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With guest-generated online reviews usurping expert appraisals, the only solution to show your hotel’s class is branding

By Larry Mogelonsky, MBA, P. Eng. (www.lma.ca)

The topic today is how online and peer-generated reviews affect the significance of the firmly established Forbes star rating and AAA diamond rating systems. With that on the back of your mind, let me pose a few broad questions. For one, does the average consumer these days still check up on the annual reporting of star and diamond ratings? Do they know the criteria that distinguish each class? What sort of guest would actively seek out these types of expert appraisals overtop of cross-referencing online peer critiques? And most importantly, is achieving a certain status on either Forbes or AAA a surefire means to boost sales, or is it now a vestigial hallmark of prestige?

These questions evoke the now decade long turmoil over changing consumer perceptions, expectations and habits in response to emerging internet-based tools that help people find hotels. I hold the belief that the advent of online review systems - though propagated with the noble intentions of helping guests find the best properties - has excoriated the significance of such expert rating organizations. People have a vague notion of what constitutes a two-star or a four-star hotel is, but the specifics are unknown. Nor is it a top of mind concern when booking online where factors such as price, location and peer reviews all play drastically larger roles. 

As we marginalize the importance of professional authorities such as the esteemed Forbes and AAA organizations, regular guests and tourists have picked up the slack in terms of regulating the acclaim each property receives. By are they ready? Or will the democratic institutions of online travel review websites become a tyranny of the majority? By no means is this conceit a revelation, but if a countermeasure isn't instigated soon, it might spell disaster for your marketing and branding efforts down the road. Sometimes the customer isn't always right, and we need professional critics front and center to remind guests of true hospitality standards.

Just think 'down the road' to five years in the hypothetical future. Will guests even care about stars or diamonds? What will it mean to not have a hospitality expert's assignment of a property to one class or another? What happens to the bottom line when there's no governing body to rightfully bestow your property with the status necessary to dictate room rates which are high enough to break even? How does a lack of formal authority affect your branding and the features or upgrades you implement? A lot of questions with few easy answers. Rest assured, this is a complex topic, so I'll try to be as thorough and brief as possible then leave the debate up to you.

It's All In The Visuals

Anyone who has read my work knows I'm not the biggest fan of online travel agencies. In my opinion, they scramble the brand image and company message put forward to differentiate major hotel chains (and independent operators) from one another. With the same basic design given to each page no matter what the property or the region, these websites focus all the attention on price. Room rate becomes the primary, and sometimes the only, distinguisher, and as we all know, when you rely solely on price, such healthy metrics such as occupancy levels and return visits become exceedingly elastic.

When it comes to diluting the message implied by star or diamond status, however, the OTAs are not the only culprit. Many travel review sites that are independent from any direct sales channel also contribute to the problem. It all has to do with website design and page layout.

With a background in advertising and having worked my way around the realization of more than a few hotel websites over the years, I fancy myself slightly above a novice at identifying areas on the screen where hotels can improve. And one thing I pick out is how little emphasis is given towards displaying the Forbes or AAA ratings in a big, bright and meaningful way. 

Take TripAdvisor for example, the world's foremost third-party reviewer. You search a hotel and the star rating appears beside the name, but each star icon is a dull charcoal gray and in a shrunken, barely perceptible size. What's given far more focus is the website's internal critique system, with its own devoted block on the top right of each page and sparsely filled with large fonts in a green hue that pops against the white background. 

Give it a glance; the star rating is all but sidelined, even if it is right before your eyes. Most of the other travel review sites and OTAs confer a similar weight to these 'systems of old'. In many cases, the only way to locate the star or diamond specifications is through the main body of text describing a property. If you believe the statement 'a picture is worth a thousand words', then you know that displaying these professional ratings as images will have a far greater effect.

With these sorts of visual cues training the eyes to disregard the more 'official' scores, it's easy to see why peer reviews garner all the interest. It's almost a self-perpetuating system for these sites. But it would be a tremendous mistake to confuse these user-generated audits with the expert-driven appraisals doled out by Forbes or AAA. Both established systems have set criteria of features that each property has to meet in order to qualify for each class, and this is stratification is to the advantage of the hotelier.

The Repercussions of Third-Party Websites

At this point, two important distinctions must be made. First, experts have much more experience visiting a diverse range of hotels around the world. In most cases, which excludes frequent business travelers or travel writers, guests are the opposite, journeying up to five times a year. Second (and in large part attributed to the first reason), guests are more likely to rate a stay based on rudimentary property features, how the staff treated them and the narrow scope of amenities they used over the course of their brief stay. Professionals see the big picture. They're armed with a checklist; guests are armed with emotions. 

Personally, I admire the online guest review system. It's democratic and it's a tremendous opportunity for good hotels to become great or great hotels to achieve true service excellence. But are guests qualified to make all their assertions? There's no consistency, which is where the experts must play a regulatory role. The average guest might give a property a top score because the front desk staff treated them nicely in addition to receiving free water bottles and WiFi. Such a review excludes judgment on such specificities like the availability of a 24-hour bellman, the number of amenities in the bathroom, the security details or the food quality. 

Experts have a list of standards to look for; they have training and they have experience. Judgment is passed on the whole property, not just the precise way that one individual or another experiences it. As well, professionals take into account all the services which allow a hotel to offer an exceptional experience yet are imperceptible to the layman. 

