It can be easy to trip up on naive ad­vice

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - VI­JAY VERGH­ESE

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

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