|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 07, 2011--The No. 1 hotel in Orlando right now is ... Floridays Resort on SouthInternational Drive.
Never heard of it? Well, lots of travelers have, and more than 1,800 of them have rated the hotel south of SeaWorld an average 41/2 out of five stars on TripAdvisor, the social-media website that has caught on in recent years with travelers far and near.
Filled with millions of candid reviews from real travelers, the Internet site has gained a reputation as a go-to place for the lowdown on hotels, restaurants and entertainment across the U.S. and in 30 other countries.
Its unfiltered ratings are a blessing -- and a curse -- for local hoteliers. Gaining the coveted No. 1 ranking on TripAdvisor can generate a lot of "heads in beds" for a hotel. Of course, getting slammed in a TripAdvisor review can cost future business.
"We do know that, at the point of check-in, a lot of guests tell us that they chose us because of our rank on TripAdvisor," said Marco Manzie, president of Paramount Hospitality, the company that manages Floridays. "It's a part of building credibility in the market."
TripAdvisor, which launched in 2000, now boasts 50 million unique visitors a month and contains more than 50 million reviews and opinions. And Orlando is one of its most active destinations, says Brian Payea, TripAdvisor's head of industry relations.
The site's rankings for a given market are recalculated daily and based on an undisclosed formula that takes into account the quantity and quality of a hotel's reviews. Unlike ratings or rankings produced by established services such as the AAA auto club or Forbes Travel Guide, which are based on formal standards for a property's physical plant and customer service, TripAdvisor's rankings have less to do with amenities and more to do with whether the hotel met or exceeded a particular guest's expectations.
Floridays, for example, doesn't rank among AAA's four-diamond hotels, but TripAdvisor travelers praise its two- and three-bedroom suites with full kitchens as an excellent value. The hotel says its average room rate is about $150 a night.
"It doesn't surprise me when I see properties of lower levels of amenities being at the top, because it's all about the guest experience," Payea said. "It's not a measure of the amenity level."
To maintain its top spot on TripAdvisor, Floridays focuses on providing good service, Manzie said. And during checkout, the hotel encourages its guests to review their stay on TripAdvisor. When a negative comment does pop up, Manzie said, the hotel tries to contact the guest to resolve the issue.
"There're 338 properties behind me [in Orlando] that are dying to get in that No. 1 spot," Manzie said. "All glory is fleeting -- that's the outlook you've got to take."
The growing importance of sites such as TripAdvisor is starting to become apparent in travel-industry surveys.
For example, Ypartnership, a Maitland-based company that co-publishes an annual report on travelers' habits, recently found that one-third of all travelers have consulted a travel forum, online community or blog during the previous 12 months -- and, of those, six in 10 had checked TripAdvisor.com for information and prices, far more than had consulted services such as Kayak.com (27 percent) or forums such as LonelyPlanet.com (13 percent).
Historically, hotels have been rated by third-party organizations, such as AAA, which develop criteria that indicate whether a hotel measures up to certain standards. They then assign each property a rating, based on a "five-diamond" or "four-star" system.
Social-media sites such as TripAdvisor, on the other hand, are essentially an extension of word-of-mouth, considered by many marketing experts to be the most effective kind of advertising available, for better or worse.
As the case with most other social media, TripAdvisor has taken off within the past three to five years, said Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando, the area's primary convention-and-visitors bureau.
"Since the history of marketing started, word of mouth was always top on the list," Courtenay said. "This is just a different phase of that ... it's electronic word-of-mouth."
The site has such global appeal, with a presence in 31 countries and in 20 languages, that Visit Orlando now links to TripAdvisor reviews from its official website. The agency also has its travel counselors contribute to question-and-answer forums on TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor's unfiltered reviews from individual travelers -- much like the customer reviews on retail websites such as Amazon.com -- are part of the site's allure.
"The accommodations, views, and staff customer service were by far the BEST out there," wrote one reviewer who reported staying at Floridays in September. "I was a little hesitant at first because the suites were so inexpensive. I could not believe what I received for that per night cost. I will tell you ... LUXURY! LUXURY! LUXURY! I felt like royalty at Floridays."
At the Bonnet Creek Hilton -- the No. 2 Orlando hotel on TripAdvisor as of Thursday -- management uses the site's guest reviews to help identify employees deserving recognition. When staff members hear a guest remark that a particular employee has gone above and beyond the call of duty, they encourage the visitor to mention the person by name in a TripAdvisor posting, said Tracy Walker, the hotel's general manager.
"You get great feedback. Good, bad or indifferent, feedback is feedback, and that's how you get better," Walker said. "I think that, overwhelmingly, what we've learned about is how friendly and helpful our team is."
Hotels can't give incentives to guests for submitting positive reviews, but TripAdvisor provides each hotel owner with a Web page that allows them to manage their profile and analyze their guests' reviews. The page shows the number of reviews the hotel has received each day and a customer-satisfaction score, based on a scale of 0 to 100, that it can compare to scores of other hotels.
It also includes a tool for soliciting reviews from guests via email and a way of responding to reviews posted on the site, Payea said.
"The stats show that travelers put a lot of value in management response," he said. "They're looking for the voice of the property as well as the other travelers'. They want to know: If there's a problem, is it going to be fixed?"
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