I often wonder if anyone pays attention to online travel review sites like www.tripadvisor.com , or is it just wannabe citizen travel writers self-importantly broadcasting their ideas into the abyss?
“These review sites are a big factor,” says Johan Svanstrom, managing director of big online hotel booking site Hotels.com Asia Pacific, which itself carries up to seven million reviews. If a property has a number of reviews, it typically gets more attention on the site, he finds. “Secondly, if it has good reviews, it converts better. We measure everything up and down, back and forth, all the time.”
So yes, these online reviews have an impact and when they first started, they scared the life out of hoteliers. “What the hotel industry was very nervous about in the beginning, and rightfully so, particularly on Trip Advisor, which is an independent site, was that anyone could write the review - even your neighbouring competing hotel,” says Svanstrom. But over time, if there are 200 reviews on a particular hotel - and popular properties can attract even more - well most people are savvy, he adds. They can spot the outliers and say this one is raving, the concierge himself has written this one, and maybe this was real, but perhaps it was a bad day. So it seems the law of big numbers holds and intelligent travellers can sift through, sorting out the genuine reviews from the ringers. “The problem is the hotels with 500 reviews, it takes a lot of time to read through,” Svanstrom adds.
It beats glossy brochures
Citizen review sites are vastly superior to poring over touched-up glossy brochures produced by the hotels themselves. That was the only choice ten years ago. “Everything was five star and sunsets,” he laughs. The other thing Trip Advisor found was that negative reviews mattered and that it was important for a hotel to respond to complaints. “It’s very helpful for them to explain or apologise, publically.”
Review sites have definitely democratised how hotels show up online, particularly with smaller independent places. All of a sudden, lower starred hotels can market themselves to millions of eyeballs. So a small hotel in Chiang Mai that ten years ago could never compete with Hilton’s global marketing budget – “now on Tirp Advisor that tiny bungalow place may sit several spots above Hilton - and can be read together with it.” And it cost them nothing to have people write about them.
If hotels focus on service, they get good reviews and more business. It makes sense. “So in my mind, it points hotels back to delivering what they should be: service.” he says. “It diverts hotel budgets away from glossy brochures and back into service and everyone’s happy.”
Where will this go in future? Will we reach online review saturation? Yes. The novelty has already worn off a bit, he says. “But review sites are still important as a parameter to help people choose, that has not gone down.”