The topic of conversation this week amongst my unofficial motelier focus group acquaintances seems to be all about TripAdvisor. Often the conversation starts out pondering the sustainability of Qualmark (more about that later), but attention soon turns to TripAdvisor and the greater role they are playing in the hearts and minds of the travelling public.
TripAdvisor claims to be the world's largest travel site, with more than 56 million unique monthly visitors eager to read about the travel experience of others and many in turn add to over 75 million reviews and opinions.
Don't let the language of American gush found on many reviews distract you from the fact that TripAdvisor consistently ranks as the number one online source where Kiwis ponder travel and are increasing adding to the noise by uploading their own opinions.
Surprisingly, even Tourism NZ can see the value of TripAdvisor by offering a default option of interactive TripAdvisor widgets to tourism businesses alongside static Qualmark ratings on newzealand.com.
It probably says a lot about the health and acumen of an accommodation sector as to how they engage with and publicly regard TripAdvisor. The motel industry in New Zealand seems to be particularly weary of TripAdvisor and tend to dig a hole for themselves by often raising conspiracy theories and refusing to engage. Unfortunately, industry leaders that enable a negative attitude towards TripAdvisor do little for an industry that needs to embrace a new world of open social media platforms.
Detractors will often knock TripAdvisor by pointing to fake reviews that are allegedly published by self-praising businesses, rivals that trash their competitors or guests that were unable to wrangle a satisfactory discount. While inevitable skulduggery will prevail in any open feedback platform, the instances are very low. Anyone risking posting an out-of-whack review can attract the wrath of considered mass public opinion by often prompting a stream of reviewers that feel the need to unleash natural justice by telling it like it really is.
Dodgy reviews can be quickly buried by reviews of actual real experiences and an equilibrium over time will still deliver the consumer a realistic overview of what to expect. And let's not forget about the consumer - the reason TripAdvisor remains popular is that consumers can easily interpret and value the travel information presented.
When travellers use TripAdvisor, more often than not they are able to match their expectations with reality. While accommodation providers may grumble about perceived inequities with TripAdvisor's open feedback platform, surveys measuring consumer satisfaction levels typically run in the nineties.
This may be all very well, however when an accommodation provider receives an unfair negative review, the experience can be crushing. In New Zealand, accommodation options that attract only modest levels of reviews can suffer disproportionately by a one-off negative review and this can have a major impact upon their reputation.
A knee-jerk response from an accommodation provider receiving an unflattering review can be to trash TripAdvisor and frantically claim a conspiracy theory to anyone that can be bothered to listen. As hard as it may seem, accommodation providers need to front-up by putting it right (even if the customer got it wrong) and ensure similar "misunderstandings" never happen again.
Accommodation providers need to set up an alert to any activity on their TripAdvsor listing and quickly respond to negative comments positively.
Although it may not be a natural response, accommodation providers need to accept that they are unable to opt-out of social networks and embrace TripAdvisor by encouraging satisfied customers to post positive reviews. For many this may require a radical personality shift.
In the eyes of the consumer, the relevance of static stars issued from an unknown "official" tourism body is "nice to have" but is becoming less relevant.
The following embellished graphic currently doing the social media rounds, probably does nothing to enhance TripAdvisor's claim of "offering trusted advice from real travellers"....but I still reckon it's funny: