Will TripAdvisor service commentary kill the planning committee meeting?

I remember the first time I was invited to an “Executive Planning Committee Meeting” at the Toronto Four Seasons in 1982. New to the business at the time, as the ad agency account executive, I was told this was quite the honor! Back then, out of respect, you addressed the GM as “Mr.” which seemed quite old-fashioned, even for the 80s.

Fast-forward 25 or 30 years: remarkably, planning committee meetings have not really changed. The same management positions meet to review the same issues that their predecessors discussed. Yet, look at the changes that we have experienced: the Internet, revenue management, automated meeting RFPs, online travel agencies and a myriad of systems designed to improve management decision making.

But the biggest game changers have nothing to do with the systems designed to enhance the hotelier’s success. Rather, they are the ones that evaluate performance: online booking websites, otherwise known as the “banes of existence” for any hotel GM. Aside from word-of-mouth recommendations, third-party sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and the behemoth that is TripAdvisor are the premier research tools when seeking out a new travel destination, and they all boast user-generated reviews that can make managers cringe. 

All a reader has to do is log on, pick out a hotel where they have online proof of a past visit (sometimes not even required), then type to their hearts content. Click submit, and voila! Barring any obscene language, two days or so later, the review will be up and showcased as a new comment, conferring it a status at the top and most viewed portion of the page. Due to the efficient layout of these sites, it’s hard for web users not to notice the latest critiques, and a steady stream of inflammatory remarks may work to turn these potential customers away for good.

Even when the issues are ever so small, they all appear bloated by their online facades. For example, one person might rate their stay as two out of five stars with the sole reason listed as a shortage of towels. Granted, this is a problem, but hardly a deal breaker. Moreover, reviewers sometimes mark down the quality of their rooms based on almost independent issues such as the pricing of restaurants or the friendliness of staff. All it takes is one finicky little thing to go wrong, and a Five Diamond resort now looks like a bunch of cubic zirconia. 

If you’re a GM reading this, you’re probably either nodding your head or grimacing over such a past experience. Is it really fair to label a place as a “bad experience” due to a 10-minute wait by the concierge? Should these tech-savvy patrons really be entitled to the same level of influence as seasoned travel writers? I think not. And yet with the preeminence of the Internet, these misinformed critics will continue to rise in power over the future of the industry.

And there’s almost nothing managers can do outside of checking these sites every day and responding to complaints after the fact. But the reviews are permanent, and unless all operations are immaculate, users will always seem to find something wrong to debase an otherwise sound excursion. My agency’s hospitality clients are pleading with me, “How do we address our TripAdvisor ratings?” Well, excluding a multimillion-dollar renovation from the scenario, it all boils down to guest service.

Based on an independent analysis of probably 1,000 different TripAdvisor comments for properties rated in the Four or Five Diamond level by AAA, we found that over 90% of all commentary — either positive or negative — relates to service issues. This brings us back to the hotel planning committee meeting: Why has this meeting failed to adequately address the service issues that are so critical to the property’s success?

Nowadays, senior hotel managers — at least those on the planning committee — are few and far between. For instance, the rooms division manager might have under his or her direction an executive housekeeper, engineering and maintenance manager, front desk manager and reservations manager. And each of these team leaders might have line managers reporting to them. With so many layers, the transmission of critical information often gets muddled as it moves up and down the totem pole, hampering the decision-making process. Thus, to address guest service issues, you have to first address the lines of internal communication.

But alas, every hotel manager I know is totally overloaded with work. Throughout North America and Europe, the “Great Recession” has reduced the ranks of middle management, and the hospitality industry is not immune to this trend. There are fewer assistant managers, and more work for everyone else. Schedules are often staggered, further hindering exchanges. The result is that those attending planning committee meetings often have less time to sort out how their own teams are functioning, let alone knowledge of the action steps needed to boost internal communication channels.

Managers now need to ensure that guest services are far above par to mitigate the online debacles that these third-party sites propagate. It’s time for hoteliers to use technology to fight technology. To survive in this new era of speedy information dispersal, managers must fully embrace smartphones, social media and web-based monitoring systems — all potent tools for heightened communications. With any luck, over a short period of several months or so, these kinds of upgrades will work wonders to create an effective means towards more positive reviews. After all, the majority of people only view the most recent comments, so if you improve today, there’ll be greener pastures tomorrow.