It can be easy to trip up on naive advice
There’s something infinitely reassuring about belonging to a group. It could be Mensa. Or the Three Stooges. No matter. Man is a social animal and has an ancient, built-in tribal instinct to herd. Groups — or forums, as they are termed in modern parlance — are as comforting as they are confusing.
The bigger the group the greater the gobbledygook. Simply put, debates can be meaningful and focused when numbers are small, but results dissipate and issues meander as membership grows, and with it the range of opinion, ignorance and peevishness.
In the online world, the solution is to quantify everything and thereby attach some sort of scientific significance to the results. Social networks such as TripAdvisor are cases in point. With thousands of comments on just about everything, travellers need to be presented an average score. And this score in turn is open to inadvertent misrepresentation by those not really qualified to assess the subjects in question.
I once read an impassioned review on TripAdvisor claiming the Holiday Inn Express in Hong Kong (Causeway Bay) was the “best hotel I have ever stayed at”. Nothing wrong with that. It was an honest and detailed account. But it was written by a teenager on his first trip out of Scotland with his mum.
Reviews like this are what determine an average score. And it is precisely this that makes it hard for business travellers or luxury trippers to take casual rants too seriously. Savvy travellers will, of course, separate lamb from mutton, but the less knowledgeable could view online blather as gospel.
It’s not that TripAdvisor or the like are doing anything wrong. These are forums, and excellent ones at that, yet they get things wrong. Think of it as a “bus stop test”. Say you have a frightful headache and your ears are turning green after aliens landed in your backyard and zapped you with a photon laser. You walk down to the bus stop, where 20 people are standing, and ask for an opinion; you’ll get 20 random views, some sensible, others silly. The pitfalls of this approach are immediately clear. A smart person would go straight to a doctor for professional advice or immediately flush the hallucinogens. Yet, when it comes to travel, we seem to prefer mob advice — patently the poorest choice when it comes to judgement.
The other issue with crowdsourced ratings is that the most active people online are the youngest and most inexperienced when it comes to luxury stays, romantic honeymoons in the Maldives, business-class seats or the relative merits of frequent-flyer baggage allowances when your partner insists on carting their entire possessions for that beach holiday. This is why TripAdvisor and the like do well with budget, three-star and boutique hotels that attract younger and probably less-discriminating customers.
Kids will endlessly upload pictures of cute slippers and soaps to Facebook, where it will arouse a huge amount of chatter. Impoverished teens are great brand ambassadors for fun, low-end products. Wealthy CEOs staying at an Amanresorts property or a Mandarin Oriental are less likely to upload pics of their strawberry dessert to FB. They might send a nice postcard (or email) to their mother, but the online brand amplification is minimal.
CEOs set the trend for luxe digs not through Facebook and WeChat — though some nowadays prefer Twitter — but through word-of-mouth, the oldfashioned way. Their few words carry disproportionate weight because they are significant role models with a patronage base. Corporate and well-heeled travellers will tend to follow this inside-track discourse rather than the views of disarmingly frank Scottish teens.
Hong Kong-based Vijay Verghese is the editor of Smart Travel Asia; SmartTravelAsia.com