Services that fail to change with the times, fall out of use: Robust, third-party QA programs are, surprisingly, one such otherwise valuable service that we may see disappearing as social media are increasingly used by guests and management alike, to determine the state of affairs and rankings of hotels and resorts. The replacement of professionals by amateurs, who are armed with a little knowledge and the full confidence of their own particular experience, is not necessarily an improvement; but it is certainly a reality. Part II of the three-part series on Quality Assurance looks at the pros and cons of each, and the best way to retain the professionalism of QA audits while maintaining the finger on the pulse, via social media, of the guests, who after all, are the subject of the conversation.

Gauging performance of one's hotel or resort, guest sentiments, and presenting the right image to potential guests, used to be accomplished by professionals: internal audits, PR, and marketing departments, travel agencies as independent marketers; and later on, third-party audits, and for higher-end properties, membership in such as LHW or the Mobil/Forbes list to make a statement about what quality a guest might expect. There was some measure of control, and whether or not the audits and surveys were accurate portrayals of the existing reality, they were generally balanced and comprehensive.

The downside to this paradigm being that the ratings afforded were not transparent to the guests and perhaps tended toward the hyperbolic, losing some meaning for guests. Added to the failure of some hotel companies to maintain brand standards and the tendency for travel guides and PR pieces in magazines and media to paint too-rosy-a-picture, one driven by commerce rather than the quality of the actual guest experience, and consumers were too often led astray in their selection of a hotel or resort.

Enter the 21st Century and the ascendancy of the virtual world over the real one—and more particularly for hospitality, the replacement in the minds of those raised in the digital era, of thorough assessments and statements by hospitality professionals as a means for evaluation of hotels and resorts they were considering visiting, in favor of amateur and usually narrowly focused consumer feedback. Suddenly the guests, empowered by the social media, held sway over the hotels and resorts they frequented.

Where before hotels could be accused of putting their best foot forward at the expense of guest understanding of the true state of affairs, what has replaced it is not necessarily better: while many consumer posts are genuine, the anonymity made possible in the virtual world has opened the door to unreasonable venting, fake identities, bots and the like, generating inaccurate pictures and thus assessments that reach far and wide, forcing the industry to focus on image management over guest servicing.

The most telling example of "fake reviews" is probably The Shed at Dulwich, which was London's top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in 2017—until the truth emerged that it was actually a spoof by a freelance writer, who himself blew the whistle. The restaurant did not exist in the real world, but the web page and (burner) phone number (to take calls from frustrated Londoners wanting to book and finding it constantly overbooked) did exist, as did the photographs of the haute cuisine dishes (made from household products such as bleach tablets and shaving cream). The writer's inspiration came from the writing he had been paid for previously: posting fake reviews for real restaurants in the capital city. So likewise, within five months of being accepted by TripAdvisor, the 104 fake reviews posted by friends and family, who rated their experience as 5* with a few 4*s, catapulted The Shed at Dulwich from dead last in London (18,149th) to #1. Toward the end of its virtual life, 89,000 people from around the world visited the web site for The Shed at Dulwich in just one day.

The upside of this C2C collaboration via social media platforms is that hotels and resorts exist to service their guests, so what could be wrong with keeping a very big finger on the pulse of guest satisfaction? That was how independent audits started in the Sixties in England, with a very big concern, as discussed in Part I of this series for emotional engagement and guest satisfaction. Somewhere along the line, however, the hospitality industry became short sighted and focused its QA standards on the objects of its trade—the buildings, the rooms and their servicing—not even including anything as basic as chatting with guests during an audit, to find out what they were experiencing.

So, is it any wonder that, thanks to the instant C2C communication lines of the many social platforms, the pendulum has swung over to the guests asserting themselves and doing their own assessments? If only they were accurate, focused more on balanced and factual information rather than emotional content and anecdotal accounts. The question is, does an agglomeration of anecdotes relayed by those in possession of a little knowledge, add up to a balanced and accurate account overall upon which guests can decide from the overwhelming amount of choices, which hotel to book? Or GMs can assess their hotel's performance? Probably not, but consumers are running with it anyway.

Accurate or not, these assessments mean more to the upcoming generations of guests than a hotel's hard-won membership in an exclusive club or QA ratings: According to one report, half of business travelers and almost as many of leisure travelers are influenced in their decision for hotel stays by user reviews. A second report claims 74% are swayed by peer reviews, and a third, 90%.

It's no wonder, really, as generally people are swayed by family and friends when they make any purchases: by word of mouth from people they trust, more than by Sales, PR and Marketing people with their enticing images, mellifluous (sweet/musical) words, and trumpeted ratings. Apparently, guests trust social media six times more than traditional advertising, according to one study.

Whatever the numbers, there is no escaping the fact that consumers influence consumers in their hotel and resort choices far more than industry PR and marketing efforts, and so the hospitality game by necessity has turned to cossetting (caring for in an overindulgent way) and coddling (treating in an overprotective way) the consumer directly. Not a bad thing, obviously, as guest satisfaction is ultimately the name of the game, and what the consumers sees and hears when deciding on a purchase is extremely important—perception being a big part of reality.

