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Analyses - December 12, 2006

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December 2006

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Print etourism and technology, Management, Trends,

Today’s customers influence tomorrow’s choices

The opportunity to review a lodging establishment, restaurant, transportation company or destination is no longer a privilege reserved to professionals. As part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, consumers now have many opportunities to share their opinions and evaluations of their travel experiences with other consumers. Whether you are pleased or dismayed with this turn of events, more than ever, the customers you serve today are influencing those you will serve tomorrow.

Welcome to the world of personal reviews

Not so long ago, recognized travel guides like CAA‑AAA, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Michelin, Mobil and others were the primary reference tools for consumers trying to judge the quality of a specific hotel or restaurant. Written by professionals, these works nonetheless conveyed a single point of view, updated annually and articulated by a critic following a standardized evaluation grid.

Recognizing the limits of these traditional guides and the potential of the Web, consumers have quickly taken advantage of technological platforms enabling them to share their reviews and evaluations of their lodging, transportation and dining experiences. Since the Web also makes it easy to share visuals, these consumer‑generated reviews have quickly adopted the use of photos and videos to better illustrate an individual’s impressions of a business or destination.

Leaders in the field

With over 20 million unique monthly visitors, Tripadvisor.com is currently the uncontested leader of consumer review sites. The site contains more than 5 million reviews of over 164,000 hotels in 24,000 destinations. Travellers seeking the opinions of fellow travellers have a number of options to choose from: My Travel Guide, IGoUGo, Travelpost, etc.

Specialized sites, like Skytrax, have even been developed to enable travellers to consult and write reviews specifically about the airline industry (airlines, airports, types of aircraft, on‑board meals, etc.). Furthermore, some popular sites featuring general consumer reviews, like www.epinions.com, have now added “travel” to the long list of products and services that can be reviewed by members of the public.

In light of the format’s popularity, major travel portals like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity have developed tools to enable users to post online reviews. For their part, major players like Cheaptickets and YahooTravel have opted instead for alliances, allowing them access to the peer review databases of partner sites.

The rapid growth of this mass‑audience Web‑based alternative has hurt publishers. To deal with the situation, some, like AAA, Fodor’s and Alastair Sawday, have chosen to add peer review sections to their websites.

Detailed evaluations and comprehensive reviews

To encourage consumers to write more specific reviews, the best systems ask users to evaluate various aspects of their experience. When it comes to lodging, reviewers are asked to rate the following: price, quality‑price ratio, cleanliness, location, service, reception, restaurant or bar, the pool or workout room, etc. This breakdown in the evaluation helps users develop a better idea of the product as it relates to their personal preferences and concerns.

Most sites also suggest that the reviewer provide a short personal description as well, which allows users to give greater credence to comments expressed by consumers with similar profiles. Some common descriptors are age, gender, purpose of stay, budget and previous travel experience.

Relevance and validity of peer reviews

Many people remain sceptical about this business model, which seems to allow people to write whatever they feel like with no validation process whatsoever. However, those running the sites feel that the sheer number of users and reviews helps ensure that these evaluations are both regulated and representative. In fact, when there are many evaluations, the overall average cannot be significantly affected by the addition of a single biased review. In any event, consumers appear to be more interested in establishments that attract a lot of reviews, regardless of whether these comments are positive or negative.

These sites are also starting to feature functionalities that let users rate the usefulness of a review or report a review as having inappropriate content. When a review is posted is another factor in its relevancy. In this respect, site policies vary when it comes to managing past reviews. Expedia only displays the 25 most recent reviews, Travelocity leaves all reviews online for one year and Trip Advisor never removes them.

Business responses to reviews

To enhance the integrity of its evaluations, TripAdvisor invites representatives of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions to post responses to reviews of their establishments. This option is often very useful for informing travellers that a particular problem has been resolved (e.g., renovations are complete).

And should managers be tempted to invent fictitious customers to write glowing reviews of their establishments, they should know that the Sunday Times in England did a study of online reviews, leading to the discovery that some hotel and restaurant owners had done just that, a practice that severely tarnished their reputations.

Making good use of review sites

According to a survey conducted by the US firm HeBS (Hospitality eBusiness Strategies), over 81% of hotel owners feel growing consumer participation in generating Web content is a situation that can work to their advantage. Managers can use this new content (blogs, forums, virtual communities, social networks, review sites, etc.) to find out what their customers are really thinking. Quite often, monitoring customer‑generated reviews is more enlightening than using guest comment cards and less expensive than organizing a focus group.

The future of traditional rating systems

Given the popularity of consumer review sites, one wonders whether this new form of rating will replace the old system. For the consumer, traditional classifications are a simple way to quickly assess the array of services offered by an establishment and more easily determine its quality‑price ratio. However, if no ratings exist for a given service or experience, consumers are increasingly turning to peer reviews for help making their choices.

Sources:

Grossman, David. “Let your Fellow Travelers Be your Guide,” USA TODAY/Smith Travel Research [www.usatoday.com], June 25, 2006.
Lamb, Gregory M. “Next Wave of Travel Websites Feels Like MySpace,” eTurboNews, June 21, 2006.
Price, Jason and Max Starkov. “Consumer‑Generated Media, a Threat or an Opportunity?” ehotelier.com, December 13, 2006.
Swinford, Steven and Gareth Walsh. “Glowing Online Reviews by Hotels and Restaurants Dupe Customers,” The Sunday Times [www.timesonline.co.uk], November 12, 2006.

 

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