We often talk about the growing importance, and influence, of online hotel reviews. Recently we took a step back and looked at the review space, specific to USA-based properties, to see what the landscape looked like compared to a year ago just about this time (third quarter 2012 to end of September 2013). What trends are emerging? Are people writing more or less? Are guests being kinder or more critical? Is management chiming in or sitting back? We have the answers around scores, volume, management responses, service, pricing and more.
I will get right to it and let you know that travelers are writing fewer reviews, being slightly kinder overall, yet increasingly more critical when it comes to evaluating a hotel and giving out a “five-star” review. This is what we learned when examining over a quarter-million user-generated reviews over a year-long period. I will also tell you what this means in the grand scheme of things and how it will impact your online reputation.
Before I get to that, let me tell you a bit more about how we came to these finding and who was part of our study. The team at TrustYou, working in conjunction with Donna Quadri-Felitti, Ph.D., at New York University, Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management, has developed its first quarterly report identifying key trends in travelers’ reviews and hotel satisfaction. Based on a sample of more than 250,000 reviews of US-based hotels from across 250-plus sources, the data and insights are segmented by region and major markets versus secondary ones. Review scores are based on the TrustScore, TrustYou’s aggregate score out of 100, pulling from all reviews written worldwide.
As Quadri-Felitti, an associate professor at NYU specializing in marketing, rightly asserts “Data, big or not, are only meaningful when managers find actionable insights from the patterns. This thought leadership series was developed to provide those insights." So now we’ll get into the heart of those insights and what it means for your hotel.
Travelers Writing Less; Can You Blame Them?
Travelers have written 9% fewer reviews compared this same time last year. I don’t know we can really blame them. While the travel industry might be one of the pioneers in the online feedback space, we are certainly not alone now in our quest for feedback. Order a pair of shoes; get an email requesting feedback. Make a change to your cell phone plan; get a note asking to rate your experience. Call your car insurance carrier; get a survey to rank your interaction and how it might be improved upon. Buy a coffee; get a link on the bottom of the receipt to see how you enjoyed your visit (with an incentive for a free donut, of course). Consumer review fatigue may be setting in, which underscores the importance of each review and management’s thoughtful response to them (more on responses later).
As I have said before (specifically in my last article on the “Circle of Trust”), we have seen a tremendous spike in reviews from hotels that use the survey functionality of our platform. You don’t have to take the drop in reviews written as the norm to live by. We highly recommend customizing a survey and sending it to past guests to fill out; there you have a wealth of information that can live in the form of user-content on your very own website. We give hotels the option of distributing reviews across a number of sites. Maybe you send 25% to your own site, 40% to TripAdvisor and the rest to some combination of Yelp!, Google+ and Booking.com. The more reviews, the better the score. The better the score, the higher the visibility. Higher visibility and better scores translate into higher revenue.
Travelers Are Being (Somewhat) Kinder with Feedback
Guests are being a bit kinder with feedback. By a bit we mean marginally nicer with a reported 2% increase in overall review scores. The competitive intensity of major hotel markets puts pressure on management to constantly monitor and improve, which ultimately shows through in user-generated feedback. Typically the people who are taking time to write review are well traveled; they have high expectations, compare one hotel to the last experience and are looking at the details.
The US markets with the highest TrustScore go to New York (90.50), Orlando (88.98) and Chicago (88.12). The markets with the most improved TrustScores were Tampa-St.Petersburg (+3.6%), New Orleans (+3.2%), and Philadelphia (+2.6%). Good news for besieged Detroit, Michigan with an improved TrustScore for its hotels of 2.5%.
Hoteliers Are Saying “We Hear You”
You’ve heard the importance of management responses and it seems that you are certainly listening. Management response rates have increased by double-digit percentages, sending travelers a clear sign that they are being heard. The impact of replies to reviews is significant:
• Hotels that respond to online guest reviews, whether positive or negative, average 6% higher review scores than those who don’t.