Guests are all over the map. For example, is the lack of free WiFi reason enough reason to give one-out-of-five in a comment? On the other end of the spectrum, is preferential treatment from a certain staff member enough justification for a five-out-of-five (that is, perfect) rating? 

Next, you have to consider fictitious and malicious reviews, even though these are falling by the wayside as third-party sites upgrade their submission protocols and because, in general, they are diluted by the authentic majority. In combination with all the partial sentences, half-revealed thoughts and poor grammar inscribed by user-generated commentary, these fabricated reviews nonetheless call to question the validity of their host sites. 

Rethinking The Way We Review

Consider first whether the five-point system is practical. Even with averages that go to the first decimal place, on a review-by-review basis, five options for scoring doesn't give a user much leeway to suitably express their full judgment. What if you feel that the overall quality of your stay was a 7/10? Do you round down to 3/5 or go up to 4/5? As you can probably tell, I'm more a fan of a 10-point, binary scale. 

Thinking of reviews as fractions, the greater the denominator, the more specific you can get with the numerator. For example, a 100-point system would allow a potential customer to better discern an 88/100 hotel from a 93/100 place where both would round to 9/10 or 4.5/5 on abridged scales. The corollary is that the 'abridged' five-point system allows for very broad criteria to be instituted as a means of separating properties into distinct classifications (that is, Forbes and AAA). Launching a 100-point rating scheme may invite some confusion; I merely offer it as a potential solution to some of the present issues we face with the five-point system.

Another major qualm I have with online hotel review sites is that they put all properties on an equal rating scale, regardless of whether they are in the same class grouping as defined by Forbes or AAA. Using TripAdvisor again, what happens when a Forbes-rated two-star hotel receives an equivalent number of positive reviews as a five-star property? Is a consumer to infer that both will offer the same outstanding experience and similar levels of service quality? 

And then there's the infamous example of Glasgow's Bellgrove Hotel. Nearing the end of April 2013, this property found itself breaching TripAdvisor's list of the top 100 recommended establishments in the United Kingdom. At it turns out, the Bellgrove is a homeless shelter; it's reviewers nothing more than pranksters. TripAdvisor took swift action to correct this debacle, but its legacy has raised doubts as to the veracity of many other listings' reviews.

Aside from any obvious condemnations of the site's supposedly sophisticated algorithms and monitoring, I argue that this is a call to delineate review aggregates by Forbes star or AAA diamond ratings. That is, three-star or four-star properties are judged against only those from the same class but are mutually exclusive from all properties of other strata. If a standard like this were in place, the Bellgrove might have reached temporary renown in the top 100 one-star or two-star accommodation lists, but it would never have compromised anything even remotely close to the luxury end.

On the flip side of this coin, if we isolate by Forbes or AAA rating, then it serves to benefit economy properties as well. Oftentimes, online reviews can be uncompromising without all the necessary facts. For instance, a $50 per night room shouldn't be expected to have the same levels of décor, refurbishments and cleanliness as a $250 per night room. It's impossible and you'd go broke trying to replicate a four-star model on a two-star budget. And yet, many guests don't know any better. A rug stain is a justifiable complaint for a five-star property, but one-star abodes should be given some slack as they don't have the funds for continual replacement. By first differentiating by Forbes of AAA ratings, it would better cue users into a certain range of expectations so they would be less inclined to make egregious criticisms after the fact.

The Real Solution Is Branding

Whether you change the rating denominator or demarcate by class, these are but band-aids. I purport that the real solution is to educate consumers on what your brand stands for so that they know about your unique product offerings even before they start their research and cross-referencing engines. The OTAs and third-party reviews sites are not going away anytime soon, so we have no choice but to work with the inherent flaws in these systems. 

Start by doing whatever you can to express your brand within these websites with elegant photography and robust property descriptions that explicitly state every feature and amenity offered. This will help viewers recognize what generalized category a hotel belongs in (luxury, business, resort, economy, boutique, etc.) so they have a much better picture of whether it's their cup of tea. Expectation management at its finest.

I know I'm heavily biased in this department, but I can't help but mention the overall importance of advertising and marketing in this struggle. These are two fundamental methods to reinforce the awareness of your brand and control the message that reaches consumers. Good branding plays a huge role in commanding a higher price for nearly any product, and it all begins with the image you project to the world. 

I realize that I've posed a slew of questions for you to think over in this diatribe - all tied to the credibility of online user-generated reviews and how they have impacted the more traditional (and professional) rating systems. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, the solution will always come down to the work you do on property and outside of these third-party websites to instill a proper brand reputation with past, present and future guests.

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This article may not be reproduced without the expressed permission of the author.

About Larry Mogelonsky

Larry Mogelonsky (larry@lma.net) is the president and founder of LMA Communications Inc. (www.lma.ca), an award-winning, full service communications agency focused on the hospitality industry (est. 1991). Larry is also the developer of Inn at a Glance hospitality software. As a recognized expert in marketing services, his experience encompasses Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and Preferred Hotels & Resorts, as well as numerous independent properties throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Larry is a registered professional engineer, and received his MBA from McMaster University. He's also an associate of G7 Hospitality, a member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors and Laguna Strategic Advisors. Larry's latest anthology book entitled "Llamas Rule" and his first book "Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?" are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Contact: Larry Mogelonsky

larry@lma.net

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