HOLLYWOOD, Florida—Online reviews continue to play a growing role in the hotel industry, and TripAdvisor remains the dominant site for collecting and displaying guests’ opinions.
Meanwhile, TripAdvisor’s parent company, Expedia, announced plans in April to separate TripAdvisor into its own public entity, signaling that growth opportunities exist. That move is expected to close in December.
HotelNewsNow.com had the opportunity to sit down with Stephen Kaufer, founder, president and CEO of TripAdvisor, this week during the PhoCusWright conference in Hollywood, Florida, to discuss the mobile space, fake reviews, Google’s travel product and more.
HNN: How would you describe TripAdvisor’s role in the hotel industry?
SK: “At this point we refer to it as the early eBay effect; when eBay came out with auctions they had buyers and sellers and everyone else said, ‘Whoa, we want to get into auctions.’ They tried and it didn’t work because eBay already had the sellers and the buyers wanted to go where the sellers were. And so eBay won that. With TripAdvisor, now people like to write a review where others are going to read it.
“If consumers are on TripAdvisor, odds are very good they’re there to pick their lodging. So we’ve built the business because an ordinary traveler loves reading what other people think before they get there, and the folks that sell travel reservations online want to advertise where the traveler is looking.”
HNN: How has the importance of guest reviews evolved?
SK: “People have always been reviewing hotels, it’s just been verbal. So they got that word-of-mouth recommendation from their friend and if they didn’t have any friends who had traveled there they got the hotel review from the travel agent. That was one honest person’s opinion. Today you go online and you might see a hundred or 3,000 reviews. You get the freshest, you get assorted, you can slice and dice by type to decide for yourself whether this is the best hotel for you. “
HNN: TripAdvisor will be spun off into its own public company later this year. Will that have any effect on the hotel space?
SK: “A hotelier won’t notice a difference one way or the other. We’ve always taken advertising from individual hotels, from all of Expedia’s competitors and we’ve taken advertising dollars from Expedia. We’ve been neutral throughout the time. It will have no effect on our clients or our visitors.”
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HNN: How much emphasis is TripAdvisor putting toward the mobile space?
SK: “We think mobile in travel is a really cool thing for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you’re just sitting on your couch, it’s a commercial on TV, and you’re flipping around dreaming about where you want to go. You’re on your tablet, you’re on your phone because the computer is in the other room. It’s fun to browse; it’s fun to plan. That’s just a very natural device to search for information.
“Then there’s the ‘in-market,’ where it’s, ‘All right, I’ve landed in Hartford, I’ve made my hotel reservation, now I’m looking for a place to eat.’ I can open the mobile app, hit ‘Near Me Now’ and get the best restaurant next to where I’m standing. It’s the full power of the website but on your smartphone. Ten million downloads (for the TripAdvisor app) is the number we publish, so that’s just a really, really big number.”
HNN: What is your stance on fake reviews and what is TripAdvisor doing to combat them?
SK: “We’ve been dealing with the issue for 10 years now so we have a decade of expertise at catching folks that are trying to spam our system. Ninety-eight percent of our audience when we surveyed ‘Do you trust the reviews,’ the answer was ‘yes’ because they read the reviews, they go and they stay and it matched expectations. The system works.
“I totally understand hoteliers being concerned if they get a bad review and some will immediately assume it’s false. Everyone I know comes in, looks at the overall picture and they throw out the best review and they throw out the worst and they form an opinion on the rest. If you’re delivering a good service and that one horrible review comes up—maybe fraudulent or maybe because the person just got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning—it will disappear in a few weeks because the new reviews will take its place. So we know that the fake review is not an issue when you look at the overall volume of reviews we have.
“We also know that hoteliers, it’s almost their personal reputation, so they care a lot about it, as they should. Because everyone’s entitled to their opinion, we wanted hoteliers to be entitled to their opinion. And so with every review, good or bad, the hotel can write a management response to tell their side of the story. Sometimes the best response is: ‘I’m really sorry you had a long wait to check in. We find that unacceptable as well. We apologize and we sincerely hope you’ll give us a try again.’ As a consumer, if I read that, I say, ‘You know, that stuff happens.’ But, if I read that in 10 reviews I’m not going to stay there because they actually do have a problem.”
HNN: You spoke out publicly against Google aggregating reviews from different sites, including TripAdvisor. Why did you feel so strongly and did Google’s actions satisfy you?
SK: “We have a great relationship with most of Google and then there’s this one part of Google that was doing something that we thought was patently unfair. They’ve decided to build a travel product and that’s their right to do so; I don’t have an issue with that. But I didn’t feel it was right to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a head start on all the other people by taking the content from TripAdvisor and Yelp and a bunch of other companies to make it seem like we have a whole lot of content.’ So I talked to them and they basically said, ‘Tough luck, that’s what we’re doing.’ And eventually when enough public pressure came to bear they changed their mind. So they no longer show our reviews there and they no longer count our reviews when they claim how many reviews they have. I’m kind of happy with that part of the outcome.
“I don’t like the fact that they claim to be always doing what’s in the best interest of the searchers, yet they will put a very visible callout to their own product that might have 10 reviews when I’ve got 1,000, but they’re putting their stuff above mine while claiming to act in the best interest of the users, which is a little disingenuous at best.”
HNN: Some brands and individual hotels have recently announced they will embed TripAdvisor reviews on their own site. How does this affect business?
SK: “We were actively encouraging them to do it. We try to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes and say reviews are here to stay and people are relying upon them. We are known as the source for travel reviews and we’re happy to extend our brand and let hotel chains carry TripAdvisor reviews. In fact, we will help collect those reviews for them. From the hotel’s perspective they get the, ‘Hey, it’s a TripAdvisor review. It’s unbiased by nature of who’s collecting it.’ For us, its nice branding, reinforcing the fact that the hotels believe TripAdvisor reviews are valuable. For the hotel, it achieves something they can’t otherwise. If the hotel were to post their own reviews, the average consumer is going to be skeptical as to whether they’re filtering them or not, even if they don’t. We’re public; we will not allow our hotels to show only the good reviews.”
HNN: Where is TripAdvisor headed?
SK: “We already have a massively global footprint, but the world is really still even bigger in terms of the potential reach. I still meet people every day who have never heard of TripAdvisor, who don’t look for online travel reviews. So there’s always more opportunity because at the end of the day we’re giving a free service that travelers love. It’s hard for me to find someone who has used TripAdvisor who doesn’t go back to use TripAdvisor because its free, it’s cool and its useful. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the review of the hotel, its giving you actual interesting tidbits that you have no other way of finding out. So our main question is: How do we scale that to all lodging types in all parts of the world on all devices?”