Apart from restaurants, there are few businesses whose fates are linked as closely to online reviews as hotels. That’s why Accorhotels’ move in late 2010 is considered so bold.
Last September, the hotel chain began featuring reviews from TripAdvisor on some of its sites. Since Accorhotels has no control of the TripAdvisor content, it’s a bit like posting every review of your restaurant — not just the favorable ones — in your window. “There’s no question TripAdvisor plays hugely in this space,” says Melissa Parrish, an interactive marketing analyst at Forrester Research who covers the travel industry. “They make or break certain kinds of hotels.”
But the hotel chain, which runs Motel 6 and Sofitel among others, was merely acknowledging the obvious: Consumers no longer get all their information about your establishment from your marketing materials. In addition to TripAdvisor, there are blogs and sites like Kayak that aggregate reviews. People thinking of trying out a hotel can also canvas their friends on Facebook or the multitudes on Twitter.
Parrish says the savviest players in the segment have figured out a way to control some of that social media chatter by using social media as a sounding board for positive experiences. A few of the noteworthy approaches are outlined below.
Harnessing Social Media Comments
Carnival benefits from a curious phenomenon specific to the travel industry — “social media bragging.” Jordan Corredera, director and general manager of Carnival Online, says that even people who never go on social media will do so when they’re on vacation, if only to rub their friends’ noses in it. That’s not the only time they go on, though. Many consumers like to hit the site before their trip to psyche themselves up for it. Typical of this sort of interaction is this comment from Carnival fan Jessica Ayala: “I cannot wait until October 29 on the Carnival Dreams.”
Carnival’s primary hub for this kind of social media activity is its Facebook Page, which at present has about 1.2 million fans. (For comparison’s sake, Disney Cruise Lines has about 600,000 fans.) Like other brands that run successful Facebook Pages, Carnival asks a lot of open-ended questions about pleasant topics. For instance, a recent status update that asked, “Carnival sails all over the place, but there must be a destination that’s your favorite. Which port would you recommend to a friend? Why?” got 479 likes and more than 700 comments. “We’re a very social brand,” says Corredera. “Given the experiential nature of a carnival cruise, the best way to deliver that is through the comments of Carnival customers.”
Carnival uses other social media channels, like Twitter and YouTube, of course, but everything goes back to Facebook. The company’s ads are tagged with a plea to visit its Facebook Page and videos that show up on the company’s YouTube channel premiere on Facebook first.
An International Approach
Not surprisingly, many brands in the travel category have footprints all over the world. Since many areas around the world lag in social media adoption, global travel brands can circumvent that challenge. Four Seasons’ approach has been to establish a social media presence for all its far-flung locales.
For instance, there is a primary Twitter feed for Four Seasons’ global brand, but the brand’s Twitter page includes a URL that lays out dozens of feeds from around the world. Creating that kind of presence isn’t easy, says Felicia Yukich, manager of social media marketing. “It means training people in Cairo how to tweet and teaching people in Bangkok how to post something on Facebook,” she says.
All that work pays off in the sense that it provides armchair travelers with a quick portal into exotic Four Seasons outposts. For example, are you curious what the Four Seasons in Beirut is like? The Twitter feed for that hotel includes a stream of photos, including the one above.
Embracing Users’ Comments
Customer reviews are a cornerstone of online retail sites like Amazon, but travel brands have been more hesitant to embrace online reviews. There’s nothing nefarious about this — who hasn’t been dissuaded from staying at a hotel or B&B because of one stinging review that, for all you know, could have been written by the proprietor’s chief competitor? Why do bad reviews carry more weight for a travel brand? Think about it: If you order a product and it doesn’t live up to the hype, you can always send it back. But book the weekend at the wrong hotel and you’ve ruined a one-time experience. Why take the chance on a place that’s been reviewed badly, even if most of the reviews are good?
Nevertheless, Dennis Schaal, North America editor for travel news publication Tnooz, says many hotels have accepted the reality that users are going to check out TripAdvisor, and seeing a TripAdvisor widget on a hotel website is no longer unusual. Schaal says the inclusion of the widget demonstrates confidence. “If you’re a lousy hotel, chances are you wouldn’t want to put your reviews on there,” he says. Seasoned travelers know that reviews on the site should be taken with a grain of salt anyway, he says. “Some of the reviews are fake, but if you disregard the over-the-top favorable ones and the really bad ones and look in the middle, you should get a good idea.”
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