Hotels fail to get a grip on reality
The increasing use of online hotel review sites allows brands to see if their promises live up to customer expectations. A recent survey shows only two brands hit the spot.
Fluffy towels, white bathrobes and breakfast in bed might sound like an ideal recipe for a long weekend in a hotel, and seeing these promoted on a brand’s website might be tempting. But the perception of some hotel brands and the reality do not always match, according to new research shown to Marketing Week.
The Premier Inn and Marriott hotel chains are the only two whose brand promise matches the reality of the stay. That’s according to a comparison of BDRC Continental’s annual British hotel guest survey, which surveys 2,000 business and leisure travellers in the UK, and online reputation tool PillowChat, which ranks brands by the positivity of their reviews.
Whitbread-owned Premier Inn does well because it realises that its glossy advertising starring Lenny Henry means that the customer experience must live up to what the ads portray. Matt Costin, a director at BDRC Continental, says: “Premier Inn has a clear marketing message, which it delivers effectively, and it actually delivers on the promise. It understands that if it is going to make a claim and put Lenny Henry on everyone’s television promising superb rooms, it actually has to live up to that. Marketing is an ethos rather than a gloss-over.”
A hotel brand’s reputation is a complex mix and it can be difficult to control individual elements. These might include how brands respond to online reviews, staff performance and what the customer expects from the brand, says Costin. “One of the reasons there is a difference in [brand perception and online review] rankings has a lot to do with how well a brand markets itself and gets its message across.
“Some brands feature very highly in terms of awareness, prompted and unprompted, which influences the rankings of the guest survey, but when it comes to experience, maybe it doesn’t live up to expectation.”
He adds that big chains can suffer from inconsistencies in their hotels, which may be exaggerated by being a bigger brand. Hilton and Holiday Inn, for example, do not appear in the top five brands ranked by review site scores on PillowChat, ranking at 7th and 8th position respectively.
Premier Inn, which appears highly in both the BDRC survey and PillowChat rankings, has refurbished and opened new hotels in recent years. “Premier Inn has a more standardised experience,” says Costin.
“I think you can have a truly exceptional Hilton experience and you can have Hilton experiences that are merely good. With some of the longest established international hotel brands, particularly Hilton in the UK market, you often get a halo effect, where people perceive a brand to be stronger than it actually is, or thought to deliver a more upmarket experience for the guest. That is something that the review site ratings shine a light on.”
Franchised hotels also have an effect on the standardisation of experiences for the guest. Premier Inn digital marketing director Mark Fells claims: “A disadvantage that some operators have is that they are brand owners but they franchise out their operational delivery, in many cases to companies which operate under their name but run the hotel or groups of hotels for them.”
Although it is part of the Holiday Inn group and includes the brand name, Holiday Inn Express scores very highly in online reputation and reviews on PillowChat, but its brand health is very low, according to BDRC’s survey.
Costin says: “Expectations of consumers are lower when they go into a Holiday Inn Express than a Holiday Inn. People don’t just put down three, four or five stars when ranking in isolation, they think about their experience in the context of what they were expecting to receive before they visited the hotel.”
Review sites are not always an indicator of which hotels to avoid, according to the research. BDRC Continental believes that the findings go some way towards “shattering the myth” that all that is seen on review sites is criticism.
Osama Hirzalla, vice president of brand marketing and ecommerce at Marriott, says the positive aspects of user-generated review sites is that they “push hotel brands to address shortfalls in service and product much faster than in the past.”
However, he adds: “Misuse of such review sites by customers and hotels can contribute to a decline in the credibility of the platform. The use of review sites’ general rating scores, either in search-engine algorithms or in rankings on booking channels, may result in penalising hotels that are new, or hotels that are renovating and trying to change customer reviews from negative to positive.”
The number of consumers obtaining advice from user-generated review sites has increased year-on-year and of those guests surveyed, half say they are influenced by reading reviews and 34 to 41 per cent have had their initial purchase idea changed by what they read.
This increasing use of review sites means independent hotels now have greater online presence against the bigger UK hotel chains, claims Emma Shaw, UK communications director at TripAdvisor.
“We’ve helped businesses of all sizes compete on a far more level playing field, with the small guys that have little or no marketing budget able to stand toe-to-toe with the big guys. Many of the top-rated hotels are not from the major brands, but are the small independent properties that distinguish themselves among travellers.”
Review sites take control away from the brand owners and can sway the messaging that is put out to potential customers.
