Break through the review ruckus with branding

Does the average consumer still check the annual reporting of star and diamond ratings? Do customers know the criteria that distinguish each class? What sort of guest would actively seek these types of expert appraisals over online peer critiques? More important, is achieving a certain status on either Forbes or AAA a surefire means to boost sales, or is it now a vestigial hallmark of prestige?

The advent of online review systems has deprecated the significance of expert rating organizations. People have a vague notion of what constitutes a 2-star or 4-star hotel, but the specifics are unknown, let alone top of mind when booking online. Other factors such as price, location and peer reviews play drastically larger roles.

Will the democratic institutions of online travel review websites become a tyranny of the majority? Sometimes the customer isn’t always right, and we need professional critics front and center to remind guests of true hospitality standards.

Just think to five years in the hypothetical future and ask:

  • Will guests even care about stars or diamonds?
  • What will it mean to not have a hospitality expert’s assignment of a property to one class or another?
  • What happens to the bottom line when there’s no governing body to rightfully bestow your property with the status necessary to dictate room rates which are high enough to break even?
  • How does a lack of formal authority affect your branding and the features or upgrades you implement?

A lot of questions with few easy answers.

All in the visuals
I’m not the biggest fan of online travel agencies page layouts. With the same basic design given to each page no matter the property or the region, these websites focus all the attention on price. Room rate becomes the primary, and sometimes the only, distinguisher. When you rely solely on price, such healthy metrics as occupancy levels and return visits become exceedingly elastic.

When it comes to diluting the message implied by star or diamond status, however, the OTAs are not the only culprit. Many travel review sites that are independent from any direct sales channel also contribute to the problem.

On many review sites, there is little emphasis given toward displaying the Forbes or AAA ratings in a big, bright and meaningful way.

Take TripAdvisor for example, the world’s foremost third-party reviewer. The star rating appears beside the name of the hotel, but each star icon is a dull charcoal gray and displayed in a shrunken, barely perceptible size. The website’s internal critique system is given more focus, with its own devoted block on the top right of each page and sparsely filled with large fonts in a green hue that pops against the white background.

Many other travel review sites and OTAs take a similar design approach. In many cases, the only way to locate the star or diamond specifications is through the main body of text that describes the property. If you believe the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then you know displaying these professional ratings as images will have a far greater effect.

With these sorts of visual cues training the eyes to disregard the more “official” scores, it’s easy to see why peer reviews garner all the interest. But it would be a tremendous mistake to confuse this user-generated content with the expert-driven appraisals from Forbes or AAA. Both established systems have set criteria of features that each property has to meet in order to qualify for each class, and this is of advantage to you.

Expertise vs. emotion
Experts have much more experience visiting a diverse range of hotels around the world than do guests who travel up to five times a year. Second (and in large part attributed to the first reason), guests are more likely to rate a stay based on rudimentary property features, how the staff treated them and the narrow scope of amenities they used over the course of their brief stay. Professionals see the big picture. They’re armed with a checklist; guests are armed with emotions.

The average guest might give a property a top score because the front desk staff treated them nicely in addition to receiving free water bottles and Wi-Fi. Such a review excludes judgment on such specificities like the availability of a 24-hour bellman, the number of amenities in the bathroom, the security details or the food quality.

Experts have a list of standards; they have training and they have experience. Judgment is passed on the whole property, not just the precise way one individual or another experiences it. Professionals also take into account all the services that allow a hotel to offer an exceptional experience yet are imperceptible to the layman.

Next, you have to consider fictitious and malicious reviews, even though these are falling by the wayside as third-party sites upgrade their submission protocols and because, in general, they are diluted by the authentic majority. In combination with all the partial sentences, half-revealed thoughts and poor grammar inscribed by user-generated commentary, these fabricated reviews nonetheless call to question the validity of their host sites.

