Tourism Beat: Protect Your Rep

Customer reviews can be fatal, so manage your digital shadow.

By Cooper Levey-Baker April 1, 2015

by Cooper Levey-Baker

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU POST ONLINE. You might think you can delete those old Facebook posts and Instagram pics, but they’ve got a rude way of hanging around. Forever.

But discretion is only half the battle. Nowadays, you’ve also got to be careful about what others are posting about you.

Take TripAdvisor, for example. In its first 15 years of operation, the site has collected more than 200 million customer reviews covering more than 4.4 million accommodations, restaurants and attractions. Think nobody pays attention to those reviews? Think again. Cihan Cobanoglu, the dean of USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership, says research shows that, on average, customers are willing to pay $35 more per night for a hotel that has earned one more TripAdvisor star than a competitor.

To a certain extent, your company’s rating on a customer review site is out of your hands. You can’t control what a guest is going to write online. But Cobanoglu says it’s vital for a business to smartly manage its “digital shadow.” That phrase applies to user review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, of course, but also to online travel booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz, as well as an ever-growing list of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Did a guest bash your hotel on TripAdvisor? While the tendency may be to write that off as the ravings of a whiny grumpus, Cobanoglu says it’s important to publicly engage with an unhappy customer. That person may not give you a second chance, but everyone else who’s reading your TripAdvisor reviews sees that you care about customer satisfaction. “If a company shows genuine interest,” Cobanoglu says, “people forgive. Even if a review is negative.”

TripAdvisor has collected more than 20 million customer reviews.

Michael’s On East co-proprietor Michael Klauber advises, “Accept responsibility. Don’t make excuses.” Part of that means a response must come from the top. Klauber works with Michael’s On East marketing director Jamie Jalwan to craft review responses. One recent four-paragraph TripAdvisor post responding to a two-star review includes Klauber’s full name and title, plus his direct office number and personal email address. This is exactly what someone browsing the site wants to see, Cobanoglu says.

Responding to bad reviews is only part of the challenge, though. One priority for Navid Kichi, the general manager at the Ramada Sarasota near the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, is trying to encourage positive reviews.

“Reviews are so, so, so important,” Kichi says. “So many reservations come from the Internet.”

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Ramada’s parent company, automatically emails all of Kichi’s guests after their stay to encourage them to post reviews, and Kichi offers bonuses to front desk staffers who push cards with information about how to post a TripAdvisor review to guests who have had enjoyable stays. Using Ramada software, Kichi can track how many reviews are coming in on various platforms, and can identify whether those reviews came from Wyndham’s automatic emails or from other efforts.

The emphasis on encouraging reviews has paid off. When Kichi started at the Ramada four years ago, the hotel received around 10 new reviews each month. That number is now up to 30 or 40.

One area Kichi has not invested in is social media. According to Cobanoglu, some hotels will offer incentives for guests to tag their location on social media, rewarding guests with, say, a free drink or appetizer for mentioning the hotel when they’re snapping poolside selfies.

Kichi’s 120-room Ramada is what he calls “mid-market,” an affordable alternative to staying in downtown Sarasota. Investing in building a social media presence means either hiring somebody new or asking a current staffer to devote a chunk of his or her day to the project―not an appealing option for a hotel the size of Kichi’s. “How much do I want to spend to get these likes?” he asks. And how much revenue would a more active Facebook page even generate?

“How much do I want to spend to get Facebook likes?”

As small hotels and restaurants try to use review sites and social media to their advantage, they’re faced with an ever-broadening array of sites to track and contribute to. The flurry of new sites has even spawned a new sector made up of companies that will track online mentions of your business and alert you to them or even respond for you.

Michael’s On East, an early adopter of many technological trends, doesn’t jump to participate on every new site. They focus mostly on OpenTable, TripAdvisor, Yelp and, increasingly, Google, which has begun incorporating customer reviews into its search results, giving customer comments extremely prominent placement.

In short, concentrate on the sites that have endured. Ignore the flavor of the week. ■

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