So why do QA audits pay scant attention to this major shift and dynamic?

It could explain the growing disenchantment by some chains and GMs with current QA assessments, preferring instead to focus on GSSs and social media—often turning to software such as Review Pro, Revinate, or TrustYou to assess the public perception of their property. Yes, perception helps define reality, but reality even more so! Focusing on social media management and ignoring or downplaying QA, whether internal or through third parties, is to focus on the scoreboard rather than the game in progress.

According to Welf Ebeling, one of the original founders of LQA, and long-term COO of the Leading Hotels of the World (before casting off on his own in 2009), "From the perspective of some hotel proprietors and GM's, QA assessments have become a surreal experience when they are judged by standards that do not necessarily apply to their property but that had been created as common denominators to fit a multitude of hotels regardless of cultural differences, size, and purpose, and were based on the preferences and habits of a generation of guests that is no longer the predominant demographic customer segment. Add to that the public perception created by once-a-year, publications-owned rating systems that only provide judgment without any detailed feedback, and you get that vaguely unsettling feeling of being asked to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as it slides into oblivion. And so we have QA not moving with the times and letting down hoteliers with inadequately conceived audits that fail to focus on the core issues that ultimately produce guest satisfaction."

It seems the halcyon (idyllic) days are over for hotels and resorts: no longer largely in control of public perception, and thus occupancy and revenue streams, instead grappling with the rapidly changing, inaccurate, and insufficiently monitored-and-controlled social-media landscape, home to something like 2.6 billion users worldwide this year who love to snap, chat, and stream on WeChat, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Vimeo, YouTube, Boomerang, and Hyperlapse, not to mention the giants Facebook and Instagram, and not to forget Twitter—although in this visual and not-so-literate age, videos are the preferred blogging tool. And then there is TripAdvisor, which in 2017 saw 200 million visitors a month on its US and UK sites.

Whether social media is good or bad, the genie is out of the bottle and is here to stay

Not being balanced/fair/accurate, social media puts hoteliers at the mercy of those with a little knowledge and so they propitiate (win favor and avoid pain by doing something to please another), comp'ing unnecessarily in the hope of retaining loyalty; fêting bloggers they hope are real influencers—rather than pretenders or bottom-feeding bots—for the target demographics for their property, and in the hope they will influence their hopefully numerous followers to visit; constantly looking to create photo ops for their guests; and always delivering experiences and services with a view to them growing social-media legs.

Some hoteliers try to win at the social media game by using them for marketing or by having staff post approved content on platforms. They seek to nuance their ads and marketing into stories that reinforce their unique brand. Others use software like HootSuite to monitor guest comments across multiple social-media platforms, performing damage control or seizing opportunities to win brownie points. Some respond by inflating guest reviews to raise their property's rank: instructing staff to hand out "Trip Advisor" cards and/or encouraging guests to post on social media before leaving the premises, or emailing links after the guests have departed.

Auditing the Auditors, Part II of III - The Art of Finding the Pulse | By Steven Ferry— Photo by International Institute Of Modern ButlersAuditing the Auditors, Part II of III - The Art of Finding the Pulse | By Steven Ferry— Photo by International Institute Of Modern Butlers
Auditing the Auditors, Part II of III - The Art of Finding the Pulse | By Steven Ferry— Photo by International Institute Of Modern Butlers

And why should they not? Too often, those who post are motivated by ire at some real or perceived shortfall (or are deliberately looking for a freebie by posting before or during their stay), while those who are happy, often do not post at all.

Yet, this influence-the-metrics game does present an inflated picture (most easily spotted by the volume of reviews by first-and-only-time reviewers).

The metrics do validate this pro-active approach to social media: According to Peter O'Connor's The Four Crucial Steps in Managing Your Hotel's Online Reviews "Online reputation management system vendor TrustYou claims that a 1% increase in their TrustScore (generated from crawling through user reviews on dozens of relevant user review sites) typically results in an ADR increase of 4.6%, which translates into nearly half a million dollars' worth of additional revenue for a typical U.S. hotel. Similarly, a recent Harvard Business Review study showed that a one-star difference in rating on user review sites can lead to nearly a 6% difference in revenues, a gap that should act as a significant motivator for managing reputation and improving overall scores."

So we have these two paths to understanding how a hotel or resort is performing—confidential QA in the real world and public social media monitoring and influencing in the virtual world—one internal and professionally derived to maintain the standards that are designed to bring about a happy guest experience; and the other consumer driven and in the public domain, based on the actual service received.

What would happen if these were combined into a comprehensive overview of performance and standing to guide management at the operational, as well as PR and marketing, levels?

In Part III of this series, scheduled for mid-November, we will look at what QA could be doing to give hotels and resorts the full and accurate story on how they are performing in the 21st Century; and furthermore, to add value to each property by improving the conditions needed to keep guests returning based on their own experience, rather than the megaphoned words of fellow consumers they have generally never met, but whose words, accurate or not, reach far and wide on social media.

Steven Ferry
International Institute Of Modern Butlers