• Management responses are so important that 68% of people say they would choose a hotel with management responses over a comparable hotel without them.
• Even negative reviews that have responses have a positive impact with 79% of travelers saying they feel reassured by the seeing the hotel is listening.
Facts, stats and numbers aside, we believe that responding is the right thing to do. If someone takes the time to give feedback you should take the time to thank them, even with a brief reply. While hoteliers tend to respond more often to the negative reviews, we are big believers in letting the praise-giving guests know that what they said was greatly appreciated.
In particular hoteliers in the Midwest, led by hotel managers in Chicago and Minneapolis, increased the volume of management responses by over 15 percentage points. This may be one reason TrustScores have improved in the US: engaging guests directly helps build credibility and trust among travelers in the public review environment.
Five-Star Reviews Are Harder to Come By
Remember we said travelers are being somewhat kinder? Despite higher TrustScores, hotels are seeing double-digit declines in five-star reviews. Across all markets and regions, consumers are less likely to rate their hotel experiences as five-stars.
In these days of increasing social media usage, people are seeing more of the over-the-top hotel experiences, amenities and details shared by friends. There was one story that went viral about a hotel that framed a photo of Bacon and left three red M&Ms, per the special request outlined in the reservation (the guest was being somewhat comical and didn’t expect to have his request fulfilled, but it was, to the hotel’s credit). While that might be an extreme example of service and attention to detail, people are expecting close to perfection if not perfection itself. If they don’t get it, the hotel doesn’t get five stars. Hoteliers have to work harder to exceed expectations, delight and surprise guests and to differentiate their product and service delivery on what are increasingly high traveler expectations.
Pricing is Not a Pain Point for Most
For most major markets, 14 of the 25, pricing is not a sore spot for consumers. Are hotels being priced fairly or are there revenue opportunities in many markets? We will continue to track this in future reports.
Location, Room & Food Hit High Notes with Hotel Guests; Paying for Wifi, Not Cool
When it comes to satisfaction drivers, hotel location, room and food appear to be contributing positively to the increase in TrustScores. Many of the high scores tie back to these three categories according to the semantic analysis of the comments in the reviews.
Paying for Wifi is still a sore spot; comments on having to pay at all, or the price they have to pay, comes up as a negative in reviews. A recent survey of 650 travel agents by TravelClick reported that free internet (79%) is a top priority to driving agency bookings. Most consumers do not comprehend why every Starbucks or McDonald’s in the US offer free Wi-Fi, but it costs them $13 per day (or more) when staying in a US hotel with an average room rate of over $112.00 as projected by Smith Travel
Research for 2013. We know Wifi is a source of revenue for hotels; just know that paying for it is a source of frustration for travelers. Speaking of sources…
Reviews by Source
The dominance of TripAdvisor as a review source is not unexpected. Drops in the number of reviews in other key hotel distribution channels may be driven by a number of factors including hoteliers’ focus on driving reservations through its hotel/brand site directly, changes in the distribution revenue models and seasonal booking trends.
The Google+ story (decline in reviews) is an interesting one and may present some opportunities for hotels. Recent research by Digital Marketing Works found that the volume and score of reviews written on Google is highly correlated to Google’s Carousel rank or simply more reviews on Google equals more visibility for hotels in search results.
The three months of July, August, and September are the traditional heart of the summer family vacation season; group social travel associated with reunions, weddings, Labor Day holiday travel, back-to-college trips, and association meetings. These may impact the nature and volume of consumer hotel reviews differently than in the other US travel seasons.
The online landscape of hotel reviews is changing; we can see this by the “year in review on reviews” analyzed (say that three times fast). There is growth, there are declines and there are still clear signs that online reviews impact booking decisions. Our fourth quarter report will look at how these final months of 2013 have rounded out the increasingly changing, ever-important hotel review space.
The full report, including additional data and insights is available for download here.