The great beast lurking around any travel business these days (Google itself of course excluded) is the mighty Trip Advisor. No one in the travel business can ignore Trip Advisor and live to tell the tale. But is Trip Advisor a good thing?
A question posed in a fairly flimsy way by a recent Channel 4 documentary that went by the title “Attack of the Trip Advisors” or something equally stupid. I was interested to watch it but in the end, the issues were largely ignored in favour of getting a bunch of nutters, on both sides of the argument, to hold forth.
Since the reviewing nutters seemed marginally nuttier than the B&B owners, I guess the programme came down slightly on the side of the B&B owners. From our the point of view, any programme which casts doubt in peoples mind as to whether you should trust the views of a self-appointed, power-crazed ranting maniac on the internet above an experienced professional from a respected travel company (yes – since you asked – like us….), has to be A Good Thing.
Trip Advisor has transformed the landscape in which hotels operate, and in many ways for the better. Hotels are no longer able to get away with the shocking standards of service that were common in places where repeat custom was irrelevant. If these customers didn’t like it, there was always another planeload next year. In Sri Lanka, our main base in Asia, this practice was widespread. Sri Lankan hotels and complicit European tour operators knew full well that the clients at the very low end never would return. They cannot get away with this now and many of the cheap package hotels have transformed their service from what it was just 3 or 4 years ago.
I think it is also true to say that even at a higher level of the hotel, management has become more responsive to clients needs and produced a higher standard of service as a result. Engaged hotel managers and owners used Trip Advisor to find out what people really felt (as opposed to what they wrote in feedback forms and in guestbooks) and responded. Examples of this at the top end is Tea Trails in Sri Lanka and The Sarojin in Thailand.
There was another unheralded but genuine bonus of encouraging people to go and stay at places that they would not normally have thought of – places with no marketing budget but who score highly on Trip Advisor can be found by people who would not normally have come across them. It makes concentrating on outstanding customer service a route to market in a way: if they can fight their way to the top of the rankings in a particular area client will come – with very little marketing spend. A great example of this was ‘The Mudhouse‘. Unfortunately, they also saw the other side of this coin – of which more further on.
I once featured on a BBC World Programme called ‘Fast Track’ set up as one of talking heads against the CEO of Trip Advisor at the time, which dealt with the issue in a more interesting way than the aforementioned Channel 4 documentary. You can watch it here if you want to see my moment of TV glory.
The nub of the argument was whether the democratising power of online communities was wholly a good thing, or whether Trip Advisor had too much power and that there should be space for more qualified reviews – such as pre-qualified consumer reviewers (Simonseeks.com and similar), travel writers (i.e. guidebooks) or travel agents/tour operators such as ourselves dispensing advice.
The CEO of Trip Advisor made the point forcefully that the sheer weight of reviews on Trip Advisor means that the bad reviews can be acted on and if they are unfair, put into context by the other reviews around them. I think that is true for many places and is particularly so for large mainstream resorts. With so many reviews coming in all the time, and expectations by and large met, these places get a good steady stream of reviews and it keeps them honest. If there are bad reviews the problem is corrected and the hotel moves on and if the reviews are unfair or even dishonest, they are lost among the mass of proper reviews.
Potential customers are given much more information and choice in assisting to make the right decision. Rather than relying on the word of a single travel agent or a friend who might have been to a hotel years ago or not at all, consumers have the benefit of 100’s of up to the minute reviews from different sorts of people. By sifting through and working out what is relevant to them, people can make an informed decision on the hotel. They are then likely to be happier and will, therefore, write a positive review – starting a positive circle of reviewing love.
The main problem with this argument is that it is all very well for large and fairly mainstream resorts and hotels. With 100’s of people staying at any one time, the sheer weight of numbers argument is compelling. Where it does not work so well is when small places, some of whom might only get one or two reviewers a month, get hit by a bad review. They might instantly correct the problem, but the bad review remains on the top page of Trip Advisor for months or even a year. Worse, if a totally unfair review goes up, it can put people off, unfairly, for months or years. At a large place that review is put into context by all the others – in the case of a small place, it is not.
In my opinion, Trip Advisor also favours mainstream and run of the mill places to some degree. When a place is trying to do something out of the ordinary they will almost by definition not be for everyone. They might even only be catering to a niche market – serious eco places would be a case in point. In the programme, I used the example of Mango Bay on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. A favourite place of ours it had got a savage review from a complainant angry that there was no air con. We found it impossible to sell Mango Bay for the next 6 months – until the offending review fell off the top page. This despite the fact the website clearly states that it is an eco-friendly place with no AC.
As such, there is an element to the wisdom of crowds on the net that favours homogeneous, standardised product or places that charge so much they can afford to give everyone what they are looking for. On the Channel 4 programme, quirky B&B’s were being punished for not being like everyone else and one owner complained quite reasonably that she wasn’t claiming to be a boutique hotel so did not see why she should be judged as one.
To go back to The Mudhouse, a place which did so well from Trip Advisor at first by concentrating so heavily on customer service, there was another interesting twist. A reviewer took issue with the fact that the stay was not ‘luxurious like a luxury camping safari’ and that the owner was ‘not a bird expert’. The owners were baffled – not once on their site or anywhere had they claimed to be a luxury place (it is called “The Mudhouse” after all) and never had anyone claimed to be a bird expert as they were not – just enthusiasts for the local wildlife. What they worked out though, was that the reviewer was judging them on what previous positive reviews had said. His definition of ‘luxury’ and ‘expert’ was obviously different from the previous visitor and thus he judged they had failed him and scored them very badly. As a small place, they saw bookings fall off the cliff and not recover for months. (NB. Disclosure: my colleague Tom is one of three owners of ‘The Mudhouse’ and everyone involved is a friend of mine. I felt it was an outrageously unfair and vindictive review!).
The most common complaint levelled at Trip Advisor is that so many reviews are fake and that completely unfair reviews are difficult to get taken down. Again this is way more of a problem for smaller places for whom a fake review from a competitor can have a devastating effect. Many hotels argue that they are impossible to remove, though in my experience Trip Advisor has promptly removed clearly fake reviews which we have flagged up in the past. I believe there is a fair amount of litigation in process around this point.
I also wish people would realise that hotel owners and management are real people with real feelings and they have often put their heart and soul into their places (especially the smaller and more individual type of places) just for someone to casually stomp all over it. I fear that this kind of online bullying is here to stay now and in many walks of life too but it is still a shame. Could there not be a way or removing anonymity from the reviewer – so that there is nothing to hide behind?
At Experience Travel, we are seeing increasing signs that people take some of the reviews with a pinch of salt and are becoming skilled at reading through the lines and ignoring obvious nutters, or those with an axe to grind – or even those with totally different expectations and experiences. They are also gratifyingly more willing than they were a year or two ago, to let us overrule Trip Advisor. We can point to the fact that we, as professionals, having listened to our customers, can make an effective judgement on they might like and what they can afford – based on our own personal experience, that of our colleagues and most importantly, from listening to the comments of returning clients.
In summation: talk to friends, read guidebooks and talk to travel companies with real expertise (like Experience Travel…) but have a flick through Trip Advisor too and make sure you filter it carefully! Use all the tools at your disposal to plan that perfect trip.