Given the sheer volume of reviews online these days you might think this burgeoning digital sector risks becoming a victim of its own success by ushering in review fatigue.
But travel experts who gathered for the latest Travolution Digital Masters dinner, sponsored by Feefo as part of our @10 birthday celebrations, see no such problem looming on the horizon.
The value of user-generated content is today recognised by most major travel businesses, no longer are reviews just a side line to be franchised out to a third party like TripAdvisor.
And also no longer are they the preserve of reviews of the actual product but also collected about the service travel firms provide when selling other people’s product.
And with the masses of unique content generated by reviews boosting search engine optimisation and feeding into those all-important Google stars a ‘feedback economy’ has emerged.
But where could it go next? How about the tables being turned on the consumer so that firms can rate customers, not just vice versa?
As Feefo chief commercial officer Matt Eames pointed out this already happens on Airbnb, the site he picked out for praise for the way it handles reviews. Uber also allows drivers to rate their clients.
“If you turn out to have damaged my home that I’ve sunk all that money into I want to know about it and I ought to be able to warn other people as well. I just think that’s brilliant and it’s revolutionary in the industry and hats off to them for doing that,” Eames said.
Of course many of these feedback systems can be gamed by those motivated to do so, but many reviews are now linked to social media profiles allowing people to build up social equity.
Some firms in the financial services sector are using social media profiles to assess a client’s risk profile, giving them a social credit score based on how they conduct themselves on social media.
Suzie Thompson, vice president marketing at Red Carnation Hotels, was the one dissenting voice around the table when it comes to actively seeking reviews.
She said the hotel group does not spend any money on generating reviews from customers, preferring instead to spend that money on the guest experience.
It’s a bold and self-confident approach and one that supports the firm’s service-led and guest experience strategy that sees online channels as an acquisition tool for future direct bookings.
“We want to work with partners, we really respect our partners, but once they [customers] have stayed with us it’s not acceptable for them to book again through a third party.
“We are saying ‘do what you want but once we’ve got your email address you’re in our hands’,” she said.
Feefo chief executive Andrew Mabbutt said it was, however, vital for brands who want to use customer feedback to tell other people how good they are to use a third party review platform.
“One you acquire those customers it’s important for you as a brand to get feedback from those direct customers through a third party,” he said.
“Because if you’re telling the world our customers love us, if you have third-party verification that gives it a little bit more credibility.”
One firm that is gathering customer reviews, but which has to date opted not to use a third party platform, is travel agent ski specialist SNO.
Chief executive Richard Sinclair said he gets his sales staff to actively call each of their customers on return and they will turn a conversation into a written review.
“What you get if you phone everyone is literally every single experience, not just those you are incredibly happy or unhappy.
“We only have 5,000 reviews in our first two years of having a go at it, but actually that is way more than half of all the people who went away on those ski holidays during those two years.
“It’s way more valid than just blasting people with emails, because the people who do email back are just the ones who are incredibly cross. We get an amazing response.”
Clearly this raises the issue of scale and Silversea commercial director Lisa McAuley said this was obvious to her having switched from car rental firm Avis to the luxury six-star cruise operator.
At Silversea having just a handful complaints was considered a crisis but McAuley said this means she can deal with them personally herself and turn a potential negative into a positive.
Another issues raised about calling clients to get a review was that a positive can quickly be turned into a negative. Call at an inconvenient time and that good holiday experience can be ruined.
McAuley said: “I think when it’s more of an emotional purchase that’s when a phone call is relevant, whereas if it was a transactional purchase I think people would get annoyed.”
One Feefo customer has got around this by sending out the initial feedback email and only then calling back those customer who have poor or bad reviews.
Another advantage of asking every single customer for a review is it does help to address the issue of only those who are unhappy being motivated to offer their opinion, said Mabbutt.
This results in many Feefo customers achieving impressive rating scores in the high 90 percentages, something he said he has been challenged about given the disparity between other review sites.
But he said the sheer volume means Feefo is picking up as many negative reviews as rival platforms, it is just diluting those with feedback from people who are satisfied.
So are reviews applicable to all sectors and to all markets? Dinner guests agreed that some cultures may be less inclined to leave a review, particularly on a public forum.
Do Brits prefer to say everything is fine before going away and slagging you off from the safety of their couch, do Americans like to grandstand and southern Europeans to deal with you direct?
“I think the propensity to review from northern Europeans is far higher than for southern Europeans,” McAuley said.
“Our business is based in Monaco and is Italian-owned and the Italian culture is you say it there and then. They wouldn’t think of going online and reviewing.”
And this may also be the case for more upper-end customers who do not want to be seen to be complaining having spent tens of tens of thousands of pounds on an all-inclusive luxury cruise.
Patrick Cox, chief commercial officer at Cox and Kings, said: “People get very irate about tea and coffee-making facilities and you think, how could I have missed that. But that’s a great cultural thing, mainly the Brits and Australians.”
Christian Armond, Tui general manager of digital marketing, said as an operator it embraces TripAdvisor because its strategy of differentiated product means it knows the booking ultimately has to come back to it.
“TripAdvisor’s no different to Google, which is launching a package product. We have the source product and they are no different to any other third party.”
Armond added: “The big challenge for us with any review is how much you believe the really good versus the really bad.
“Everyone talks about you need 10 really good ones to counter one bad one, but you don’t quite trust them if they are all good.”
Paul Carter, chief operating officer of Ingham’s parent Hotelplan, said reviews need to become more important for it as a business.
“I think we sell too much on price and not on reviews. We don’t get reviews from everyone but we get customer sentiment, and it’s actually really helpful.”
So what’s the future? Reviews and customer feedback are certainly here to stay. It is likely to become more real time and instant due to mobile and involve more rich content.
How the instant gratification Instagram generation chooses to review remains to be seen, but the feedback economy is expected to continue keeping travel firms of all types on their toes.
Feefo is sponsor of a marketing track of sessions at Monday’s Travolution Summit. The last remaining delegate places are available: travolutionsummit.com