Much has changed since hotel ratings and reviews were primarily the work of firms such as AAA, and hoteliers have had to adjust with the times.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The shift from professional hotel review publishers to customer-driven online review sites like TripAdvisor is changing the very nature of the quality assurance and feedback process for the hospitality industry. Hoteliers’ resulting efforts to change with the times have led to a new age of digital reputation management, and a greater reliance on internal inspections.
Before the advent of the digital era, groups like AAA and Forbes Travel Guide enjoyed a highly specialized foothold in the industry, printing and distributing massive amounts of local and regional travel guides, supported by advertising revenue from hoteliers looking to obtain prime placement in those publications. Things have changed dramatically, hoteliers said.
“In the old days, if you knew the AAA inspection was coming, you had all hands on deck to make sure everything was as clean as possible. Now I don’t even know if they still inspect,” said Mike Marshall, president and CEO of Marshall Hotels & Resorts. “I don’t think we’ve bought an enhanced AAA listing in forever, and that used to be a regular line item. I don’t even know if we’re required by our brands to even be in AAA anymore.”
Now, online reviews—published on online travel agency and even hotel brand sites—are mostly in the hands of the guests.
“The consumer gets more of a say, but I’m not sure that TripAdvisor and the online guest-experience sites are giving you the best evaluation of the hotel,” said Doug Collins, president of DC Hospitality. “From a truth standpoint, the traditional AAA-type ratings probably gave the guests a better viewpoint of the facility in general. With online comments, a great portion of it is geared toward customer service. The AAA inspection is much more thorough than one guest’s experience staying there one night and not being in the hotel business.”
Adjusting with the times
In an effort to keep some control over online ratings, many hotel companies hire specialized reputation management firms to respond promptly to guest reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. It’s becoming an essential marketing expense for a growing segment of the industry, and a job function that a growing number of hoteliers simply do not want to take on themselves.
“Hotels have to take their advertising budget and redirect it from things like preference AAA listings and advertising, to things such as reputation management and monitoring guest comments,” Collins said. “We teach our franchisees that you’ve got to monitor online comments, and if there’s a bad comment you should address it and see if you can make lemonade out of lemons.”
Some are taking the online reputation management approach one step further and utilizing it as fuel to proactively manage properties and ensure quality levels before there’s a guest complaint posted on TripAdvisor. The guiding principal is that in this new age of hotel feedback, there’s an ever-increasing margin of error.
“Hotels now need to be ‘inspection-ready’ all the time,” said Jason Kreul, SVP of operations for full-service hotels at White Lodging. “Every guest is essentially an AAA inspector.”
Brands are now exerting greater influence, too. Franchised hotel companies are increasingly directing dollars once spent with firms like AAA to better prepare for their own, internal brand inspectors. In many cases, the expert feedback obtained from this internal QA process supplants the insight once gleaned from the traditional AAA-type ratings agencies.
“The brands all now have a very intensive, unannounced review process that is more thorough than AAA,” Kreul said. “If you prepare properly for your brand audit, you will typically cover everything in the AAA audit.”
Not to mention, there’s greater risk—and therefore greater motivation—to prepare for brand inspectors, as opposed to AAA or Forbes. There can be real consequences when a franchised hotel underperforms or fails an internal review.
“If you’re in a certain brand, you’ve got to maintain a certain level, or else you’re going to get kicked out,” Marshall said. “It’s almost like the franchise companies have taken it upon themselves to self-enforce guest service.”
Meanwhile, travel industry review stalwarts AAA and Forbes Travel Guide are also adjusting with the times, which means a greater digital focus. Forbes, for one, has gone all digital and shifted away from advertising as its main revenue source.
“A lot of times, hotels want to understand better what elevated luxury service means from someone who has seen it across the globe, so we started offering training services,” said Tom Flournoy, SVP of operations for Forbes Travel Guide. “We send experienced hospitality professionals who are trained on the standards and inspection methods to go speak (at) properties, educating their frontline staff, managers, senior managers, all the way up to the GMs, about what is luxury service, how they can improve, what are others doing and what is the best in class. That’s really where our revenue comes from.”
AAA still publishes travel guides, but has shifted to a digital-first strategy emphasizing its mobile app, website and TripTik desktop travel planning software. The company also is focused on enhancing its inspection and ratings process, which includes integrating digital content such as online photos, video and social media posts into reviews.
“At one time, we were the big gorilla in the room,” said Michael Petrone, AAA’s director of inspections and diamond ratings. “With the emergence of user reviews, that has changed. I don’t think it’s so much diminished our role, but maybe it’s leveled it out a bit. … We’re still here, and we have 45 experts in the field who still get up every day and go look at these properties.”