Trip advisor – friend or foe?

TripAdvisor has been described as a Godsend by consumers, but parts of the industry are still unsure. Kevin May asks the company about Europe, its unofficial role as a consumer watchdog, and discovers why the industry should work with, rather than fear, it

Robin Ingle and Marc Charron have every reason to be rather content with life as they eat breakfast at a London hotel.

As vice-president for sales for travel review website TripAdvisor, Ingle has been there almost since the beginning, while Charron has just been made European managing director – a position created to oversee the growth of, among others, a dedicated site for the UK.

The previous day, at the Travolution Summit, TripAdvisor was name-checked by a string of speakers eager to highlight websites credited – or blamed, depending on your point of view – for changing the way consumers are buying travel products.

It’s praise TripAdvisor is at ease with just six years since its creation by Steve Kaufer (chief executive) and Langley Steinert (chairman).

Indeed the days when Kaufer, a technology wizard, and sales and marketing expert Steinert ran the company above a pizza parlour in the US are long gone.

TripAdvisor is now part of the Expedia empire following an undisclosed offer for the business in March 2004.

TripAdvisor also has what can be loosely called partnerships with the likes of Cendant, Sabre, American Airlines, Orbitz and, of course, its stablemates within Expedia. But essentially it is a rather simple product: consumers research destinations around the world, read reviews of products – of which the majority fall into the hotels sector – and add a review of their own.

The site is enormously popular – TripAdvisor grabs around 20 million unique users a month, has more than four million individual reviews and the moneymen are happy as it has been profitable since the middle of 2002.

In the early days, much of TripAdvisor’s growth was fuelled by the magical marketing formula of consumer word-of-mouth, coupled with some canny search engine optimisation. The site’s presence in the online travel market and its popularity with consumers increased further following successful ‘visibility’ campaigns on key platforms such as Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia in the US.

But what has made TripAdvisor such a success, Ingle insists, is the site’s ability to tap into the psyche of the travel buyers – especially the growing band of online consumers who often spend hours browsing in their quest to either find the right deal or select the right location.

“Consumers want to luxuriate in the research process,” Ingle says. “Our job is to aggregate reviews, and give people the tools to get the most out of that research experience.”

Charron adds: “I do actually want to know what 100 people say about a particular hotel. The travelling public has a lot to say and we trust them to solve their own problems.”

The somewhat simple consumer review aspect of the site – “the hotel was untidy”, “the reception clerk was really helpful and friendly”, “the car park is a bit dark”, “the hotel is just a stone’s throw from the beach”, for example – is also backed up by rather complicated systems behind the scenes to make bookings easier, and this is where TripAdvisor makes its money through referrals.

There are tools, for example, to display a hotel’s ranking, based on the quality and quantity of reviews (some hotels have hundreds, even thousands, of reviews); a quick check system to display availability and price on partner sites; and an overall summary of a destination’s most popular hotels by price or star class.

So why does TripAdvisor rub some people up the wrong way? On the whole, TripAdvisor’s detractors are hotels or chains that have found themselves on the receiving end of a string of negative reviews.

There are also those who cannot accept that all users are honest and keen to share their experiences. In other words: the system is wide open to abuse by a hotel’s competitors.

However, TripAdvisor is reasonably bullish in how it deals with criticism. Charron says the product review concept, on the whole, works because consumers feel engaged with the site and trust it. “There’s a feeling among users to try to be fair, and the comments moderate themselves,” he says, while Ingle suggests: “We have to let people discuss a product, so unbiased reviews also imply unfiltered reviews.”

Charron and Ingle’s boss back in the US, Steve Kaufer, takes a tougher line on the doubters: he’s “never met a person dumb enough” to make a decision based on a single bad review of a hotel. Nevertheless, there is plenty going on behind the scenes to ensure reviews are checked out for the integrity of the user and to give hotels the option to respond to criticism.

There are systems in place to track down what Kaufer calls “fraudsters” – often a hotel’s competitor – who are attempting to post a bad review. “People try to be clever and we catch fraud every day,” he admits. “But if someone wants to submit one single bad review they can fathom it out.”

But if a genuine bad review is posted – of which, of course, there are millions – the hotelier can take the option of a “featured rebuttal” to outline how perhaps a particular issue has been dealt with.

TripAdvisor insists that it tries to be as democratic as possible and therefore hands the decision-making process to users – and if a hotel is not up to scratch then it is up to a hotel’s bosses to fix the problem. Ingle and Charron put it simply: having a run of good reviews on TripAdvisor can be as effective as a decent advertising campaign – something the vast majority of hotels cannot afford.

TripAdvisor, in other words, acts as a simple marketing vehicle for hotels and other products, and almost like a watchdog for consumers. There is a strange paradox in that while the rest of the industry suddenly appears to be waking up to the power of user-generated content – prompting the often glowing tributes for the site – TripAdvisor already has one eye on the future. The scope, both in terms of technology and enthusiasm, for consumers to post video and picture is there and will be next area to tap into.

However, for the time being, Kaufer is slightly sceptical about a push into the mobile arena: “It would be nice to have but people are in their homes, in their pyjamas, making choices.”

TripAdvisor – the Europhile

TripAdvisor’s recent launch of dedicated sites for individual European countries – including the UK – has indeed raised a few eyebrows.
Charron says the development is an obvious one considering how different consumers are, in terms of how they buy travel products, between those in Europe and the US.

At the centre of this is the huge package holiday sector. TripAdvisor has admitted previously it would consider giving users the ability to comment on tours or their operators, but this is a project still officially in the ideas room.

The advantage of incorporating this into TripAdvisor would be that, as Charron suggests, tour operators often find it difficult elicit feedback from clients. This once again plays into the watchdog theory.

In the meantime, Charron, who was hired  develop the European part of the business, says TripAdvisor needs to speak to its European users directly with dedicated sites and target clients hankering for the “Alps, rather than the Rockies”.

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