c.2013 New York Times News Service
Since people began travelling, everyone has shared opinions about hotels, but until fairly recently the evaluations were spread by word-of-mouth or through the august evaluations of recognized guidebook authors.
Now there are scores of major online travel and social media sites sprouting hundreds of thousands of customer reviews. And the hotel industry is frantically trying to stay on top of the commotion.
What appeared to be one such effort by a hotel executive drew attention last week. Tnooz.com, a site that specializes in travel technology, reported that an executive based in Sydney, Australia, with the worldwide hotel chain Accor, had anonymously posted more than 100 reviews on TripAdvisor.com, the consumer travel site that features millions of customer reviews of travel services, including hotels around the world.
The reviews of various Accor hotels were positive. A few took shots at competing hotels. Tnooz said that the executive, Peter Hook, admitted posting the reviews in a statement in which he explained that most of his reviews were for tourism activities and restaurants rather than just hotels. I could not reach Hook for comment.
Accor hotels around the world include the brands Sofitel, Novotel, Pullman, Mercure and Ibis. Kerrie Hannaford, an Accor spokeswoman, told me Friday she was unaware of the controversy involving the anonymous reviews. She did not respond to further calls for comment.
Knowing how busy most hotel managers are, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the pressures they have come under in recent years because of the tsunami of online reviews. Many hotel companies expect managers to respond personally to negative reviews, a time-consuming chore.
Olery, a company that offers brand reputation management for hotels, said in a report that about 78 per cent of travellers used online reviews to help decide which hotel to book.
As the importance of online customer evaluations grows, an increasing number of hotel reviews are suspect. Big travel review sites like TripAdvisor say they try to monitor reviews to weed out the ones from customers clearly acting in bad faith, or from competitors simply out to torpedo a rival.
One global hotel company, Small Luxury Hotels of the World, not long ago created its own review system open to members of its loyalty program, called The Club. It allows review privileges only to members who have had more than one stay at a given hotel. Still, the reviews are open to honest evaluation, including criticism, said Paul Kerr, chief executive of Small Luxury Hotels, which represents more than 520 boutique luxury hotels in about 70 countries around the world.
Members overwhelmingly say that reviews are an important consideration in booking a hotel, he said. But for his group’s hotels, which do about 25 per cent of their trade in business travel, it is important to cull the rampaging herd, he added.
“I didn’t believe that TripAdvisor provides a necessarily very good indicator of quality for high-end hotels because some of the people writing reviews may have only been to a luxury hotel once or twice, and don’t really know what they are talking about,” he said.
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That can cut both ways, because an uninformed rave has minimal value to a discerning customer. “Someone might say, ‘Oooh, it’s so great; they have these fluffy towels’ — but that’s the sort of thing you expect in a luxury hotel,” he said. “On the other hand, you can get some unfair and unfounded criticism from people who don’t understand what a luxury hotel is about.”
He added: “We have about 450 reviews at about 250 of our hotels now. The customers love it. The hotels don’t. Some hotels don’t understand that it’s so important to have these reviews because it increases your rankings in Google. Your search-engine utilization is much better when it’s honest and transparent.”
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I compared online reviews, chosen at random from the TripAdvisor and Small Luxury Hotels websites, for two of the group’s high-end hotels, the Huntington in San Francisco and Le Pavillon de la Reine in Paris.
Both hotels got mostly rave reviews, many using the word “superb.” The few criticisms were similar, but different in tone.
A review of the Huntington on the group’s website said, “I didn’t enjoy that Wi-Fi was charged … really? Also, I thought the room could have used fresh paint, and the furniture looked a bit tired.” On TripAdvisor, an otherwise favourable review of Pavillon said, “Our room was in need of a thorough update.” It added, “The bathroom makeup mirror was held to the stem by duct tape.”
Kerr said that there was genuine value in providing reliable reviews, including those with criticism, for discerning and knowledgeable customers — even on a website managed by an organization that represents hotels, not the general public. “Our customers are not stupid people at all. They know what it’s all about,” he said.
On the other hand, he added, there is a desire for perspective. “If a hotel has only one review and it’s not a great one, that’s really not fair to that hotel,” he said. “So to make sure there are balanced reviews, we’ve got to have at least five reviews of a hotel before we put it all up on the system.”