that TripAdvisor can’t be ignored.
So what is your view? Great Enabler or Evil Empire?