Online reviews can have a significant impact on your hospitality business, but you can now access better tools to manage your reputation and even turn bad feedback to your advantage. The question is, where should you focus your energies? Rosalind Mullen reports.
Your hotel and restaurant guests are firing out feedback about you through countless online channels, including booking sites, social media, blogs, review sites and forums. How you handle both good and bad reviews has been proved to be crucial, but with Covid-19 disrupting business and putting the squeeze on customer expectations, your reputation management strategy is more important than ever.
"When researching holidays, hotels or new restaurants, one of the first things people do is look for reviews, as 85% of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations," says Simon Wadsworth, co-founder of reputation management company Igniyte. "Positive reviews showcase, for instance, good customer service, the quality of the hotel room and restaurant food. These are vital when trying to attract new customers, especially when 90% of people read reviews before deciding to visit a business."
This chimes with a Harvard Business School study of Yelp, which found that a one-star increase in customer ratings resulted in a 5%-9% boost in revenue. Meanwhile, white papers published by digital marketing specialist Virtual Solutions claim that for every one person that leaves negative feedback, some 26 will simply leave and never come back – plus, they'll tell their friends.
So apart from sharpening up your customer care, what should hotel and restaurant owners concentrate on to take advantage of online reviews and manage any negative comment?
A good place to start is to identify, claim and enhance your profile on the most popular review sites – TripAdvisor, Google My Business, Facebook and so on. This will allow you to respond to reviews, update photos, and edit your business and direct contact information to drive traffic to your site.
Then, take a critical look at what people are saying about your business, so that you can identify and address underlying problems.
"Review sites offer a chance for customers to say what they really think. You should keep an eye out for reoccurring trends that will help you deal with any operational issues," says Wadsworth.
Virtual Solutions Global founder and chief executive Dawn Gribble agrees: "Google My Business is the first place where operators should make sure they've got their listing claimed, because your review rating affects the search engine results. If your website is well configured, a Knowledge Graph will come up and, if people are using Google Maps, your star number or review rating is going to come up, too."
Gribble, whose company provides a range of digital services, including reputation and social media management, adds: "Obviously, TripAdvisor and Facebook should be monitored, too. I recommend [that] brands set up social listening. They can monitor what is being said about them by setting up alerts using brand-related keywords and phrases. Twitter is one of the best places to set up social listening tools. It doesn't have a review system, but you can search for mentions of your brand. And because it's a real-time environment, you can use it to understand how your guests feel about your brand, now."
With consumers placing so much value on reviews, it's in your interest to make time every day to check in with those channels and gauge how you are performing.
James Bishop, senior director for global demand partnerships at online hotel guest acquisition platform SiteMinder, says: "The best feedback is from your direct guests, but the likes of Booking.com and Expedia actively collect reviews from guests they have sent to a hotel. The important thing a hotelier needs to do is to be able to respond to those reviews – both positive and negative.
"A small, independent hotel without a marketing team will struggle to do that on a day-to-day basis, but there are tools that can help. The most important thing is getting the data to those tools so that it makes their life easier."
Siteminder, for instance, has launched the Hotel App Store, which allows hotels and hotel chains to share data with trusted technology partners, ranging from revenue and guest review management tools, such as Revinate and ReviewFilter, to upselling and guest messaging apps through a single interface such as SiteMinder's channel manager or one of its supported property management systems (PMS).
"Guest sentiment is important," says Bishop. "The apps scan and read reviews and pick up positive and negative trends. It flags up to the hotel which ones they need to respond to and also tracks if its reputation is going up or down, which is important in today's environment. Guests have changed a lot in terms of what they expect from a hotel – especially from the perspective of health and cleanliness" (see panel).
Companies that collect reviews on behalf of a hotel make it easy for the guest, too. For instance, if the guest booked through Booking.com, they will get a simple email prompting them to rate their experience from one to 10. It might lead them on to another page to get more detail, but only if they have time.
You can also manage your reviews in real-time by integrating review and reputation management tools into your Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts that monitor if guests mention you or tag your location.
