TripAdvisor Is Not Your (Clients') Friend

by Doug Gollan
TripAdvisor Is Not Your (Clients') Friend

Photo: Gil C./

“TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site, enables travelers to unleash the full potential of every trip. With more than 535 million reviews and opinions covering the world's largest selection of travel listings worldwide — over 7 million accommodations, airlines, attractions, and restaurants — TripAdvisor provides travelers with the wisdom of the crowds to help them decide where to stay, how to fly, what to do and where to eat.

"TripAdvisor also compares prices from more than 200 hotel booking sites, so travelers can find the lowest price on the hotel that is right for them. TripAdvisor-branded sites are available in 49 markets, and are home to the world’s largest travel community of 415 million average unique monthly visitors, all looking to get the most out of every trip. TripAdvisor: Know better. Book better. Go better,” so says TripAdvisor about itself on its website.

The revelation earlier this week, was that TripAdvisor deleted warnings by rape and assault victims of resorts where the incidents occurred. The story broke in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 1, and was covered in TMR on Nov. 2, along with The New York Times, CBS News, AOL, BBC, and many more consumer outlets. 

For those in the travel industry, it is no secret that Trip Advisor removes at least some of the 535 million reviews that “provides travelers with the wisdom of the crowds to help them decide where to stay.”

TripAdvisor explains its reasoning
TripAdvisor, before apologizing, originally responded with a statement that read: “A simple Internet search will show numerous reviews from travelers over the last several years who wrote about their first-hand experiences that include matters of robbery or theft, assault and rape. We believe any first-hand experience should be posted to our site as a means to communicate to other consumers looking for information on where they should travel.”

The 2010 review, which prompted the initial report, has now been restored with TripAdvisor, claiming that it had violated policy at the time by using non-family friendly language, guidelines that it says have since been revised. However, the Journal Sentinel found additional examples of reviews that had been deleted, in several cases warning about assaults.

My point is not to pass judgment about how TripAdvisor runs its business. A 2014 report in The Guardian noted that TripAdvisor and reviewers have been sued by hotels about reviews that were claimed to be untrue and damaged business. At the same time, in 2011 TripAdvisor disciplined a number of hotels that provided guests with incentives to write positive reviews.

It is a complicated tale that cuts both ways. Dragon’s Den panelist and hotel owner Duncan Bannatyne told The Caterer Magazine, “people are coming to our hotels and threatening to write bad reviews in order to get money off their bills.”

What the most recent example underscores is not that you should not trust TripAdvisor. Would anyone make important legal or medical decisions from third-party posts on an Internet bulletin board? However, it reminded me about a hotelier I respect and a back-and-forth discussion we had about the value of real travel agents, like you, versus online agencies. After all, a significant part of TripAdvisor’s business is selling travel online, the other being a media platform where it sells advertising to the same suppliers who are being reviewed.

Why this hotelier prefers OTAs
The hotelier, which runs a large lifestyle luxury hotel in a major city, said even with lower rates and high distribution costs, he prefers OTA business. While he happily receives bookings from retail agents, he says they are much more work with larger risks.

You know your clients, so you often have special requests. You also know the hotel, so you specify rooms you know have better views or better locations within the hotel. My hotelier friend says there is less downside with OTA bookings. A complaint here or there does not impact his flow of business, and when he needs to fill rooms, OTAs have multiple pay-to-play marketing programs he can turn on to drive low-rate revenue. On the other hand, with agents, an unhappy customer often causes trepidation about booking the hotel again in a city with many choices. Reassuring you, the travel agent, he does not mind, but it takes time and energy.

Advocacy of travel agents can't be matched by OTAs
Most agents I know tell me they personally have between 50 and 200 active clients. Without the 415 million unique viewers each month to your website that TripAdvisor has, you depend mainly on referrals from happy customers to get new customers. If something goes wrong, which in travel eventually it always does, you are there to advocate for your client to get the problem resolved.

The suppliers you deal with know that future bookings are at risk, which provides some leverage OTA customers do not have. I have also seen where individual agents have used the power of their consortia to get problems resolved in the favor of their client. It is different than the OTA business model, which gives an endless selection of hotels, not the curated selection you offer.

If there is one lesson from last week’s news about TripAdvisor, it underscores that while reviews may be fun to read, neither TripAdvisor nor any of the OTAs are your clients' friends or advocates. They are multi-billion-dollar big businesses maximizing profits and shareholder value. In my opinion, that is a good reason to use a good travel agent, as in a real person who cares about me, the customer, and who is hoping I will happily refer my friends.

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