A ratings evolution beyond TripAdvisor

I wish to bloviate on a particular issue that concerns a client of mine and its organizational needs in the online space. This client owns two franchise properties located within a few miles of each other, one a Hilton Garden Inn (HGI) and the other a Hilton resort. Ergo, this unique situation lets us draw some interesting comparisons.

From a product standpoint, each of these properties is consistent with its own brand standards. The HGI has adequate furnishings, functional bathrooms and minimal extras. The public areas are not lavishly excessive (admittedly with a spectacular courtyard and poolside), and the restaurant and bar services are mostly self-serve. As a contrast, the resort is utterly magnificent. Newly minted, the property has all of the accouterments one would expect from a luxury resort.

As you’d expect from a superb operator, both properties also deliver exceptional guest service. Within their respective classes, they quite easily exceed the averages. Contextually, there is a higher level of service at the resort with valet, concierge services and a greater front desk presence, not to mention a full-service restaurant and bar.

There is no question even the most uninformed traveler would easily be able to differentiate the two products as distinct middle- and upper-echelon experiences. Clearly, both from a product and service standpoint, there are two distinct experiences offered to the guest — both excellent, but certainly not interchangeable.

Enter TripAdvisor, which makes no distinction between the two properties, as both receive nearly identical and nearly perfect scores in their gross aggregate. If one were to make a travel decision solely based on TripAdvisor scores, the price difference would lead one to choose the HGI over the resort, the former being priced lower to reflect its middle-tier selection of furnishings, amenities and services.

(I wave my finger at TripAdvisor as it is the preeminent online review site used for travel research. But the argument I am about to put forward may as well apply to the rest of the websites that facilitate this modality.)

Another obvious question I find myself stymied by is if a guest pays more for a room, does he or she have higher expectations? Thus, if the property does not meet these superior requirements, the ratings given by guests, in turn, suffer. Yet, TripAdvisor does not have any shiningly thorough way to differentiate between properties with limited service and those offering a complete range of services; all properties are assessed on the same scale.

When selecting among products or regions that have a solid degree of familiarity, it’s quite simple for the traveler to make a decision from the TripAdvisor ratings coupled with a reasonable knowledge of the brands inscribed. Yet the proliferation of manifold brands makes it increasingly difficult for the customer to know what each brand has to offer. How do you know definitively if the product is limited-service, economy, midrange or luxury? Is the generalized categorization from the last sentence even appropriate for today’s highly stratified marketplace?

I’m led to believe our industry has in many ways surpassed the value afforded by TripAdvisor. Just about every property has finagled its ratings capabilities to the maximum. As properties have honed their skills and focused solutions on flawless guest services, the rating differences on TripAdvisor have narrowed substantially. Every property (that’s worth staying at!) is a 4.5, 4.6, 4.7 or 4.8; the spread is no longer statistically significant.

This is not to say that TripAdvisor lacks all significance or utility. Its inherent bipartisan universality makes it an important tool for what it was originally designed to achieve: red-tagging properties that do not deliver quality services or value while providing general managers with immediate, qualitative and actionable guest feedback.

But I believe there is a need for TripAdvisor and all other online hotel review sites to expand their horizons. More specifically, there needs to be more distinctions based upon the types of properties — full-service versus limited-service and higher-priced versus lower-priced. Just as you wouldn’t compare a slasher horror film to a John Grisham courtroom drama adaptation, it’s not fair to hold budget hotels to the same ubiquitous rating scale as a boutique luxury abode.

In the interim, we just rely on consumers’ intuition, both to know what they want and to take TripAdvisor’s point system with a grain of salt. After all, online rating sites are but one component of the purchasing decision; I only wish there was third-party information to point viewers in the right direction prior to passing judgment. I’m aware there are quite a few hubs that dog-ear specific strata of hotels, but these have thus far failed to reach the prevalence of the major online review sites or the OTAs, which also host such functionality.

As you can probably tell, I’m not exactly a TripAdvisor fan, so perhaps I’m not the most qualified to conjure up the solution. What about you? What’s your solution, and how do you online review sites evolving in the near future?