Rethinking the way we review
Consider first whether the 5-point system is practical. Even with averages that go to the first decimal place, on a review-by-review basis, five options for scoring doesn’t give a user much leeway to suitably express their full judgment. What if you feel that the overall quality of your stay was a 7/10? Do you round down to 3/5 or go up to 4/5? As you can probably tell, I’m more a fan of a 10-point, binary scale.

Thinking of reviews as fractions, the greater the denominator, the more specific you can get with the numerator. For example, a 100-point system would allow a potential customer to better discern an 88/100 hotel from a 93/100 place where both would round to 9/10 or 4.5/5 on abridged scales. Launching a 100-point rating scheme may invite some confusion; I merely offer it as a potential solution to some of the present issues we face with the five-point system.

Another major qualm I have with online hotel review sites is they put all properties on an equal rating scale, regardless of whether they are in the same class grouping as defined by Forbes or AAA. Using TripAdvisor again, what happens when a Forbes-rated 2-star hotel receives an equivalent number of positive reviews as a 5-star property? Is a consumer to infer that both will offer the same outstanding experience and similar levels of service quality?

And then there’s the infamous example of Glasgow’s Bellgrove Hotel. Nearing the end of April 2013, this property found itself breaching TripAdvisor’s list of the top 100 recommended establishments in the United Kingdom. At it turns out, the Bellgrove is a homeless shelter; it’s reviewers nothing more than pranksters. TripAdvisor took swift action to correct this debacle, but its legacy has raised doubts as to the veracity of many other listings’ reviews.

Aside from any obvious condemnations of the site’s supposedly sophisticated algorithms and monitoring, I argue this is a call to delineate review aggregates by Forbes star or AAA diamond ratings. That is, 3-star or 4-star properties are judged against only those from the same class but are mutually exclusive from all properties of other strata. If a standard like this were in place, the Bellgrove might have reached temporary renown in the top 100 1-star or 2-star accommodation lists, but it would never have compromised anything even remotely close to the luxury end.

On the flip side of this coin, if we isolate by Forbes or AAA rating, then it serves to benefit economy properties as well. Oftentimes, online reviews can be uncompromising without all the necessary facts. For instance, a $50-per-night room shouldn’t be expected to have the same levels of décor, refurbishments and cleanliness as a $250-per-night room. It’s impossible and you’d go broke trying to replicate a 4-star model on a 2-star budget. And yet, many guests don’t know any better. A rug stain is a justifiable complaint for a 5-star property, but 1-star abodes should be given some slack as they don’t have the funds for continual replacement. By first differentiating by Forbes of AAA ratings, it would better cue users into a certain range of expectations so they would be less inclined to make egregious criticisms after the fact.

The real solution is branding
Whether you change the rating denominator or demarcate by class, these are but Band-Aids. The real solution is to educate consumers on what your brand stands for so they know about your unique product offerings even before they start their research and cross-referencing engines. The OTAs and third-party reviews sites are not going away any time soon, so we have no choice but to work with the inherent flaws in these systems.

Start by doing whatever you can to express your brand within these websites with elegant photography and robust property descriptions that explicitly state every feature and amenity offered. This will help viewers recognize what generalized category a hotel belongs in (luxury, business, resort, economy, boutique, etc.) so they have a much better picture of whether it’s their cup of tea. Expectation management at its finest.

I know I’m heavily biased in this department, but I can’t help but mention the overall importance of advertising and marketing in this struggle. These are two fundamental methods to reinforce the awareness of your brand and control the message that reaches consumers. Good branding plays a huge role in commanding a higher price for nearly any product, and it all begins with the image you project to the world.

I realize I’ve posed a slew of questions for you to think over in this diatribe—all tied to the credibility of online user-generated reviews and how they have impacted the more traditional (and professional) rating systems. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, the solution will always come down to the work you do on property and outside of these third-party websites to instill a proper brand reputation with past, present and future guests.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky on Hotel News Now on September 17, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyBreak through the review ruckus with branding