When hotels began issuing a storm of lawsuits against TripAdvisor last winter, accusing the mega-review site of publishing false and misleading reviews, it seemed—after years of simmering resentment—as though a full-blown war might be on the horizon. But instead of a battle we got a détente, and a flurry of hotel companies are now announcing plans to integrate user reviews into their own websites—either through partnerships with TripAdvisor or by launching their own programs.
What’s prompting this about-face? Simple economics. A 2011 study by Boston-based global research firm Forrester found that close to 50 percent of consumers won’t book a hotel that doesn’t have online reviews. New York–based travel-research firm Phocuswright similarly reported last July that people who read online hotel reviews are 59 percent more likely to book. According to Henry Harteveldt, travel-industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group: “At this point, every major hotel brand should be thinking about how it offers ratings and reviews on its own website.”
And they are. The trend began with Starwood, which debuted its guest review program on starwoodhotels.com at the end of 2011. At press time, the site had more than 12,000 candid, unedited posts, ranging from “perfection” (the Chatwal, New York) to “very disappointing” (Westin Las Vegas Hotel, Casino & Spa). The key to its program: all reviewers are verified Starwood guests. TripAdvisor, which is still under scrutiny for the authenticity of its reviews, relies on staff and automated tools to weed out planted posts—a process that’s far from foolproof.
Marriott has followed suit by publishing reviews from rewards-club members on its Marriott Rewards Insiders website. (Neither Starwood nor Marriott offer any incentive to guests to post reviews.) According to Ed French, senior vice president of Marriott Rewards, “You look at the reviews on other sites and wonder, Does this perspective fit my needs? What’s unique about our approach is that our reviewers are frequent, knowledgeable travelers.”
Other hotels are taking the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach by teaming up with TripAdvisor. Click on any property on wyndhamrewards.com and you’ll see a stream of its five most recent TripAdvisor reviews—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Earlier this year, Four Seasons unveiled a new website complete with highlights of (only favorable) testimonials about its properties on TripAdvisor—an example of the “If you can’t beat them, edit them” approach. Hilton, Hyatt, and IHG (parent company of InterContinental), meanwhile, are all planning to bring user reviews onto their own websites.
But with 60 million reviews and opinions, TripAdvisor is still the undisputed leader here. Whether or not hotels can compete may depend on how receptive they are to this new era of digital transparency, embracing not only reviews, but also photos, videos, and more. Soon, perhaps, there will be no surprises left when you get to your hotel.