When the Conrad Miami suffered a technical problem in February that significantly slowed down its elevators, General Manager Stephane Mercier found himself responding to a complaint on TripAdvisor. The guest saw Mercier’s response and stopped by the front desk two weeks later to speak with him in person. Mercier appreciated a second chance to show the hotel cares about its customers. “We were able to build a strong relationship,” says Mercier, who expects the guest to return as a regular customer.
From review and travel sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, guests have more ways than ever to share their feedback—the good, the bad, and the ugly—on hotel experiences. Hospitality experts say it’s important for hotels to keep up with these websites and develop a game plan for managing their online reputation. “The hotel’s reputation was always so important,” says Ari Greenberg, co-founder with his brother Benji of the hospitality social media company BCV. “Now, the online reputation is more important because of the speed at which reputation enhancement and degrading can happen.”
Just about every hotel BCV advises—clients include the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, and Rosewood Hotels—purchased a product to manage the property’s online presence. But more often than not, Benji says, the service was set up and forgotten. Typically, online reputation management falls to the director of sales and marketing or the general manager, Ari says. But the entire hotel staff should be responsible for the property’s online reputation. “All it takes is one incident that gains a little traction,” Benji says.
When it comes to sites like TripAdvisor, there’s a misconception that once a bad review has been posted, it’s too late. But “it’s not over yet” says Benji. A 2012 independent study conducted by PhoCusWright on behalf of TripAdvisor revealed that 84 percent of those surveyed said that seeing a management response to a negative review on the site improves their impressions of the hotel. If the hotel responds well—validating the customer rather than arguing—the guest often writes a positive follow up. It’s about communicating the right message. “The customer needs to understand that the management of the hotel takes care of them,” Mercier says. “Some guests return to the Conrad Miami simply because the hotel responded to their feedback.” Responding to both positive and negative comments shows the hotel is engaged. Plus, a TripAdvisor review with a response is more likely to be read.
Though reviews are typically written after a trip, Benji Greenberg says, hotels can sometimes use fast-paced social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, to mitigate problems before a guest leaves the property. According to him, hotels should respond to online feedback in real time—think 20 minutes to two hours—because that’s when the customer is engaged. When a guest at a luxury hotel complained on social media that her expectations hadn’t been met, he says, the general manager was at her door within a half-hour. After a tour of the property, the two had lunch together. The guest later wrote on TripAdvisor that she was overwhelmed by the one-to-one experience. “Reputation for a hotel is everything,” Greenberg says. “To be able to affect it, you have to be there when the customer is there.”
Lee McCabe, head of travel, global vertical marketing at Facebook, says the social media giant’s new “graph search,” which lets users search Facebook activity, will be the catalyst for hotels to realize the importance of the “wisdom of friends.” While a Google search collects results from all over the Web, searching within Facebook limits results to the Facebook community. Users can search specifically for friends living in their hometown, music their friends enjoy, and even hotels their friends have visited. During the feature’s beta mode, McCabe says, places ranked No. 2 in graph search, just after people. Some searches focus on travel, such as “Paris hotels where my friends have stayed.” Since graph search will make it easier for travelers to find hotels that their friends recommend, people will start to use Facebook even more as they plan trips. To take advantage of this, McCabe says, hotels should create or update their Facebook pages with an accurate representation—through photos and descriptions—of what customers can expect. A hotel’s page should be used to respond to comments and serve as a news source for events at and near the property.
The key to Facebook is the social aspect, McCabe says. Hotels need advocates to talk about the property in a favorable and compelling way. Instead of attracting Facebook fans through competitions, which can lure connections that know little about the property, he says, hotels should target their top customers. This can be accomplished with Facebook’s Custom Audiences product, which lets hotels use an e-mail database to find its customers on Facebook. “That way, you end up with an army of advocates,” McCabe says. Once a hotel’s page is stacked with top-quality fans, it’s time to compel them to post user-generated content. Asking guests to post their own photos from the hotel’s happy hour could reach a wider audience than hotel-generated images. We’re moving away from the brand being the hero, McCabe says, by turning most of the storytelling over to guests.
For Mercier of the Conrad Miami, the focus on online reputation is more a shift in priorities than an outright change in practice. While previously Mercier might have spent extra time in the lobby interacting with guests, now he’s using some of that time to respond to online feedback. “Managing your online reputation should be taken as an opportunity,” he says. “It’s an additional tool to get connected with our guests.”