Have guest-generated reviews usurped expert appraisals?

How do online and peer-generated reviews affect the significance of the firmly established Forbes star rating and AAA diamond rating systems? For one, does the average consumer these days still check up on the annual reporting of star and diamond ratings? Do they know the criteria that distinguish each class? Most importantly, is achieving a certain status on either Forbes or AAA a surefire means to boost sales, or is it a bygone hallmark of prestige?

People have a vague notion of what constitutes a 2-star or a 4-star hotel, but nowadays the specifics are unknown. Nor are those specifics a top-of-mind concern when booking online, where factors such as price, location and peer reviews all play drastically larger roles. As we marginalize the professional authorities, everyday tourists have picked up the slack in terms of regulating the acclaim each property receives. But are they ready? Sometimes the customer isn’t right, and we need professional critics front and center to remind guests of true hospitality standards.

Part of the problem is how online travel agencies and third-party review sites depict brands. With the same basic design given to each page no matter what the property or the region, these websites focus all the attention on price. Room rate becomes the primary — and sometimes the only — distinguisher, and as we all know, when you rely solely on price, loyalty becomes exceedingly elastic. Moreover, it’s easy to see how little emphasis these websites give to displaying the Forbes or AAA ratings.

Take TripAdvisor, for example, the world’s foremost third-party reviewer. You search a hotel, and the star rating appears beside the name, but each star icon is a dull charcoal gray and in a shrunken, barely perceptible size. What’s given far more focus is the website’s internal critique system, with its own devoted block on the top right of each page and sparsely filled with large fonts in a green hue that pops against the white background. With these sorts of visual cues training the eyes to disregard the more “official” scores, it’s easy to see why peer reviews garner all the interest.

So, why do we still need professionals? First, they have much more experience visiting a diverse range of hotels around the world. In most cases — excluding frequent business travelers or travel writers — guests are the opposite, journeying up to five times a year. Second, guests are more likely to rate a stay based on rudimentary property features, how the staff treated them and the narrow scope of amenities they used over the course of a brief stay. Professionals, on the other hand, see the big picture. They’re armed with a checklist; guests are armed with emotions.

There’s no consistency to guest criticisms, which is where the experts must play a regulatory role. The average guest might give a property a top score because the front desk staff treated them nicely on top of free water bottles and Wi-Fi. Such a review excludes judgment on specifics like the availability of a 24-hour bellman, the number of amenities in the bathroom, the security details or the food quality. Experts have training, experience and a list to help them pass impartial judgment on the entire property. Or is this not important anymore?

Another qualm is that online hotel review sites put all properties on an equal rating scale, regardless of whether they are in the same class grouping as defined by Forbes or AAA. What happens when a Forbes-rated 2-star hotel receives an equivalent number of positive reviews on a third-party site as a 5-star property? Is a consumer to infer that both will offer the same outstanding experience and similar levels of service quality?

The real solution is branding. No matter how the Internet changes consumer behavior, you have to educate consumers on what your brand stands for so they know about your unique product offerings even before they start their research. Start by doing whatever you can to express the exceptional aspects of your brand within these third-party sites using elegant photography and robust property descriptions. This will help viewers automatically identify what category a hotel belongs in (luxury, business, resort, economy, boutique, etc.).

I know I’m biased in this department, but I can’t help but mention the overall importance of advertising and marketing in this struggle. Good branding plays a huge role in commanding a higher price for nearly any product, and it all begins with the image you project to the world.

What are your solutions? Or, is this even a problem?