Honesty is still hotels’ best policy
HOTEL companies got the fright of their lives when online travel communities first emerged, and for good reason. After years of luring travellers with slick cliche-ridden marketing patter, hoteliers suddenly had to contend with the prospect of guests sharing their own uncensored property reviews with the online world.
Anyone contemplating a hotel stay could go to sites such as TripAdvisor and IgoUgo and read what recent visitors really thought of the romantic suites, panoramic views, gourmet cuisine and ‘‘ short’’ walk to the beach.
Some hotels hoped these social networking sites would be a passing fad. Instead they have proved phenomenally popular: TripAdvisor claims 20 million visitors a month.
Others have attempted to undermine the user-generated review process by posting glowing reports on their own properties. But the sheer volume of contributions means the odd effusive entry stands out like a sore thumb. And besides, after years of describing bathrooms as ‘‘ luxurious’’ and lawns as ‘‘ lush’’, hotel marketers are not that hard to spot.
Now a few smart hotel groups are recognising the rich opportunities online travel communities present. Australia’s Rydges Hotels & Resorts, for example, has a policy of responding in an honest and constructive manner to comments— positive and negative — posted about its properties.
Speaking at a hotel conference in Sydney last month, Stefan Drury, e-commerce manager at Rydges’ parent company AHL, said negative reviews could be damaging if left uncontested. At the same time, responding to reviews is a good way for hotels to talk about recent upgrades and refurbishments.
Not all hotel operators are as composed as Rydges. One manager recently responded to a critic with the following: ‘‘ I make no apologies for the lilac colour in the room . . . after all the room is called The Lilac Room, so what colour do you expect?’’ Sometimes complaints are so silly they require no response: ‘‘ Sunshine is not as nice as I saw on their website,’’ laments one unhappy camper.
Sheraton takes online travel communities so seriously it is creating its own by inviting visitors to its website to contribute photographs and comments on properties they have experienced. The images can often look amateurish and the comments are certainly not the product of any marketing department. But the site is helping create a ‘‘ neighbourhood’’ based around Sheraton’s brand.
Online social networks are also a source of invaluable consumer research and the team that produced the stylish WHotels is taking full advantage. In September, they unveiled a new hotel brand, Aloft, inside the virtual-reality site Second Life. Visitors to Second Life’s digital world have been able to visit the virtual Aloft hotel and provide feedback on everything from room sizes to colour schemes.
The company plans to apply what it has learned from Second Life when it opens the first real-world Aloft property next year. It will be interesting to see whether any of the tech-savvy online travellers who contributed to the final look will be willing to shell out real money. David Carroll’s column on new travel technology appears monthly in Travel&Indulgence .