As Fells at Premier Inn says: “The thing that all brands have got to get their heads around, not just in our category, is that the days when we ‘owned’ our message and controlled the message have gone. The focus shouldn’t be about trying to control the message or worrying about the medium, but just trying to get the product and the promise right.”
Hotel operators can react to negative issues on review sites. “Responding to them is really important and there are a lot of brands out there that are doing that really well and using that channel to pick up on issues and respond to people,” says BDRC’s Costin.
Making promises you cannot deliver, living up to the perception of your brand and responding to negative reviews on sites are all factors hotel operators can consider to make sure that the promise of a good night’s sleep is what tired travellers receive.
We ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground
Digital marketing director
Number one in the online review ranking
A few big international brand operators are brand owners but franchise out the operational delivery. Perhaps what happens is that they are great marketers and great at putting out a promise, but when guests get to the hotel and experience the product there is a disconnect that doesn’t match the promise they expected.
Our belief is that by keeping those two things together we control the promise and the experience under the brand. This might be why, for other brands, the review score is not as good as the brand and the promise score. More often than not if you promise something to someone and they really like you as a brand and you under deliver, that’s when you really disappoint people.
Our ‘great night’s sleep’ promise goes into most of our above-the-line communications. The new TV ad this year has become more about the benefits of staying with us rather than just the fact that we have lots of hotels - we are the UK’s biggest hotel operator. The important thing is how you feel when you come and stay with us, so we focus much more on that.
Vice president brand marketing and ecommerce, Marriott
Number four in the online review ranking
User-generated review sites are pushing hotel brands to address shortfalls in service and product much faster than before. Hotel brands that have great reviews are now more visible and attract new customers - therefore they are more successful in driving revenue.
It is impossible for any brand to control customer reviews, but hotel operators can and should respond to them. The key is how and when to respond.
We make sure that our hotels do deliver on the brand promise and we believe that brand marketing needs to connect with our customers so that when they stay at our hotels they share their experiences with their friends, relatives and the public.
A few years ago we invested more than £100m to renovate most of our UK Marriott hotels, which helped move the brand perception in the UK towards being a modern and stylish brand. Our culture is what differentiates us from other hotels: we believe that success in our industry comes from our staff. We invest in people so they can perform at their best.
President, brands and commercial services
Number 7 in the online review ranking
Our world has continued to become more digital over the years as consumers shift online for their news and entertainment, as well as to connect with family, friends and brands, and now to travel. User-generated content and feedback is and will continue to be a large trend universally, particularly in the travel space.
The validity and trust placed on a first-hand experience is very powerful and can encourage or discourage consumers. Nearly nine out of 10 Hilton Worldwide guests are active on social media. And 43 per cent of our guests expect companies to listen to what they are saying, tweeting and posting online - and to respond if they have complaints. This means we have to be a part of those social media conversations. We have to sell the way people want to buy.
We cannot control what our customers say in their reviews, but we can ensure that we respond quickly to online postings and, if necessary, correct any problems that a guest might have. We also need to continue to work hard every day to provide the best experiences possible for all of our guests.
Communications director, UK
TripAdvisor was founded on a core set of principles, giving travellers a voice with which to freely share their experiences, promoting consumer choice in the travel industry based on honest customer feedback and encouraging a level playing field for all travel businesses regardless of size.
Businesses should encourage guests and visitors to write a review when they leave, either verbally or in the form of a thank you email. We know that many read the feedback of their business on TripAdvisor and use this as free consumer insight to improve their service.
We value the insights of the business owners as well as travellers and both are given an equal opportunity to speak to the TripAdvisor community. In fact, owners always have the last word in the management response tool. We strongly encourage business owners to take advantage of this feature and have their voice heard. Our advice is to follow the mantra ‘thank the good and explain the bad’.
According to a recent PhoCusWright survey of more than 2,500 people, 98 per cent found TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be an accurate description of the actual experience. Eighty-seven per cent of users agree that TripAdvisor hotel reviews “help me feel more confident in my decisions”, which highlights the important part user-generated review sites play in consumer decisions relating to travel needs.
BDRC’s survey is based on interviews of more than 2,000 travellers, including business and leisure guests, and the hotel brand index is put together using a number of performance metrics. These include unprompted and prompted awareness, usage in the past 12 months and guests’ first and second choices. The online reputation score is based on social media comments as well as scores given on review sites such as TripAdvisor, Lastminute.com and Expedia, gathered using BDRC Continental software PillowChat.