Living in the ‘Review Age’

Corporate transparency, social responsibility and responding to customer reviews in real time are but three examples of 21st-century business practices that have transitioned from value-add to consumer expectation in less than a decade. It’s this third instance that concerns us today as we descend into a literal “Review Age” where everything under the sun can be given an online user evaluation. Moreover, when it comes to hospitality, guests will also pass judgment on you, as a hotel operator, for how well you curate your property’s online criticisms.

Respond too slowly to reviewers who cite operational problems, and it makes you look like you aren’t allocating the proper amount of resources to electronic monitoring or, worse, that you don’t care about guests’ needs. Don’t thank past guests for their positive support, and it may earn you contempt. Respond emotionally to a negative critique, and it draws suspicion as to how you act if this grievance was brought up in person. Don’t respond at all, and, well …

The bottom line is that hoteliers are expected to rigorously monitor all digital review channels and chatter — be it through social media, OTA websites or the juggernaut that is TripAdvisor — and manage the written responses as well as any onsite follow-up activities. Living in the Review Age means your online persona casts a strong reflection on how you operate in the flesh. For example, a well-curated TripAdvisor page with effusive gratitude and assurances to mitigate cited grievances will inform future guests that this property actually cares.

It’s a reflection of your guest services and your brand. And this process is largely star-rating-agnostic, too. Responding properly to boost consumer appeal is an action that can be carried out by economy roadside inns, ultra-luxury resorts and all properties in-between.

Alas, I’m treading on common ground. The importance of third-party monitoring and management has been written to death in industry publications. But there are new evolutions in this Review Age that have yet to be given the spotlight.

Namely, prospective travelers are wise to the ways of Internet trolls — those who let their emotions get the best of them to unfairly ridicule a property or those who purposefully seek remuneration by way of an exaggerated condemnation. Yes, consumers will still judge you on your response — primarily by remaining non-defensive, consummately attentive and not stooping to their level. But with consumers now readily able to sniff out trolls, they are much more likely to disregard such an angry person’s criticisms as partially or wholly fabricated.

In other words, we are headed for a two-way rating system. Your property gets judged, but the users themselves are also tacitly assessed on such things as grammar, tone, length and how constructive their reviews are. Taxi-usurper Uber is paving the way with a mobile platform that lets its drivers rate their passengers. Imagine if the OTAs had a similar system whereby a property could append a guest’s bill after his or her stay based upon the linkage between credit-card information and said guest’s profile on the OTA’s database. Hoteliers could then jot down whether this guest was, say, overly demanding, a constant complainer, excessively messy or prone to towel theft. Other hotels could then decide whether a guest with “baggage” is worth accepting in the first place.

Such a two-way system is tricky to implement and not without a heavy dose of controversy, but if Uber is able to do it, then undoubtedly Expedia or Priceline — as billion-dollar corporations with the prerequisite technology already largely in place — are able to undertake such a monstrous coding project. Major chains might install similar platforms, using them to see if certain individuals are worth signing on to their loyalty programs or granting a room key.

It all gets a little “actuarial” when you think about how a person’s online reviews and commentary can be compiled and extrapolated to give hoteliers a cost-benefit analysis report on every prospective guest. This isn’t science fiction either; there are companies with proprietary big-data algorithms that benchmark individuals’ social media usage to effectively determine whether or not they are suitable for promotional targeting.

After all, why even waste your time on those customers who are predisposed to causing trouble? Given the influence that such websites like TripAdvisor have on the travel research phase, it is worth two nights of room revenue for a potentially scathing online critique in return? If you are a believer in the 80/20 rule (where 80% of your problems come from 20% of your customers), then identifying and sidelining trolls and interlopers may reduce your revenues but save you tons more in the process.

While we’ve endured through the lightly regulated “Wild West” years of third-party review sites, guest-hotel equality is on the way. Living in the Review Age means that everyone is accountable for what they write online. My advice: always be kind, and always be helpful. Or, in other words, be genuine hoteliers, and everything will be fine.