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Hotel reception bellAn increasing number of business travelers are relying on hotel reviews by guests to make booking decisions, rather than being swayed by travel agents, splashy magazine ads or sumptuous website designs, according to a recent New York Times article.

And hotel companies are responding. Marriott, IHG, Starwood, Wyndham and Accor have started to post guest reviews on their websites, even if it means allowing less-than-glowing opinions, the article reports. While some reviews are obtained from sites like TripAdvisor, some hotels directly solicit reviews from guests.

It’s all part of a rapidly shifting landscape in business travel.

Thanks to technology and the spread of social media, decision-making power is being put more in the hands of business travelers themselves rather than corporate travel managers, though managers still require compliance with corporate travel policies for expense reimbursement, The Times article says.

Moreover, hotels are finding they can’t afford to be left out of the conversation, even if it means allowing negative reviews on their websites. Clay Cowan, Starwood’s vice president for global digital, told The Times that reviews were uniquely important in the travel industry, compared to other commodities that are sold online. “There are no trials, no exchanges, no previews,” he said. “You rely on others who have been there to tell you about it.”

In response to this increasingly-influential trend, Egencia, the corporate travel division of Expedia, has created a new service that creates a customized ranking of hotels based on TripAdvisor reviews, the client’s priorities, and the neighborhood where the traveler will be staying. For example, if a client considered a hotel’s price more important than amenities like a gym, free breakfast or Wi-Fi, this would affect how the hotel was ranked when its travelers went online to book a stay.

One problem with guest reviews, however, can be their reliability.

According to research done last year by Hudson Crossing, a travel consulting company, 57% of hotel guests in the United States doubt the accuracy of online ratings from sites like TripAdvisor. Another issue is that leisure travelers’ needs often differ from those of business travelers.

To deal with these concerns, hotels often put restrictions on their review-posting process, the article states. Marriott International posts reviews for its loyalty program members only on the online forum, which is publicly accessible, and lets program members write reviews only of hotels where they have stayed. IHG and Starwood post reviews on websites of individual hotels from guests who have stayed at those hotels; both companies solicit these reviews by email after the guest’s stay.

Reviews offer valuable additional benefits to hotel companies.

An added advantage of reviews, some hotels have found, is that they encourage travelers to remain on their websites to research and book stays, rather than book through an online travel agency―which helps hotel companies avoid paying agency commissions.

In addition, Douglas Quinby, vice president for research at PhoCusWright, a travel research company, told The Times that guest reviews should inspire hotels to improve service for business travelers. “A corporate traveler is on an expense account and is likely to spend more,” he said. “To capture and satisfy this market and keep it loyal should be priority No. 1 for any hotel company, and ranking hotels could help reinvent the traditional approach to hotel procurement.”

Beyond new travel management tools, some companies have started social media programs for their own employees to post hotel reviews and share travel experiences with colleagues. One of the first to do this was Sapient, a Boston-based digital marketing company, which five years ago created an internal online travel discussion group. Today one-fifth of Sapient’s 10,000 employees—average age 35—participate in it.

Hoteliers and travelers, take note.

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