Hotels, restaurants and consumers: what to look for on review websites

Have you ever gotten mad after a hotel stay and, in the heat of the moment, dashed off a nasty review on TripAdvisor or Yelp? I was talking to some friends about this recently, and it seems the natural human reaction is to give feedback after a negative experience and to stay relatively silent when all has gone well.

Almost all of us have been there.

After all, there’s nothing quite like the feeling that your hard-earned cash has been sunk into an unsatisfying experience to get the blood boiling. When you get bad service or have a room that just doesn’t measure up – especially if you’ve spent hundreds (or even thousands) of bucks on your hotel stay, meal or flight – you need an outlet for your disappointment or anger. You may feel like you’re doing a service to the next traveler who’s thinking about following in your footsteps.
Well, it’s this situation that’s hit the news recently, with hotels and restaurants planning to sue TripAdvisor over the reviews left by its users. In Detroit, according to Slate, 24grille, a Detroit restaurant, tried to go after TripAdvisor over one anonymous comment, before giving up:

The suit went nowhere, as 24grille’s lawyers realized that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives sites like TripAdvisor immunity from being held liable for user comments, and they dropped the claim. (TripAdvisor, which screens reviews and reserves the right to remove any it deems dubious, did eventually delete the comment in question.)

At stake for all sectors of the hospitality industry is reputation, which comprises a large part of their brands. And, let’s be realistic: brand is what makes the sale in this industry. So, it pays to protect it at all costs … but in the right way.

The Slate article ponders the effectiveness of litigation, with the author “convinced these lawsuits are a terrible idea,” because it won’t provide sufficient brand or financial performance protection. Rather, the smarter move is to look for patterns to see if there are any ongoing or systemic problems that need to be addressed.

This makes perfect sense.

When I read a review – on Yelp, TripAdvisor or even from a professional critic – I take the extremes with a grain of salt. Further, I take the time to look at all the available feedback. One bad experience can be caused by anything from a bad day for the service provider (yes, entire companies can have bad days) to unrealistic expectations on the part of the reviewer. I’ve talked to a number of hospitality consumers who approach reviews with the same care and skepticism.

This thinking would work for hotels and restaurants, as well. Slate continues:

When we scan reviews online, we aren’t looking for gothchas-outlandish, one-off tales of awful experiences. Instead, we look for patterns. We make judgments based on the themes that emerge from many reviews, not from the crazy charges that appear in one or two. As such, there’s an obvious way for businesses to improve their online standings. Rather than trying to suppress a few negative reviews, they ought to work like mad to offer the kind of service that inspires a whole bunch of positive reviews.

When there is something worth noting, hotels and restaurants would be wise to pay attention. TripAdvisor, Yelp and other user-contributed review sites represent another channel by which guests can provide feedback, and ignoring them is tantamount to turning your back while a customer – disgruntled or not – is speaking.

The goal, therefore, is to sift through the anger and find the information that really matters – for management and guests. Look for trends, and use that to make a decision.

[photo by espensorvik via Flickr]