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Online Reviews: The Bane of Hotels’ Existence
or an Unprecedented Opportunity?


By Daniel Edward Craig, October 21, 2009

A few years ago at Opus Hotel Vancouver we relocated a couple who had driven up from Washington state to celebrate the husband’s fiftieth birthday. It was a nasty thing to do, but it happens in the hotel business, more frequently than most travelers think. Like the airlines, hotels overbook when demand is high, banking on a few no-shows, and occasionally we get caught with our pants down. Unlike the airlines, however, we don’t broadcast an oversold situation to a holding lounge full of travelers. We handle relocate situations discreetly, one-on-one with travelers, and typically no one is the wiser.

Or so that used to be the case. Social media networking has brought issues that used to be handled quietly between hotel and guest out into the open for the scrutiny of all. In this case, the couple retaliated by posting a bitter review on TripAdvisor and two other travel review sites. Their account of the incident was mostly accurate, something we hoteliers appreciate, although they declined to mention our many efforts to make amends. We would have preferred they hadn’t taken their grievance public, but we screwed up, so fair game. 

Hotels have always worked hard to keep guests happy, in part because we depend on repeat business to fill our rooms, but also because it’s hammered into our brains early on that one unhappy guest will tell at least five others. Today, that number has compounded into hundreds and even thousands. With a few clicks of a mouse, an irate guest can broadcast his beef to entire online communities via Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Yelp, or any other of the burgeoning group of social networking forums. Word of mouth has been usurped by word of mouse, a vastly more efficient—and potentially damaging—means of spreading the word. 

As a traveler, I’m deeply grateful to the many people who find time to post reviews with no apparent motive other than to share their experience. We human beings love to have our opinions heard, and what better platform than social networking? Sure, some reviewers have an axe to grind, but according to TripAdvisor, the world’s largest online travel community, over 80% of its user reviews are positive. It follows, then, that if a hotel is well-run, its positive reviews will far outweigh its negative reviews. 

Yet I often hear hotel managers complain that traveler review sites are the bane of their existence. Why? Part of the problem is that the voice of one hostile reviewer can drown out the voices of a dozen ecstatic reviewers. Hotel managers are perfectionists, and it’s hard to admit we’re infallible, especially when our shortfalls are broadcast to the world in perpetuity. Whereas a great review can engender the pride among staff the hospitality business thrives on, a bad review can be embarrassing, distressing, and simply bad for business. 

Moreover, social networking is supposed to be all about two-way dialogue, but when it comes to online review sites the dialogue is taking place among consumers, not between consumers and businesses. Sure, some sites like TripAdvisor allow hotels to respond to reviews, but most hotels choose to remain silent, knowing that we can never be as frank as the reviewer, and that no matter what we say, we risk making things worse. If a reviewer accuses us of discrimination for refusing to check him in, we can’t post a response explaining that he arrived at 3:00 AM with no reservation, a wad of cash and three teenaged “nieces”. 

Hotels have always taken the high road when dealing with guest complaints. “The guest is always right” is a cornerstone of hospitality, and social media hasn’t changed that. In the case of a false or exaggerated review, hotels are sometimes better off not to dignify the comments with a response. Travelers are smart enough to read between the lines, and there’s a good chance the hotel’s fans will spring to its defense.

This doesn’t mean that all negative reviews should be left uncontested. Social media provides unprecedented opportunities for hotels to engage travelers and is only gaining in influence. Sticking our heads in the sand has never been a prudent survival strategy. However, there’s a big difference between sites like Facebook and Twitter, where consumers opt in to receive communications, and traveler review sites, where consumers are seeking traveler testimonials, not hotel propaganda. If a hotel weighs in on the conversation, it better have some value to add.

When hotel managers do respond to negative reviews, they often come across as defensive or pompous, occasionally borderline illiterate, as if they banged out the response between check-ins. Considering that these websites receive far more traffic than hotel websites could ever hope for, hotels should be dedicating an appropriate amount of resources. 

The key is to strike the right tone. The response should be conversational and professional, brief and factual, written in a voice that reflects the brand and by a manager with a solid command of the written word. The hotel should thank the reviewer for the comments, but should resist the temptation to kick into defense or promo mode with comments like, “We at Hotel X are proud of our sterling reputation for …” Corporate mumbo jumbo is simply not welcome in any social networking forum. 

If the complaint is legitimate, the hotel should apologize and briefly explain the steps it has taken to ensure the issue does not reoccur or the reason why it cannot be changed, keeping in mind that the audience is not just the complainant but an entire online community. If there’s an inaccuracy, the hotel should set the record straight, albeit diplomatically. In some cases it may be more appropriate to contact the complainant directly rather than battle it out in a public forum. 

When it comes to positive reviews, readers are not interested in gloating “thank you ever so much for recognizing our brilliance” responses from hotels. This is not to say that positive reviews should be left unacknowledged. Any guest who takes the time to post favourable comments is a brand advocate and should be treated with proper reverence. A private message of gratitude and a note on the guest profile to upgrade and send a welcome amenity on the next stay is entirely appropriate.

A link to TripAdvisor reviews can be posted on hotel websites, but after working so hard to attract visitors, why would a hotel encourage them to jump ship—to a website cluttered with ads for competitors and online travel agencies? Chances are, visitors won’t be back. As an alternative, TripAdvisor reviews can be posted directly on a hotel’s website. This may slow the exodus, but why would a hotel post raw, un-moderated, occasionally inaccurate third-party content on its own website? This is the one remaining place on the web where hotels have exercise full control over content. The hotel should be the voice of authority here, not a one-time Priceline guest who decides she hates everything because she was charged for internet access.

The obvious way for hotels to avoid negative reviews is to ensure that no guests leave unsatisfied. That’s easier said than done; even the best hotels get nailed from time to time. At Opus Hotels we work with Market Metrix, which emails comment forms to guests after departure, helping us to identify and resolve issues before they’re taken public. This is not to say that all negative reviews are bad. No one expects a hotel to be perfect. Online shoppers are a skeptical bunch, and if a hotel’s reviews are all glowing, it will raise eyebrows. Moreover, constructive feedback helps set traveler expectations. 

Negative or positive, private or public, hotels should be grateful whenever a guest takes the time to provide feedback. It’s time we took a more active role in the dialogue. The potential for generating awareness and driving business is far too great to ignore.

As for that relocated couple from Washington, our invitation to come back to Opus Vancouver with our compliments is still open. Rest assured, we’ll do everything in our power to ensure a glowing review results. 
 

Daniel Edward Craig is a hotel consultant and the author of the hotel-based Five-Star Mystery series. He is the former vice president and general manager of Opus Hotels in Vancouver and Montreal and the company’s current blogger-at-large. For more information visit www.danieledwardcraig.com or email dcraig@telus.net
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Contact: 

Daniel Edward Craig
dcraig@telus.net
 

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Also See: Are You Hoping Guests Won’t Notice the Jack-hammering in the Lobby? A Case Study for Hotels/ Daniel Edward Craig / May 2009
Lifestyle Hotels: Gotta Have Soul / Daniel Edward Craig / July 2009
So You Want to Work in Hotels / Daniel Edward Craig / August 2009
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