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The Changing Face of Guest Feedback

By Chris Larsen
July 2011
Once upon a time a hotel guest would share their experience directly with the hotelier when they checked out (if asked).  They may even have completed an ‘in room’ feedback card placed in the room.  What was said between a guest and an hotelier was pretty much kept ‘in house’.
However in today’s dynamic and transparent world, the internet via mediums like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, has also empowered consumers around the world to share their most intimate thoughts regarding products and services they experience at the touch of a button.
It is not surprising that online hotel review websites, like TripAdvisor, have mushroomed very quickly and enabled guests to rant or rave about their latest hotel experiences in a very public forum.  Positive reviews and high rating scores have translated into increased bookings and an improved ADR for a hotelier, while negative reviews not only impact on the bottom line (some say cost a business 30 lost customers at a time), but can also derail a hotel if not managed professionally.
However are those online hotel reviews truly representative of a hotel experience?  Are 10 to 15 online hotel reviews about a hotel over the course of a year statistically valid?  If you were a marketing research purist, you would say that any “sample size below 100” needs to be handled with care.
Digital Feedback
However, online hotel review websites (whether you agree with the statistical validity or not) play an important role in today’s climate of securing new guests to a hotel and provides a good indication of what a hotel has to offer.  But can a hotel management team run a hotel purely on guest feedback via online hotel review sites?  Can they really use that feedback to continue to refine their product to stay one step ahead of the competition and really satisfy today’s savvy traveller?
The majority of branded hotel chains around the world have already moved to what the industry calls post stay surveys or online hotel guest experience surveys.  These online hotel surveys are distributed electronically by the hotel after a guest has left the property, ideally with an automatic integration with their PMS or as standalone application, which allows the branded hotel chain to quickly and easily capture invaluable insight to the performance of their respective hotel properties.  Could this be why hotel customer service in the USA has grown recently, lead by Hilton Hotel?
Online Reputation Management
Online hotel review websites are causing quite a stir within the industry at the moment, with a number of high profile hoteliers challenging the authenticity of reviews posted about their respective properties.  While others are prepared to invest in systems that will consolidate all the reviews “out on the web” to understand what is being said and the general “buzz” about their hotel.
In some ways, could this be interpreted as ‘after the horse has bolted’, have guests gone onto these hotel review websites because during their hotel experience they wanted to give feedback but felt they weren’t being heard, taken seriously or acknowledged, or maybe it was just easier to do it online rather than face to face.
“We booked this break to be pampered and spoilt for the evening and alleviate our stress.  We should have complained at the time, but to be honest we did not need the hassle”.  Hotel Guest Response, January 2011.
What we are seeing for a number of hotels who are already using an online hotel survey is that they are securing guest feedback in a period of 1 month equivalent to 4 years on some online hotel review websites.  This maybe because travel is emotive and when a guest, particularly in the leisure side of the industry, has had a polarising experience they want to share that experience not only with friends and family, but also hotel management.
“Thanks for asking for the feedback.  We appreciate being able to provide this and hope it is taken constructively thanks”.  Hotel Guest Response, December 2010.
When things go wrong as inevitably they do from time to time, it is also reassuring that hotels have an online hotel survey in place to ‘keep in house’ and out of the public domain.
A well know hotel recently had a particularly challenging weekend, although thankfully only 1 out of 5 negative reviews caught by their online hotel guest experience survey found its way onto TripAdvisor.  It is this very same client that has seen an improvement in their TripAdvisor Traveller Rating score by 4% within five months and increased the number of reviews since going live.
Devil is in the Detail
For those progressive hoteliers who are continuously striving to refine their product, a hotel guest experience survey will support them to evolve, anticipate changing guest needs and identify emerging opportunities. They will do this by reviewing the responses to the ‘open ended’ questions within an online hotel survey.
These surveys are securing rich feedback that could not be written in the small space provided via an ‘in room’ feedback card, nor captured by the receptionist while the guests check out. In some instances, guests are writing over 250 words in response to a question at the start of the survey like “Do you have any other comments regarding your arrival”?
It is this “rich feedback” which not only assists a hotel to continuously refine their product, but also creates opportunities to engage with guests, secure repeat business and incremental revenue. 
Balanced Perspective
As we touched on earlier, the industry seems to be very TripAdvisor centric at the moment and by having the results secured from an online hotel guest experience survey with a significantly higher response rate provides the hotel management team with a comparison and balanced perspective.
“The feedback that we have secured via our online hotel survey has been quiet refreshing for a number of different reasons.  As a hotel we do a lot of good things, which sometimes we forget easily in our industry, and when you read great comments continuously coming back from our guests it really helps and keeps us focused on the real issues.  While from a GM’s perspective, when we need to improve things, it is great to be able to take feedback from the “horse’s mouth” to the owners and help prioritise investment requirements” commented Dion Chandler, General Manager, The Adelphi Hotel, Melbourne.
Difference of Opinion
There is no question in the industry about the importance of managing guest satisfaction, as all hoteliers know that if a guest leaves their property having had a positive experience, there is a very good chance that they will become a “repeat guest” and generate positive “word of mouth”, which will translate to an increase in non commission paid direct bookings.
However in speaking to a number of hoteliers, some feel that sending out an online hotel guest experience survey (as part of their guest management process), is “not really our style” or a “bit intrusive”. 
On the contrary guests feel more open and honest when they are able to communicate directly and easily to a hotel when it is convenient with them and in the comfort of their own space.  If they do have something to say, they would prefer to take time and offer considered feedback rather than an “automatic” response while checking out as they rush to their next destination.  With a response rate of approximately 25% plus for a number of hotels already using an online system, it speaks volumes about the “engaged” society in which we are already living. 
An online hotel guest experience survey should also be seen as an opportunity to reinforce the style and tone of the hotel with the use of the appropriate language and imagery throughout the survey and be consistent with their existing marketing collateral.
For the Sake of the Environment
Leaving a small note in a bathroom asking guests to leave towels in the bath if they would like a clean set, is nothing new.  From where did this idea generate from?  How long has it been going on for and how much has it saved the industry over the years?  Is it a green initiative or a cost saving opportunity “for the sake of the environment”, or both?
There is a growing segment of the market where guests are seeking hotels doing their bit for the environment.  Replacing ‘in room’ paper feedback cards within an online hotel guest experience survey is of course more environmental friendly, but what is fascinating to read are the number of ideas generated by guests when asked the question “Do you have any ideas or changes we could make so that we can be greener as a business”?  Some of the hotels are seeing 1 in 4 responses to this question and the majority of the feedback is common sense ideas on how to reduce operating costs.
While also Generating Incremental Revenue
Within an online hotel survey, there is also an opportunity for guests to “opt in” and receive future correspondence from the hotel regarding information about special offers, events, weddings, conferencing, membership, etc.  Request for additional information from the guest that was not ‘captured’ by the hotel until after they had left the hotel and then responded the hotel survey.  A Small Luxury Hotel of the World, based in the UK, secured incremental business opportunities up to the value £50,000 within a 3 month period off the back end of an online hotel survey.
Post Stay Survey Options
If you feel, in reading this article that deploying an online hotel guest experience survey is worth trialling, there are a few options for hoteliers to consider. 
There are a number of large international research companies already being used by the major international hotel brands.  If the figures quoted by those companies are “out of budget”, there are a number of ‘build your own survey’ companies out there, like Survey Monkey.  However, if you have no experience in market research, in building and distributing an online survey and/or are very conscious of your own “brand