by Jules Kay
Personal online recommendations and reviews have undoubtedly shaped the travel industry in recent years. TripAdvisor™branded sites alone now make up the largest and most popular travel community in the world, drawing over 40 million monthly visitors who have written around 30 million reviews of more than 500 000 hotels and attractions across the company's 15 different travel portals. But with these and many smaller travel blogs and websites moving beyond simple appraisal to offer direct hotel bookings, as well as advertising specific airlines and accommodation choices, how reliable are they as an honest recommendation?
Most customer driven travel sites are open source, which means anyone, including a hotel owner, manager or member of the marketing team can write their own shining review. Conversely, competitors can add negative comments to influence potential guests or use the web as a place to launch a vendetta. Of course, the guests themselves can also simply get carried away. A tendency to overuse adjectives like 'exquisite', 'exceptional' and 'superb' may set off alarm bells amongst some of the more discerning readers, while seemingly implausible extremes of good and bad can often leave you feeling a little bewildered. Reading people's opinions certainly offers a useful insight into specific details, but to base your travel choices on a stranger's recommendation, however effusive, remains a little risky.
Savvy web users may not face the same hurdles when it comes to finding honest, practical reviews. Most people who take their research seriously use online forums, which offer Q&A type information on specific topics, with people asking a question and others responding with advice and opinions. Normally it's necessary to register with a site in order to join these forums, which means the contributors are more likely to be long-term members with a committed interest the particular theme they are discussing. It's also possible to check when each member registered and see how often they contribute. As a rule of thumb, it's worth remembering that one-off reviews may be less informative (or genuine) that those offered by seasoned travellers.
On the other side of the coin, according to many industry professionals, online reviews are increasingly being used as leverage by shrewd guests looking for added extras and discounts. People ask for upgrades or complimentary services by threatening a bad review online if they don't get their way. In some cases, they will even try to hold a hotel to ransom, demanding free nights in exchange for critical leniency. Travel sites also seem to attract more than their fair share of professional complainers. Before online appraisal, anyone who felt they had a legitimate complaint would have to take the time to write a strongly worded letter, then send it to the person in charge and wait for an (often disappointing) response. The power to address future guests and customers directly cuts out the middle man, but it is also a power that, perhaps naturally, goes to some people's heads.
Of course, it could be argued that a constant threat of criticism would make hospitality providers strive for excellence. But when one person's paradise appears to be another's hell, it can be difficult to identify exactly which improvements need to be made, particularly if they seem beyond anyone's control. Extreme examples include one review that complained the sea was too loud at a beach resort, while another said that a guest house owner didn't smile enough in the mornings (perhaps she hadn't had a cup of coffee yet?). Strangely, few hotels seem to answer such criticisms or even explain the scenarios that may have inspired a bad review, which is a shame because the ensuing discussions could be come very entertaining. But then, what's the point in closing the stable door once the horse has bolted? Better perhaps to just clean it out and hope the next one notices the positives.