Just Ask

Searching for hotels and travel information on the Internet has become a whole different ball game. That’s mainly because searching for information via the Internet has changed drastically since the initial days of keyword searches. Today’s Web surfers generally search for information by asking questions, expecting to get a direct response to their query. Recognizing this fact, Forbes Travel Guide, formerly Mobil Travel Guide, will soon debut a new website tailored to hotel seekers looking for answers from those in the know.

“It’s a ‘social expert recommendation engine’ on travel,” explains Shane O’Flaherty, president and CEO of Forbes Travel Guide. “It’s based on a question-and-answer platform, where we are aggregating expert opinion on each question.”

The new Forbes Travel Guide is expected to debut later this summer. The question-and-answer format will let users ask questions about destinations, including hotels in those destinations, and receive answers directly from experts on those areas. The experts are derived from a pool of Forbes Travel Guide inspectors, hoteliers and restaurateurs, third-party sources such as magazines, and other consumers.

Advertisement

The site follows a model used by Forbes Travel Guide owner Jeff Arnold, who originally launched WebMD. However, the Forbes Travel Guide site follows a model of a site called ShareCare, which Arnold recently launched. ShareCare offers expert answers in health care. “It’s sort of a next-generation WebMD, which has been hugely successful,” O’Flaherty says of the ShareCare site.

The Forbes Travel Guide site is designed as a large-scale recommendation engine, not a booking site. Unlike third-party booking sites, the Forbes Travel Guide site is intended to provide expert recommendations to consumers in order to funnel bookings directly to hotels and restaurants. Reservations are made directly through a hotel’s reservation system.

“We’re not out there to compete for their commissions and things of that nature,” says Jayne E. Griswold, executive vice president of Forbes Travel Guide. “We put a link on their profile pages that goes directly to the property’s individual website for the booking.”

For hotels, the site is also designed to aggregate groups of visitors, who Griswold says are self-selecting. Consumers ask for communication with a property and request information. “In a sense, the properties are collecting their own private database of visitors to the site,” she says.

At launch, Forbes Travel Guide expects a number of its five-star hotels to be represented on the site. Already, Forbes has commitments from Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Peninsula Hotels. Griswold says that the company is “very far down the path” with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and St. Regis North America.

DIRECT BOOKING

One of the main benefits of the new Forbes Travel Guide site is the potential ability to help hotels bring online consumers back to their own websites. As has been well documented, consumers have been trained in the Internet age to go to online travel agencies (OTAs) when shopping for hotels and other travel arrangements. Forbes Travel Guide believes the new site can help break them of that habit.

“Ultimately, the consumer is navigating a tremendous amount of information out there in the marketplace to make a better decision,” O’Flaherty says. “We sort of clear through the clutter for them and bring them what we would view as experts in the space on one page. I think consumers will gravitate toward that.”

The Forbes Travel Guide site is based on the experience of travel and not the price of travel, as OTA sites are, in general. Whether the new site will be able to help hotels maintain rates is not known prior to launch, as Forbes says there isn’t enough information to determine its effect on price yet.

The site will direct consumers to hotels that it currently rates in its system, meaning referrals will be directed to the approximately 7,000 Forbes Travel Guide rated hotels.

HOW IT WORKS
The website is set up to make it easy for consumers to post questions and get answers. Expected questions center on what to see and do in particular destinations, how to get around easily, and what types of amenities are available. “That’s the kind of information we collect and can turn into great content,” Griswold says.

“If you look at most websites out there they tend to be brochures,” O’Flaherty adds. “I think there’s a host of more information that the consumer wants. These are questions that are often asked to hotels directly. This is about how you bring those things to life on the Web.”

Hotels and restaurants represented on the site receive a full profile page with images and videos. They’ll be able to answer the questions from consumers. There will be a social media wall directly connected to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, allowing them to manage all of their social media via the site.

“What we really like is that properties will be able to be proactive, and create a quieter and more elevated conversation,” Griswold says. “When I look at a user-generated site, I feel like I have to look at 15 to 20 comments before I find one that is truthful. With an expert generated site, you’ll be aggregating views from experts in those areas. They have perspectives that are really valuable.”

The experts are restaurateurs, hotel general managers, local travel experts, and certified reviewers. “The certified reviewer is user-generated, but they’ve been certified to answer questions,” Griswold says.
“The consumer is what we call a certified reviewer, in which we verify that they have actually stayed at and can talk about a specific property,” O’Flaherty adds.

O’Flaherty defines success for the new site with “finally being able to offer the consumer expert insight, and enabling them to balance information so they can make informed travel decisions. Once they make that decision they can link in directly to the hotel’s site and have a meaningful dialogue and service.”

O’Flaherty says the company is still working on the name of the site.