News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Tom Stieghorst, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 8, 2004 - Ron McClaskey takes just two vacation trips a year, so the last thing he wants is to spoil them with a lousy hotel.
Before last fall's trip, the New Jersey store manager went online to a Web site where users post reviews of Fort Lauderdale area lodgings. After some study, he picked the Sheraton Yankee Clipper for a four-night stay.
He and his fiancée had a good time and after he got back home McClaskey posted a review of his own, awarding the Clipper four out of five stars.
"I find it very useful," he said of TripAdvisor.com, one of several travel sites with consumer comment sections.
Once upon a time, a good or bad hotel experience might be passed along to a small group of friends. Now it gets posted via the World Wide Web on sites such as tripadvisor.com or fodors.com. For consumers, the sites are a back channel way to check up on the advertising and marketing claims put out by hotel chains.
For hotels, the benefits are more mixed. Comments like "God awful" and "Run away as fast as you can" can sour travelers and may not be objective, even as "Terrific" and "Great view and beach" could lead to bookings.
But hotel executives say they do monitor the sites, in part to uncover problems glossed over on guest comment cards.
"It allows us to see the whole picture," said Brian Sparacino, marketing vice president for the Yankee Clipper and Trader hotels.
At their best, the sites can steer travelers away from hotels that are having problems. That was the case at the Ocean Manor Resort Hotel on Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale.
"Do not stay here!" warned a Jan. 19, 2003, posting by a Brooklyn user of TripAdvisor, who signed herself Desiree Williams, and complained of broken air conditioning. "Disgusting" added a March 5, 2003, review from Fairfax, Vt. "There was mold on the air conditioner, the walls were filthy, the furniture was straight from the 60's," it said.
Jonathan Bianco, acting director of operations, said the hotel was going through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy for part of 2003. It now has new owners.
"When we came in, it was run down," Bianco said. "This place was run as badly as you could run a hotel." The new owners are renovating.
Reviews also help match travelers with hotels that suit their tastes. Many didn't like their stay at the Tropic Cay Beach Resort on North Fort Lauderdale Boulevard, but one TripAdvisor user from Cleveland gave it a hearty endorsement.
"Its true walking into this hotel is like walking into a huge puddle of beer ... but what could be more wonderful then that?" said the April 3, 2003, posting. "We sure did keep our music loud all hours of the night and I highly recommend staying at this hotel. Where else could you throw the hotel furnishings off the top floor without getting kicked out?"
A front desk clerk, who declined to give her name, wouldn't comment on that claim, but said things are changing.
"What we're trying to do is get a little bit quieter group in here," she said. An older property with beachfront views, the hotel gets $69 a night, she said. "It's a very nice place."
The notion that one traveler's paradise is another's purgatory prompted the formation of TripAdvisor.com in 2000. Surfing the Web, company President Stephen Kaufer tried to find a site for a hotel in Mexico he was considering but could only find honeymoon pictures a couple had put up on their personal Web site.
It was enough. "I didn't want to stay there," Kaufer said. "Great for them, but not for me," he added. The Harvard University computer science graduate then got the brainstorm that led to TripAdvisor.
"You always feel more comfortable if you have a friend recommend a place, but you don't have a friend in every city," he said.
Four years later, Needham, Mass.-based TripAdvisor has 90,000 reviews, draws 4.7 million unique visits a month, and takes in $20 million a year in fees from hotels and travel Web sites for bookings that originate on TripAdvisor.
The site is set up to search for a hotel by name. It also ranks hotels in each destination from most to least popular, based on reviews. On a good day, it adds about 1,000 reviews to its database.
In December, the Internet research firm comScore Media Metrix said unique visits to the site grew 66.8 percent, ranking it sixth among the 250 most heavily visited Web sites.
Other sites that incorporate consumer feedback on hotels include the Web sites of travel guides such as Fodor's and Frommer's, Travelocity.com and sites such as Epinions.com, hotelshark.com and IgoUgo.com.
Consumers say Web reviews are helpful, but can be biased or exaggerated. "I take them with a grain of salt," said Dave Rourke, of Boston, who stayed in December at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Resort in Fort Lauderdale.
"I really try to determine whether they are legitimate or not," Rourke said. "Is the e-mail address posted? Has the party provided other reviews that are favorable?"
Likewise, hotel operators don't always take the reviews at face value, but say they follow up if a guest complaint seems genuine.
At the Holiday Inn Boca Raton on Glades Road, the front desk manager monitors three or four sites weekly, said General Manager Rick Harrison. Items about both the Holiday Inn and nearby competitors, if any, are shared with the staff at a Wednesday meeting where Holiday Inn guest comment cards are discussed.
When Harrison heard from a guest last July about brown water in the tub, the complaint later showed up on Travelocity. Harrison wasn't surprised. "If somebody is going to take the time to put something out on a site, we've generally heard from them," he said.
Harrison said iron lends a yellowish tint to some water in Florida.
A water softener was added in recent renovations to fix the color.
There's no clear link between complaints and business, Harrison said. The hotel recently went through a renovation that generated "a lot of negative feedback" about disruption, he said, yet bookings are 10 percent ahead of last year. "You're always going to have people complaining about things," he said.
Hotels rarely post rebuttals, even when criticism gets harsh. But last fall when a one-star TripAdvisor review came to the attention of Gary Overfield, general manager of the Boca Raton Plaza Resort, he felt forced to respond.
Calling the staff "inept" and "unprofessional," the review cited a taxi mix-up, nosy questions about a medical condition and other complaints. It also attacked Overfield by name, which was the final indignity.
"Her letter was so far from the truth it was unbelievable," said Overfield. Although the review was signed, the guest used a pseudonym, Overfield maintains. "I don't know how fair they are.
Anyone can write what they want and they don't have to identify themselves. It could be the guy in the Holiday Inn next door for all I know."
TripAdvisor filters for bogus reviews, Kaufer said, but declined to say how. He said it isn't the site's duty to verify the accuracy of every review. "We are a conduit for communication," he said. "That's just not our job."
Sometimes consumers can even get refunds by complaining loudly enough through a Web site forum.
When "flopmeister" didn't like his room at the Holiday Inn Fort Lauderdale Beach in December, he let everyone on a fodors.com bulletin board know. He checked out after one night of a 10-night, $577 stay pre-paid through Priceline.
His review cited mold and mildew smells, cigarette-burned bedspreads and parking "between the Tattoo parlor and the Pink Pussycat boutique."
His posting "DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO AVOID THS HOTEL" garnered 50 responses over the next 12 days, including several that advised him to seek a refund through Priceline and Holiday Inn headquarters.
On Dec. 15, "flopmeister" reported that Priceline had agreed to refund eight nights of the 10-night stay. "Given everything, I'll accept that as a resolution of the matter," flopmeister wrote.
Glenn Spanier, the Holiday Inn's general manager, said the two shops are both on one side of the hotel's parking garage, making directions to park between them unlikely. He couldn't confirm that "flopmeister" got a refund, in part because it would have come through Priceline.
Spanier said anyone so unhappy with a hotel should complain on the spot. If the guest services manager can't resolve it, he said, "I'll make time for it."
So far, sites that review hotels are more of a sideshow with deal-oriented sites like Travelocity and hotels.com taking center stage. But reviews offer sites a way to stand out, and could catch on especially among younger travelers for whom the Internet is second nature.
Those travelers will only grow in influence, said the Yankee Clipper's Sparacino. "In the hospitality sector, there's a larger percentage of e-commerce bookings every year," he said.
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