"If the guest says ‘I am at X hotel and have waited 45 minutes for a pizza' it will alert the front desk and you can respond while the guest is there. Some PMSs build that into their platform to constantly monitor social media," says Bishop.
TripAdvisor recently launched Reputation Pro, a review monitoring tool that tracks reviews on, for instance, TripAdvisor, Google and Facebook. It notifies hoteliers of new reviews and allows them to respond directly from the dashboard. Reviews are also qualitatively evaluated, providing sentiment analysis and identifying specific aspects of the guest experience that are driving positive or negative feedback, such as staff, pricing, food quality and parking.
Once you have collected the information, it is important you respond to any negative issues quickly as prospective guests tend to read reviews from guests who stayed in the past two weeks. By doing this you can demonstrate to the future guest that the hotel is responsive, that similar problems don't recur every week, and that you are trying to resolve any issue.
"You also need to try to take the discussion offline," says Bishop. "So if you get a negative remark, respond with a positive message and say you would love the opportunity to talk more on direct messenger or by phone."
He adds: "It shouldn't feel like another task, it should be part of your strategy to manage your reputation across multiple channels as well as have a goal around increasing scores and making someone responsible for it."
In fact, Wadsworth argues that you should embrace reviews: "When a customer searches for your restaurant or hotel and finds no reviews or social media, it effectively makes you invisible. Having no online presence is potentially worse than having negative reviews."
He adds: "Encourage customers to leave reviews. Think about putting a call to action in your restaurant to prompt people to leave honest reviews, and thank customers who do. Deal with any negative reviews promptly and use them as opportunities to address any issues publicly. Be understanding and try to make the situation right for the customer."
Negative reviews can also be helpful in reflecting areas of your business that need improvement. As Gribble says: "Some customers simply want to have a rant, whereas others may have a legitimate complaint, so it's important to assess and weigh the value of the feedback you're getting."
She says the best way to head off negativity is to "know your values and stick to them – the public aren't stupid; they'll know how to recognise real comments and those that aren't".
Reputation management is also about maximising your positive reviews. It's important to thank positive reviewers, which will help to increase positive sentiment, build confidence and rapport with your guests, and enhance your reputation. You can also use customer relationship management (CRM) programmes, such as Guestfolio, which helps you to communicate with guests. "One of the most important things in today's world is that we communicate with guests about their stay," says Bishop.
"For instance, from a Covid-19 compliance perspective, you can put out messages such as ‘don't forget we require masks' and ‘this is a list of things we have changed to ensure your stay is safe'. Doing that communication sets up expectations. If you don't manage expectations, you are setting yourself up for negative reviews."
Reputation management in a nutshell
The big issues for guests in 2021
Unsurprisingly, guest expectations are changing due to the disruptions and fear around Covid-19. This will change how a business is reviewed.
James Bishop at SiteMinder says: "We are seeing more people reviewing cleanliness aspects due to Covid-19, and another behavioural change is the type of place guests are booking. We've seen an increase in the number of private homes being booked, but that is levelling out now."
Virtual Solutions' Dawn Gribble agrees: "Coronavirus has made a dramatic psychological impact, and safety and hygiene is playing more of a part in the decision-making process."
Gribble, who predicts the leisure market won't come back as it was until at least Q3/Q4 of 2021, adds that a lot will depend on a Covid-19 vaccine.
"People are scared, and that needs to be recognised," she says. "Operators need to ‘know' their guests. If you've got buyer personas set up, you need to re-evaluate them – unfortunately, you'll find some people will react by lashing out at serving staff, others will want as little to do with staff as possible, and some won't even want to travel."
So, one way to ensure you get good reviews is to train your staff in how guests today might react.
"If you enable your team to handle outbursts, it's going to put less stress on them and the guests. Mental health is going to play a huge role as well as making sure that safety, security and hygiene issues are addressed. These issues are going to be huge in 2021," explains Gribble.
Your website also needs to offer reassurance. Ensure that your guests can see information on the current Covid-19 status in your location and what you are doing to be Covid-compliant. You can also update your Covid-19 status on other booking channels such as Booking.com.