Consumer review sites are increasingly popular, especially in the travel arena. From TripAdvisor to Cruise Critic, TourMatters to Yelp, it’s easier than ever to post and share an online “review.”
But does the proliferation of these sites—along with online research and ratings—pose a competitive threat to travel agents whose service includes providing clients with expert advice and guidance?
That’s the question Travel Market Report asked three agents.
And while they took a mostly dim view of the sites, they had some surprising things to say about how they cope with the sites – and how the sites may benefit agents in the long run.
A little knowledge . . . a little dangerous
In some ways the old adage, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is apt, said Jason Merrithew, vice president of the Toronto-based Merit Travel Group, a Signature agency.
“It’s a bit like a first-year med student who sees someone with a cold and diagnoses them with tuberculosis,” Merrithew said.
“Online sites have changed the mindset of the client. They have more information, but they’re not necessarily more knowledgeable.”
Online reviews can also present a formidable obstacle for agents.
“Sites such as TripAdvisor can be hindrance if someone says that they don’t want to stay at a property because of a review they’ve read,” said Roy Ramsay, director of operations for Betty Maclean Travel, Inc. of Naples, Fla., a Virtuoso agency.
The group most likely to be swayed by online review sites?
“Millennials are the ones that pay the most attention to social media,” according to Ramsay. “There’s an important reason for that.
“They don’t have as much travel experience,” he said. “Fortunately for us, we’re in the luxury market and don’t have that many millennial clients.”
“I wouldn’t say that review sites have changed the way we do business,” Merrithew said. “But they’re not something to ignore.
“They’re a tool in an age when the average client visits at least half a dozen websites before making a business decision,” he added.
“It’s crazy to stick your head in the sand and pretend they don’t exist.”
On the other hand, there are limits to how much credence to give the online reviews. Agents said a big concern is that negative viewpoints are over-represented.
But Ramsay pointed out that “People that love a property aren’t usually going to go on those comment sites.”
Read with caution
Staci Blunt, owner of Vacation Visions in Chandler, Ariz., advises clients to read online review sites with a grain of salt.
“I emphasize that in the past there have been issues with fake reviews. I make sure people don’t take what they’re reading as gospel,” said Blunt.
Her warnings aren’t always heeded.
“I have a good client that books Sandals with me every year,” said Blunt. “She knows the property but she’ll still get scared by negative reviews.
“Even if a property has overwhelmingly good reviews, something negative can make a client think twice.”
The trust factor
Agents, of course, bring an important element to the table that online review sites lack: trust.
“The relationships our consultants have with clients, the value they bring to the table, all works to build a high degree of trust,” said Merrithew.
In contrast, consumers have no relationship with the person writing an online review.
“My idea of luxury may not be the same as Jack 1535,” Merrithew said. “You don’t know anything about the background, experience or expectations of a so-called peer reviewer.
“The trusted travel advisor comes in to filter out all the chaff and there’s a lot of it out there.”
Coping with sites: some strategies
Despite the issues with review sites, agents said that if they’re here to stay—and they certainly appear to be—it’s best to take a pragmatic approach with them.
For example, it’s not part of standard operating procedure to research consumer review sites at Merit Travel Group, but there’s no objection to agents using them.
“If a client is really keen on a property because it has a high rating, I would encourage the consultant to do what they can to validate that,” said Merrithew.
“We want to make sure our consultants use whatever tools they deem necessary to provide the best service.”
Monitoring the sites
For Blunt, providing the best service means taking an active interest in online postings.
“My attitude is that it’s great when clients do advance research. I want them to see me as the live person that can beat the online price,” said Blunt.
She also keeps tabs on the consumer review sites herself.
“It would be wonderful if clients only relied on what we have to say. But it’s a different world,” said Blunt.
“I check TripAdvisor and other online review sites,” she added. “I know they’re competitors of ours in some ways. But clients are going to find them anyway.
“At least I know what’s out there.”
Confusion that works for agents
Tried and true filters such as consortia affiliations are much better indicators of quality, Ramsey noted.
“In our consortium if we have problems with a tour operator, onsite or hotel, they get booted out,” he said. “Our cumulative knowledge is much better than what you’d find on a review site.”
Yet he also thinks the proliferation of review sites can work to agents’ advantage.
“In some ways, the more reviews there are, the better,” he said. “It eventually creates so much noise for the consumer.
“It’s like the ‘fog of war,’” Ramsey added. “They go from one site to another and get totally confused or make mistakes.
“It makes them appreciate the seasoned agent all the more,” he said.