By Martin Kelly
Word of mouth – always the most powerful of marketing tools – has taken on a whole new meaning with the Internet.
The emergence of travel review sites like Trip Advisor (which claims more than five million “unbiased reviews and opinions you can trust”) and IgoUgo ensures that the latest travel news – both good and bad – travel at warp speed around the globe.
These sites are basically travel search engines couched in user-generated content – beside every review will be PPC links to relevant product.
At present, most of the user comment concerns hotels but is slowly spreading to trip planning and will one day encompass every aspect of travel as people search out opinions from other travelers.
User reviews are also common on leading international retail and hotel websites, although some of Australia’s biggest online brands are yet to take the hint and get moving with this aspect of what has become known as Travel 2.0.
While consumer product reviews appear on Zuji, Expedia, Hotel Club and Rates To Go, at the time of writing Wotif.com doesn’t give its customers a voice; nor does Travel.com.au, Lastminute or Webjet.
Chloe Lim, Marketing Director of Flairview Travel, which owns Hotel Club, Rates To Go and Asia Hotels, says user reviews are one “of those features that is becoming a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘should have’ – people are demanding it.”
The potential of this new environment for the travel industry is enormous, and so are the risks.
The fact is that bad news travels fast, and there are plenty of upset travellers using reviews to lift on the lid on their latest travel disaster …
"…This is the kind of place in which you’d prefer to sleep in a snow suit during the hottest months of summer rather than let your skin touch the bedspread," wrote one TripAdvisor reviewer
“The entire staff seemed devoid of any humour, personality or notion of customer service and the atmosphere was vaguely reminiscent of a shoddy fairground Haunted House ride," wrote another
Suddenly, there is genuine, real-time transparency on the traveling experience – fresh opinions, immediate feedback – not just glossy travel brochures, although some reviews certainly read as if they’ve been written by the marketing department.
“…The staff is absolutely top-notch. The rooms are serene. The spa is literally to die for. This place takes pampering to a new level. "
“… Situated as the resort is on a private peninsula, everywhere you go you are surrounded by a fabulous panorama, the service was attentive and it was heavenly for relaxation."
And therein lies an interesting dilemma – how do you control the information appearing on these forums?
The answer is you really can’t, apart from keeping tabs on key sites and correcting any misinformation. An overly negative spray will be spotted, as will a supercilious blurb.
Arthur Hoffman, Managing Director of Expedia Australia, says it screens reviews to ensure no obscenities slip through the net but beyond that it is largely free speech.
Flairview Travel restricts review opportunities to people who have actually stayed in the relevant property to overcome potential issues.
Lim says Flairview is not going to move into forums and message boards and will still with review, potentially introducing a search capability based on hotel ratings.
Clearly, customers are on the move and travel businesses must surely keep up or otherwise get left behind.