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TripAdvisor Dominates Hotel Reviews But Isn't Your Only Option

More than half of the world's travelers read reviews before they book a hotel. That's according to research from the international marketing firm of PhoCusWright. Eighty percent of respondents reported that reading reviews on TripAdvisor made them "feel more confident in their travel decisions," and "it helped them experience a better trip." As of February 2014, there were more than 150 million reviews and opinions on TripAdvisor, the most popular hotel review site in the world. Seventy-four percent of those respondents said they write reviews "to share useful information with other travelers." Seventy percent of all reviews express positive comments.

When choosing a hotel, the first two factors searched are price and location, says Marcello Gasdia, PhoCusWright's senior research analyst of consumer behavior. After narrowing down the choices, customers then focus on secondary factors like hotel brand and amenities (like whether or not the hotel has a pool, spa or exercise room). "After looking at price and location, that's when the reviews kick in," explains Gasdia. "And those reviews are powerful."

Founder Stephen Kaufer developed TripAdvisor in 2000, when he discovered the only online photos of hotels were posted by hotel management. TripAdvisor became the go-to website with user-generated information on a wide range of hotels, tour companies and restaurants. Erin Millard, a spokesperson for TripAdvisor explains it this way: "TripAdvisor's mission incorporates three key principles--to promote transparency, to level the playing field for large and small hotels, and to democratize the industry. What we offer is unique insight into the experience travelers are actually having."

Many reviews are happening in real time, meaning the travelers are writing them while they're in the hotel. The use of smart phones has revolutionized the industry. Besides developing a platform that provides personalized content on every electronic device, TripAdvisor created a management tool that allows hotels to directly respond to consumers.

So along with potential customers reading descriptions, the hotel managers are consulting them too. Most managers say review sites are critically important to them. "We are checking the reports and photos that are posted nearly everyday," says Helen Morton, sales and marketing manager of Skyland Resort in the Shenandoah National Park. "Word of mouth is the biggest form of advertising, and someone with a negative experience can impact you very quickly. We take ownership of TripAdvisor's comments both good and negative, and respond within 24 hours or less."

Can one negative review destroy the reputation of a hotel? Gasdia of PhoCusWright says not necessarily. "Sure, there's a big hurdle for any company dealing with negative reviews, but some have used them to their advantage by having the management respond directly to the customers." He says the responses allow shoppers to see the problem was resolved, and shows that management cares about the customer experience.

For their study, PhoCusWright surveyed respondents in all TripAdvisor markets—Europe, Australia, South America and in Asia Pacific countries. "At this point in the game," Gasdia adds, "Everyone has integrated reviews--independent hotels, Marriott, Hilton—users aren't going to book without seeing reviews." Interestingly, some budget hotels rank higher than luxury hotels. That's because reviews aren't based on star-ratings; rather they reflect the value a customer believes he or she received for the price paid.

Besides providing descriptions, reviewers also post photos. The website Oyster specializes in showing contrasts between travelers' photos and photos posted by the hotel management. Gabe Eveland, director of revenue management at the Park Hyatt Washington DC thinks these are valuable to the consumer: "People know {cell phone pictures} are not the greatest pictures, but hopefully the customers can identify that there are similarities, or stark differences. And if they are seeing stark differences, that should be a red flag--to them and to us."

There are numerous opportunities for reviewers to communicate with hotels and fellow travelers. Some use Twitter, Facebook, Expedia, Jetsetter or Reviewers will recommend specific floors, room numbers, best views, or name employees who provided excellent service. On the website Raveable, reviewers report bedbug sightings. There are reviewers who post so often they gain special designations, and many review sites allow readers to vote on their favorite reviews. Direct interaction between travelers is expected to grow.

Plus, the new TripConnect feature on TripAdvisor made it possible to search rates while you're reading the reviews. "A seamless pathway into booking," notes Gasdia. "Now you have reviews, availability and rates all in one place. It gives travelers the full package."

Fun Facts from TripAdvisor as of February 2014:
· For hotels in the top 500 hotels most searched destination, the average number of reviews is 174.
· The most photographed attraction is the Eiffel Tower with 9,181 photos
· The most photographed restaurant is Mama's Fish House in Hawaii with 1,196
· The most reviewed hotel is the Luxor Las Vegas with 13,677 reviews
—Renee Sklarew
· TripAdvisor Now Offers 150 Million Reviews And Opinions With 50 Million Pieces Of Content Posted In The Past Year [TripAdvisor]