There’s no Aaron Sorkin script and no Trent Reznor soundtrack associated with the little website Steve Kaufer started in 2000. But before there was a Facebook to take the term social media mainstream and eventually turn Mark Zuckerberg into an iconic film character, there was TripAdvisor. It is the hospitality industry’s original form of social media. And 13 years into its run, it is consistently among the 250 most heavily trafficked websites in the world, an industry giant employing nearly 2,000 people and redefining the connection between hotels and their guests.
TripAdvisor was one of the early adopters of user-generated content, giving the consumer a place to review and rate all things travel-related. From that simple concept grew a site attracting more than 53 million unique visitors per month. And from it grew a publicly traded company that reported revenues of $255 million in the most recent fiscal quarter, up 19.9 percent from the same period a year ago.
Adele Gutman, the vice president of sales, marketing, and revenue for the Library Hotel Collection in New York City, recalls that she first started paying serious attention to TripAdvisor in about 2004 or 2005. Soon after, she was at an industry event and found herself standing next to a sales and marketing executive from the Sofitel. “I said, ‘You’re No. 1 on TripAdvisor, that’s so awesome!’ And she didn’t have a clue what TripAdvisor was,” Gutman remembers. “But nobody doesn’t know what TripAdvisor is now. It is a phenomenal tool if you can embrace it as an opportunity to drive incredible traffic to your hotel. It’s recognition that you don’t have to pay for, but rather you have to earn.”
Long, Strange Trip
TripAdvisor wasn’t actually intended to be a travel review site at all. CEO and Founder Kaufer was just a family man with young kids trying to plan a vacation to Mexico, struggling to find substantive information online about the property at which he was considering staying. So he was inspired to build a search engine that would aggregate all the mentions of a property, with a business model based around syndicating that feed to larger portals. It didn’t prove especially lucrative at first. But there was an additional component to the site that Kaufer added almost as an afterthought, a feature that allowed travelers to comment on their experiences at the various properties, and that element of the site was gaining traction while the Massachusetts-headquartered startup was otherwise sinking. So Kaufer redirected the approach and made traveler feedback the focal point.
With its new direction TripAdvisor took off, and in 2004 it was purchased by the New York–based Internet company InterActive Corporation, which made TripAdvisor part of a group of travel businesses under the Expedia banner in August 2005. But even after it was apparent that the website was a success, many corners of the hotel industry were slow to embrace it. “In the mid-2000s, some hoteliers were noticing how TripAdvisor was helping their business, but most were simply ignoring it, hoping it would go away,” says Daniel Edward Craig, founder of the marketing, social media, and reputation management strategy company Reknown (which lists TripAdvisor as a client). TripAdvisor Head of Industry Relations Brian Payea remembers attending a conference of small properties in 2007, where “there was a lot of resistance and negativity to the idea that travelers had the right to say anything that they wanted about their experience.”
With time and a preponderance of evidence about how the review business had evolved, however, eventually even the hotel industry’s equivalent of flat-earthers came to accept and embrace TripAdvisor. The company was spun off from Expedia and went public in December 2011. In April 2012, it launched a connection with Facebook that enabled users to sort reviews to see those written specifically by friends, providing a fitting formal link between the two social media titans.
Working the System
Taking an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, hoteliers have stopped ignoring or rejecting TripAdvisor and are now asking, “How can I get it working for me?” That’s a question for which Adele Gutman has quite a few of the answers, as the four Library Hotel Collection properties—Library Hotel, Hotel Giraffe, Hotel Elysée, and Casablanca Hotel—are all consistently rated in the TripAdvisor top 10 for New York, and even enjoyed a remarkable three-week run in 2010 in which they ranked No. 1 through 4.
“Everybody’s always asking me what the trick is,” Gutman says. “The trick is, there is no trick. We just pay attention to every single complaint. We don’t need 25 people to complain about the same thing before we respond. If one person comments on a problem, we work as a team to address it so the reviews can get better.”
Craig’s experience backs that up: “Hoteliers are looking to crack the code and think there’s some mysterious way about how the popularity index works. But it’s really quite simple: running a great hotel, setting realistic expectations, then exceeding them. That drives positive reviews, which increases rankings.”
Gutman does single out two common mistakes she has seen other properties make that can negatively impact their standing. The first is issuing customer surveys, which Gutman says “dilute the volume of reviews online. My feeling is, whatever you have to say about us, good or bad, please put it on TripAdvisor. The more reviews I have, the better.” The second is that hotels will assign a junior employee to respond to reviews rather than someone capable of making management decisions—a sign that they still don’t take TripAdvisor and the online community seriously enough.
That ties into a larger offense many hotel operators commit: responses for the sake of response. The rate of management responses to TripAdvisor user comments doubled from 2011 to 2012 and continued to increase in 2013; one out of every four new reviews now gets a management response. But it doesn’t get you very far if you offer empty responses. The external response must be accompanied by an internal response, using the feedback to drive decisions and make improvements within the hotel.
“You need a management response that really addresses hospitality, candidly and transparently,” Payea says. “Management should be mining the reviews for ideas on how to perfect the guest experience, instead of just looking at them as something where they can just check a box—‘I did a management response, now I’m going to have an improved online reputation.’ Just showing up isn’t going to move the needle. It has to be substantive. It has to give the customer confidence and address the issues.”