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] travel-planning site launches in beta

A new travel-planning website and booking engine is launching this month in beta, and I was excited to give it a test run, having first heard about the site this spring at a EuroCheapo travel happy hour. is a “personalized recommendation engine” that takes your interests, budget, and even social network connections to give you inspiration and help you plan your next vacation. Flights and hotels are pulled from Expedia, with restaurant recommendations, activities, and sightseeing descriptions culled from Lonely Planet, FourSquare, NileGuide, and Yelp.

Let’s say you have a week to travel in early September for Labor Day. Budget is under $1,000 per person for flights and hotels, and you’re interested in culture, beaches, and food. Plug all those into the search engine and you’ll get a series of destinations to review, refine, share, and book. While the site still has a few bugs (budget busters would sneak through the filters, the help feature is not fully enabled), the interface is slick and user-friendly, the features are thoughtful, and the content is reliable.

What’s cool about the site:

  • Since I’m currently based in Turkey, I loved that your point of origin could be pretty much anywhere in the world so I could run searches from New York and Istanbul to get a wide variety of places convenient for different parts of the world.
  • A wide (1,200 and growing) network of destinations gave me some ideas I’d never considered or even heard of (Kalingrad, Russia; Azemmour, Morocco; Krabi, Thailand), as well as some more tried-and-true vacation spots(Sunny Isles Beach, Florida; Mykonos, Greece; Split, Croatia).
  • Weather and news tabs give you an idea of the current climate (could be too hot on that Egyptian beach) and happenings, though you might come up with nothing for more obscure destinations. I also love that many of the news feeds are through Twitter accounts like @visitbritain, giving up-to-the-minute quickie items.

What will be cool about the site:

  • Ability to share trip ideas and plans with friends via email or Facebook is great for planning a trip with multiple people or getting feedback on a destination. Currently, Facebook Connect will tell you who you know in a given place, but I’d probably remember if I had a friend in Lutsk, Ukraine.
  • Festivals and special events come up via Eventful, but on the beta site event dates will pop up well after your search range so don’t plan around that blues festival just yet. There are also plans to add destination reviews, currency converters, and travel tips.
  • After all the searching, sorting, and sharing, you can actually book through the site, though only if you have a US credit card. The booking interface is also easy to use and gives options for frequent flier numbers, seat and meal preferences, and room types.

All in all, Wanderfly is a nifty new tool for dreaming and planning your next trip. If they could find a way to integrate time-sensitive deals, local blogs, and multiple-destination trips, this could be the only travel site you need.