Managing User Reviews: The Essential Task for Today's Savvy Electronic Distribution Manager

By Peter O'Connor Academic Director, Institute de Management Hotelier Int. | February 22, 2015

With over nine out of ten of people selecting a hotel now consulting user reviews prior to booking, manage a hotel's online reputation has become essential. Based on multiple years experience helping hotels develop and implement their social media strategies, this article outlines how hotels can maximize the benefit they can gain from online review sites, offering practical tips and techniques to help maintain and enhance their online reputation.

What is Social Media?

Over the past two decades, the Internet has transformed how travel is being bought and sold. Before web distribution, customers typically contacted the hotel directly for information, or relied on travel agents, tour operators or other intermediaries to help find hotels in regions with which they were not familiar. In most cases, such third parties are commercially motivated, giving rise to questions of credibility and trust. Many consumers continue to question their impartiality, worrying as to whether recommendations are based on a genuine match with their needs, or a kickback paid by the hotel for business delivered. While the growth of the Internet in the late 1990s greatly added to the quantity and quality of information available, the problem of recommender credibility remained.

The rise of social media at the beginning of the 21st century helped address this issue. In particular, the growth of user-generated content such as blogs, user reviews and social networks provided consumers with access to a pool of high-quality topical and most importantly unbiased information, generated not by commercial interests but by other consumers. While difficult to define, social media sites tend to share certain characteristics; most are participatory, encouraging contributions and feedback from anyone interested, thus blurring the line between creators and audience. Most tend to be conversational, using two-way interaction between participants rather than a broadcast approach. Many are also community-focused, facilitating the interaction of people with similar interests, as well as being connected, amalgamating links and content from different sources to add synergistic value. In all cases the underlying common denominator is a kind of online democracy, with content generated by consumers for use by other consumers. This differs fundamentally from the web in general, where information is typically published by an authority – usually a business or the professional media for consumption by third parties.

Thus social media is more than just a new set of channels. It represents a fundamental shift in how marketing and communication works. It enables users to interact with both content and with each other, whenever and however they like. As a result, individuals are increasingly taking clues from their peers rather than from institutional sources like corporations, the media, political bodies or even religions. While in the past, consumers looked to such authorities for information, now they are increasingly creating their own content and trusting the collective wisdom of their peers. This represents a major change in consumer attitudes, which have evolved from isolated to connected; from unaware to informed; and from passive to active. The rate of innovation is incredible, and while 'statistics' such as one blog is created every second and 100 million downloads made from YouTube every day are probably urban myths, they are indicative of the continually growing importance of social media.

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Eco-Friendly Practices: Corporate Social Responsibility

The hotel industry has undertaken a long-term effort to build more responsible and socially conscious businesses. What began with small efforts to reduce waste - such as paperless checkouts and refillable soap dispensers - has evolved into an international movement toward implementing sustainable development practices. In addition to establishing themselves as good corporate citizens, adopting eco-friendly practices is sound business for hotels. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 95% of business travelers believe the hotel industry should be undertaking “green” initiatives, and Millennials are twice as likely to support brands with strong management of environmental and social issues. Given these conclusions, hotels are continuing to innovate in the areas of environmental sustainability. For example, one leading hotel chain has designed special elevators that collect kinetic energy from the moving lift and in the process, they have reduced their energy consumption by 50%  over conventional elevators. Also, they installed an advanced air conditioning system which employs a magnetic mechanical system that makes them more energy efficient. Other hotels are installing Intelligent Building Systems which monitor and control temperatures in rooms, common areas and swimming pools, as well as ventilation and cold water systems. Some hotels are installing Electric Vehicle charging stations, planting rooftop gardens, implementing stringent recycling programs, and insisting on the use of biodegradable materials. Another trend is the creation of Green Teams within a hotel's operation that are tasked to implement earth-friendly practices and manage budgets for green projects. Some hotels have even gone so far as to curtail or eliminate room service, believing that keeping the kitchen open 24/7 isn't terribly sustainable. The May issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to integrate sustainable practices into their operations and how they are benefiting from them.