Would the real hotel rating agency please stand up?

In the pre-Internet years, hotel ratings were easy to understand. The American Automobile Association (AAA) awarded a “Diamond Rating,” and Mobil used the “Star Rating,” both on a scale of one to five. There are several other prominent organizations, and the “Mobil Travel Guide” has been licensed out to Forbes since 2009, but for simplicity, let’s focus our narrative on these two.

AAA and Mobil use qualified inspectors who follow a comprehensive and rigorous scorecard. They examine everything from scuffmarks on the edge of doors and dust on the drapes to the proficiency of guest services in every minute detail. The appraisers show up unannounced, and their results are shared with the property at the end of the visit. Advanced notice is given for any rating changes. By and large, the system is honest and egalitarian, with the same technical criteria applied across the globe.

Hoteliers look towards their annual audit with a mix of anticipation, worry and dread. A decline in a rating level, let’s say from 5-Diamond to 4-Diamond, could mean instant shame, or certainly a lot of explaining to property ownership. A move up the totem pole is usually cause for celebration, often reflective of a sweeping renovation or of the steadfast dedication to service improvements. 

With all the recent Internet hoopla, this established ritual has just about gone the way of the proverbial “dodo bird.” Properties still have their ranks assigned to them by AAA and Mobil, but who really uses these systems as a primary resource? Most importantly, how does this impact reservation volume?

Our innate curiosity prompted us to conduct some directional research on this topic last fall. Let me stress that this study was carried out among a limited database of 100 respondents. As such, it is by no means corroborated with an absolute degree of significance, but it does give us a hunch. The research consisted of a telephone survey among American adults in their 30s, split equally between male and female. To qualify, respondents had to have a valid passport and have made a leisure trip via airplane within the past year. (Note: AAA is “king” of car travel. This research in no way reflects the critical importance AAA plays in helping America successfully navigate the Interstate road network.)

The data was startling. Some 57% of interviewees were aware of the AAA hotel rating, but only 19% said they used this scale as a factor in their verdict to stay at a given property. The same query for Mobil/Forbes generated such abysmal metrics that I dare not repeat them here. Our answers for TripAdvisor were the exact opposite. Of those questioned, 99% were aware of the site, and 86% said they utilized its reviews and rating average as a part of their decision-making process. 

It took AAA some 94 years to build a reputation as an honorable arbiter for destinations worldwide. Yet, in just over 10 years, TripAdvisor has become the foremost bastion of the modern democratic consumer. Its assessments are not the work of official evaluators, but of any individual who has previously stayed at the property. The reviews may be honest, but they may also be fraudulent schlock from a disgruntled ex-employee. In September 2010, a band of 420 hotels and restaurants publicly considered taking TripAdvisor to court for its leniency towards defamatory posts, suggesting there is indeed mounting opposition to its deregulated stranglehold.

So what can you do? To start, we would never advocate ignorance to the traditional rating systems, as we suspect they may still be beneficial for older patrons and group business solicitation. But TripAdvisor is here to stay, and its clout will be a hot topic with property ownership for years to come. With this in mind, there are some definite calls to action that you can take to mitigate this problem.

First, scrutinize every detail of your online reviews. Were the criticisms written from a constructive point of view, or were they merely inflammatory? There is something to be learned from every opinion, even the unfair ones. If you get a negative report, post an honest and forthright response on TripAdvisor. And don’t try to argue with the guest. It won’t work.

Next, heighten internal communications. This does not just apply to the planning committee level, but right down to the direct line staff. Everyone must be in the know.

Third, be proactive. Encourage guests to write up their experiences on TripAdvisor. Also, consider linking these from your computerized evaluation feedback forms.

If you follow these three steps, you may still get some bad reviews. But, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Whether the write-ups are impartial or not is up for grabs; experience suggests that people have a tendency to exaggerate both the positives and negatives. The average traveler understands this. If they see a ratio of 10 or 20 excellent reports to one less-than-favorable response, that one scathing eyesore will not become the deciding factor.

This law of the majority applies with one volatile caveat: The most recent comments are shown at the top. This means that if you slip in service for any extended period of time, it will find its way to the most viewable part of the site within a matter of days. On the contrary, if you work to steadily improve your operations, then this will also reverberate online. The guest sees and the guest knows. It’s a consumer-driven market, and as long as you understand that principle, you’ll be fine.