Best Practices for Monitoring and Responding to Online Reviews

This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on June 17, 2018. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.

Travel review sites are regarded by many in hospitality as a blessing and a curse. A glowing review can polish a brand’s reputation and stimulate reservations. A negative one has the opposite effect and can hurt sales. A spurious review is especially vexing to hoteliers when properties are unfairly blemished, which sometimes happens in this subjective medium. Depending upon the reviewer’s passion and platform, a review may go viral, amplifying exponentially.

Today, 95% of travelers report reading reviews before booking a trip. Research has shown that 70% of consumers trust the opinion of total strangers and 25% (or less) trust advertising. A hotel or resort can gain a competitive advantage if it can engender trust in the marketplace. In my company, we call that Brand as Friend®, a philosophy based on nine scientifically proven drivers of friendship. By interacting with guests in the very public domain of review sites, hotels and resorts can gain — or regain — trust and win new friends simultaneously.

Since review sites are here to stay, savvy owners and operators are embracing them, shifting their outlook from “I hope we don’t get a negative review” to “What can we learn from reviews and how can we use that intel to provide a better guest experience?”

Let’s look at the main review sites:

Currently verified as the world’s largest travel site, TripAdvisor has more than 600 million reviews which, in addition to accommodations, cover airlines, attractions, and restaurants — 7.5 million businesses and counting. The site attracts 455 million monthly unique visitors (MUVs), who are attracted not only by the chance to see reviews but to view rate comparisons as well. Robust and delivering an excellent user experience, the site is easy and quick to navigate, serving up hotels by locale, rate and rating at a fingertip’s touch to a mobile device or a keyboard.

The TripAdvisor blog provides content for and by travelers — inspirations, tips and itineraries. The #1 go-to resource for travel reviews, TripAdvisor offers two ways to get a hotel listed: by you (or your representative) requesting a listing, or by a guest of your hotel writing a review that initiates a listing. The TripAdvisor website provides a detailed insights section that provides tips and best practices for monitoring, managing and responding to reviews.

In addition to TripAdvisor, three others round out the current top four:

Although slow to take off when introduced as a hotel review site, Google surged ahead in 2017 with its hotel reviews more than doubling, accounting for 70% of the 27% net review growth across all sites.

A booking as well as a review site, Booking.com is currently the top review aggregator and boasts more than 28 million listings of hotels and other types of accommodations in 228 countries and territories.

For the first time in 2017, Facebook garnered the fourth spot as a top hotel review site, replacing Hotels.com. The platform is a natural for people who want to share their travel experiences with members of their online community.

Two other discrete review platforms bear mentioning:

More general in nature, yet consulted regularly by travelers, Yelp connects buyers to a wide variety of local businesses. By the end of last year, the platform had collected more than 148 million reviews. While businesses can set up free accounts for posting photos and messages, many pay for featured listings that will rise to the top of Yelp’s search page. Interestingly, almost 80% of hotel-related searches are non-brand related — searched by location, for example, rather than by a hotel’s name. Paid marketing can get one’s hotel in front of someone who may be new to it and ready to book — all good, but only if the reviews attached to the property are positive and will influence a buying decision.

Billing itself as “The Hotel Tell-All,” Oyster.com sends its own staff members to every hotel it features and publishes hi-res, unretouched photos they take themselves at each location. More than 42,000 hotels in 76 countries have been visited to date — with reviews growing at the rate of 1,000/month, according to the website, which is organized by destination, type of hotel and other filters. A “Photo Fakeouts” section shows side-by-side images of a property’s marketing pictures and the same scene as taken by an Oyster reviewer. “We visit in person, like your mother-in-law” is a brand promise of Oyster.com.

What is your Review Site Mindset?

If you avoid looking at review sites, or do so in trepidation with only one eye open, fearing what you might see, you’re not alone. And if monitoring your property’s reviews seems overwhelming or too big to tackle, that’s understandable. Yet if you can admit to one or both scenarios, the time to change your mindset is now.

I recommend that you start by accepting that review sites are here to stay. Rather than avoiding them, I encourage you to embrace them. They serve as a barometer of how your property is being perceived. Acknowledge that along with positive reviews, you may find less-than-glowing comments from time to time. You may even suffer from unfair or unwarranted comments. Over time, however, you’ll see patterns of comments that will be useful to your operation. Monitor the main review sites to understand what is going well and what aspects of the guest experience can be improved. Then act upon what you learn. This practice is a great addition to your property’s quality control effort. And it’s free.

Embracing Review Sites

Here are suggestions and best practices for getting started and responding to reviews:

1. Create a process for monitoring review sites by answering these relevant questions: Which sites should we monitor? Who, within the management team, will be responsible for it? The answer to the first question will come from a review of the major sites. See what presence your hotel has and note the level of guest engagement based on the number and nature of the reviews they post. The responsible party — the review site manager — should be someone with the authority to respond to reviews with little or no oversight or who has access to a manager who can quickly sign off on or consult on an appropriate response.

2. Commit to daily monitoring and response. Make it a part of every day to look at review sites and/or set up alerts that will flag comments as they are posted. Respond to meaningful posts about the guest experience — good, bad or indifferent — within 24 hours.

3. Talk human. In responding to a post, use the guest’s name or handle (“Bob G., thank you for…” rather than “Dear Guest.”) Write in clear, straightforward language devoid of cliches.

4. For negative reviews: acknowledge the guest’s complaint and, if serious, do your best to take it offline, providing a phone number and/or email address and inviting the guest to contact you so the issue can be resolved. Less serious complaints may be handled with an apology and an invitation to book the next stay directly through an individual. Flag that guest so the next reservation is handled personally and with care.

5. For indifferent reviews: If the review is neither negative nor positive, it may come off as negative to the reader. Acknowledge the comment and let the guest know that the hotel looks forward to the reviewer’s next stay.

6. For positive reviews: a gracious “thank you” is all that is needed.

7. Seeking removal of negative reviews: Review sites have varying policies for having negative reviews removed. If the review is deemed legitimate, it is tough to get it taken down. However, if you have been successful in taking a review offline and resolving it to the guest’s satisfaction, it may be appropriate to ask the guest to take down the negative review. In many cases, guests will comply once their complaint has been resolved.

8. Learn what you can from what guests say publicly about your hotel or resort. Though online reviews offer one snapshot — anecdotal at best — of a property’s performance, they are useful. Opponents may counter that only the best and worst experiences are shared and that most satisfied guests don’t bother to post a review. Others say that there is a segment of the population that is inclined to post reviews, and others, not at all. Still others argue that many online gripers are looking for free hotel stays and other perks and may be exaggerating or fabricating their reported experiences. Even if all of this is true, reviews, monitored over time, can serve as a barometer of the guest experience and the hotel’s ability to deliver on brand promises of product and service. Public facing, these reviews serve as a window into the property for travelers seeking to make the right decision about their next hotel or resort stay.

9. Act on what you learn. Even if you regard online reviews with a grain of salt, consider them well. Keep track of what guests are saying about your property and about the quality of facilities, services, amenities and interaction with staff members. Bring select reviews to management and staff meetings and discuss them with candor and honesty. Determine, based on what guests are saying about you, whether to act, making changes, improvements and enhancements. And when you do move forward based on suggestions from guests, let them know. Thank them for caring enough to vote clearly with their mouths, rather than silently with their feet.

One last tip: At check-out or in follow-up correspondence, you may suggest to satisfied guests that they take a moment to write an online review. Provide a card with site details at check-out. It can’t hurt.