A Trusted Advisor?
Apart from Google itself, the biggest development in the travel industry of the past 6 or so years has been the phenomenal growth in volume and importance of the website Trip Advisor. Like it or loath it, Trip Advisor has become impossible to ignore and greatly impacts upon consumers, hoteliers, tour operators, agents and advertisers.
The question though is whether this is generally a positive development or a negative one as was implied by a recent documentary, called ‘When Trip Advisor Attacks’ or something equally inane, in which very crazy reviewers drove slightly less crazy hoteliers to distraction. The programme was done in a silly sensationalist manner and barely addressed the main issues. Indeed, it seems that one of the reviewers claimed that he had in fact got on very well with the hotelier, given the place a top review and generally had a great time, only for selective editing to turn him into an egotistical monster – hell bent on doing down the hotel.
Proponents of open internet review systems, of which Trip Advisor is a prime example, argue that the wisdom of crowd’s effect comes into play. In short the sheer volume of reviews means that the good rises inexorably to the top and the consumer is empowered leading to higher standards of customer service all round, where those offering bad service are no longer able to compete. I would argue that while this is true in some respects, the real picture is somewhat more complex.
It is certainly true that large resort style hotels have had to hugely raise their game. Hotels that never competed for repeat guests were basically able to behave with impunity as they never expected anyone to return. At the lower end of the market, for say Laos holidays or Sri Lanka this led to great transformations in service as hotels were just no longer able to operate in this manner. An example of a country where this widespread practice has been large wiped out is Sri Lanka where mass market package tour companies and local hoteliers colluded knowing that their clients would simply blame Sri Lanka for the shoddy service but were never intending to return anyway.
Even at a higher end, I would argue that Trip Advisor has driven up customer service and responsiveness to client issues and problems. Savvy hoteliers know that reviews can be an enormously good source of constructive advice and criticism where the anonymous nature of reviews means people are far franker and up front than they ever are on customer feedback forms and guest books. In recent years there are countless examples of high end hotels taking refining service in relation to trip advisor to a fine art and I even know of one boutique hotels in Sri Lanka where staff are given a bonus relating to their Trip Advisor performance.
A less heralded example of the power of Trip Advisor is in encouraging clients away from the usual guide book or package tour hotels and into more independent, quirky and off the beaten track places. As a tour operator who specialise in smaller, quality places – many of which are in unusual locations (Burma holidays anyone?!) we have found Trip Advisor incredibly powerful in encouraging guests to try out riskier propositions we might put to them. Reading about others who have enjoyed it really seems to help.
I was once a talking head on a BBC World programme called ‘Fast Track’ which looked at the trip adviser issue in a far more interesting way than the aforementioned documentary.
The point I made then and still very much stand by, is that the sheer weight of reviews argument can fall down badly with smaller places trying to do something different. There are three significant problems. Firstly, if in a large hotel there is a small problem which is mentioned on Trip Advisor and subsequently corrected, the reviews very quickly reflect that as there are so many all the time. However, in a tiny place, that problem may still be prominent on the site months later – long after management have solve the issue. The second problem is that crowd wisdom of this sort very much encourages a process of homogenisation.
What I mean by this is that if a place is trying to be different, it means it will not be able to please all the people all the time. If a hotel miss-sells itself on their own website then perhaps they only have themselves to blame if someone turns up who doesn’t like the place. However, if that person has been sent to the place by an agent or operator or because they have read other reviews, and then doesn’t like the place, then it is hardly the hotels fault. An example of this that happened to an eco-place I know for Vietnam holidays, when a person complained bitterly about insects in the room and the lack of AC – when the website clearly stated that both of these things were inevitable in an eco-resort. Despite the obvious ludicrousness of the complaint the hotel saw a massive dip in bookings which very nearly bankrupted them. The third issue is that a malevolent reviewer can do undue harm to a small place. Again, at a larger place a bad review gets swamped by the weight of positive reviews. At a small place, a malevolent reviewer can finish a place off. Trip Advisor does review reviews when asked, but the process is tricky and not always effective.
Reviewers are generally unable to put a distance between themselves and the product and offer an objective opinion.
Because of that factor I feel that there definitely a place for professionals, such as Tour Operators, Travel Agents, guidebooks, travel writers and so on to offer an objective and detached professional option to help guide through the mass of online reviews.
Disclaimer: I myself use Trip Advisor in both of a professional context (to keep up to date with hotels standards) and on a personal basis!