Chapter 15: The Art of Innkeeping
No new book about hospitality would be complete without including a discussion of Trip Advisor. They are now the 800 pound gorilla of the travel industry.
As a kid people were always commenting on my name. Now there is a whole generation that has no idea who “Steve Allen” was. I often wondered as a kid what it would be like to be famous. Fast forward to 2006 and fame was not even on my list. I was moving to the small town of Sugar Hill, in rural New Hampshire to enjoy a quieter way of life.
One week after buying the inn we were having a strategy session with Marti Mayne on the front porch. Marti is the best public relations expert in the bed and breakfast industry. Marti told us that we had gotten a very negative Trip Advisor review that we needed to respond to. This was the first time I had ever heard of trip advisor. It was our first week and these people wrote the most vicious review possible. I will admit that at that time the inn was run down and we were inexperienced and some of the comments were accurate. Other comments were trivial such as our muffins were too small or out of our control, holding us responsible for the weather. We learned an important lesson that day. Anything we say or do may appear on the World Wide Web. Any anonymous person can say anything whether it is true or false. Getting inaccurate information corrected is almost impossible.
In those few short years since 2006 Trip Advisor has become a major force in travel. In talking with my guests at the inn, most tell me that our good reviews played an important factor in their decision making. Although almost everyone reads them only a handful of guests take the time to write reviews. Fortunately we have excellent reviews and I would like to thank everyone that has taken the time to write a review. Reviews are also available on Yelp and Bedandbreakfast.com.
It is common for Karen and I to share a glass of wine together in the Tavern after I have seated the last table in the dining room. Guests are always welcome to join us. For some reason that I can’t explain someone complained about this on-line. This is what I mean by living in a fish bowl. It was during our peak fall season when are both working 80 hours a week. However, most guests are pleased to see that we get a few minutes to sit down.
“It’s so pricey” is the number one criticism I read on trip advisor regardless of the property. I have a hard time understanding this since price was the one absolute fact known before booking. There is a basic law of business that must not be violated. A business that does not earn a profit won’t last. The Sunset Hill House up the road from us went out of business as a result of always offering deep discounts. Sorry we need to earn a living too.
Innkeepers have a love/hate relationship with reviews. While we love reading the good stuff our obsession with reviews has a practical side. Inn-keeping is how we earn our living. Good or negative reviews greatly affects our ability to earn a living and the livelihood of all of our employees.
My wife Karen will tell you that I am obsessed with Trip Advisor. She is right I do check it several time a day. There are two factors in play. One is that I am competitive and that is how I keep score. The other factor is that I get great satisfaction in making people happy. That is what hospitality is all about.
Bad reviews can ruin my day or at least depress me for a few hours. In this competitive business anything less than perfect is considered negative. However, after the emotions have calmed down I would seriously analysis the content. Reviews that stick to the facts are the best. Some comments are too personal and inappropriate. I have been called names and Karen’s charming southern accent has been mocked. We have made many changes based upon feedback. An occasional guest who sincerely wants to help us by providing negative but caring feedback will do it discretely on a comment card or send us an email.
Now let me give you the inside scoop on Trip Advisor. No it is not run by a retired Supreme Court Judge with the unselfish goal of providing consumers fair and unbiased information. Trip Advisor is a hot stock on Wall Street just like Facebook or Google. Their goal is to encourage as much content as possible, your reviews, that will generate traffic on the site creating an attractive platform for advertisers. We pay over $1700 per year, up from $800 the year before just for a tiny link to our website. They are earning millions of dollars from companies like Hotels.com and Expedia. By the way we do not use Hotels.com, Expedia, Priceline or similar services. They charge commissions of up to 30% to the lodging property. Even for properties that use these services I recommend that you book directly with the hotel. You will be treated as a VIP and more likely to be upgraded and receive preferential service.
Have you ever wondered why some inns have more reviews then others? There are the logical reasons such as some properties are larger. Those that have very negative or positive feeling are more likely to write. Also when a property changes ownership the old reviews are erased. For the most part it reminds me of the electoral process. Inns, Bed and Breakfasts and hotels campaign for votes. Some properties campaign harder than others and a few cross the line of ethical behavior. Friends and family are the first to vote. So unless a property has over 25 reviews you are most likely reading the reviews of friends and family. If they have all stayed at the property this is well within the rules. At the Sugar Hill Inn we send a thank you email to every guest a few days after checkout and do include links to Trip Advisor, Yelp and Bedandbreakfast.com for those interested in leaving reviews. Other properties are selective in who they ask. Afraid that asking everyone will do more harm than good. Trip Advisor has a new service that they are pushing hard that they claim to be very effective. It requires giving them guest emails so that they can badger you directly. This is a program that we absolutely refuse to participate in. We respect our guest’s privacy.
An entire field of reputation management has come into being with high powered consultants. We do not use any of their services.
Our approach at the Sugar Hill Inn is simple. We do it the old fashion way, by working hard to see that every guest is happy. We focus on the small details in the hope of exceeding expectations. Our other method is what I call transparency. We have one of the most comprehensive website of anyone in the industry. An entire page is devoted to each guest room complete with multiple large photos. We even have pictures of most of the bathrooms and art works. Anyone one who took the time to carefully plan their trip will find us exactly as described and pictured leaving no room for disappointment. This book is congruent with our belief in transparency.
In spite of my obsession about reviews there is another voice within that warns me to be careful. The Sugar Hill Inn is known for creativity and being innovative and wining a popularity contest sometime requires appealing to the lowest common denominator. We recently stayed at an Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia. From the point of view of an AAA inspector it would have been perfect. The room was large, clean, had good lighting, a good bed, comfortable seating and appeared to have been recently updated. Everything was a shade of beige. This so called perfect room left me feeling totally bored.
In my early career I was assigned a number of market research projects. Finding information on your competitors back in those days was hard. Now I can easily read reviews on all of my competitors. Reading between the lines can paint a very detail picture. I even read the reviews of non-competitors to identify trends, to better understand guest psychology and how better properties handle tricky situations.
It might seem like I am negative on the review process. The reality is that I have written over 65 reviews and use the site for my own vacation planning with relatively good results. It did disappoint me in Montreal. So my recommendation is to use the site but beware of its limitations. It is frequently comparing apples and oranges. The $75 a night B&B might have a perfect score but if you are a luxury traveler you are not going to like it. The text of the reviews is often more important than the actual score. Look for reoccurring themes and people that you relate to. The concerns of young couples may be very different than that of older travelers or families with children. As a traveler I generally read the negative reviews first and I then look at the other reviews written by this person. If they are constant complainers or have little travel experience I tend to discount their opinions. I think that consumers who do their homework in planning a trip are generally the happiest and depending solely upon trip advisor will disappoint. Do you trust your brother in law’s recommendations or the neighbor down the street? Who do you think is writing these reviews? It is important to know that there is a silent majority that has never written a review and never will. While I would like to see more people write reviews most people are just too busy or don’t care.
However our experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Now there are reviews for Doctors, carpenters, professors, eBay buyers & sellers, employers and every product imaginable. For good or bad we live in the age of information over load. Everyone has an opinion and as in politics we frequently don’t all agree. Going with the crowd might seem safe but is frequently wrong. All that I can say is that reviews can be a useful tool when combined with other information and careful thought.
For those of you who have stayed at the Sugar Hill Inn we welcome your reviews.