Reputation Management for the Post-COVID Hotel
By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited
How has reputation management for hotel brands evolved in the wake of the pandemic? Do travelers rely more or less on third-party reviews? Have their top criteria for judging a property changed? Can we attribute a specific dollar amount for how much a good or bad review will cost an organization?
In its base form nowadays, this encompasses monitoring and responding to comments on TripAdvisor and social media pages, but there's a lot more involved to achieve real success. Particularly with COVID limiting the number of travelers, daily work in this area should be devoted to gradually becoming the kind of hotel that consistently promotes the enthusiastic reviews we aspire to attain for our properties. As such, reputation management is one field in today's meager times where hotels can nurture more loyalty and new customers without incurring a sizeable expense.
To learn more about how one goes about improving one's sentiments organically with past, present and future guests, I reached out to Adele Gutman Milne who, after over two decades as the VP of Sales, Marketing and Revenue at Library Hotel Collection (LHC), has recently started Aspire Reputation Marketing while also continuing as a Strategic Advisor for LHC.
Of significance for this discussion, while at LHC, Adele and her team were able to simultaneously move all four of the brand's Manhattan properties into the top four rankings on TripAdvisor - a feat that is particularly remarkable in that it was done without capex or price discounting. Her work also delivered LHC's new Budapest property to rank as the world's number one rated property on TripAdvisor after its first full year of operation. With this as a background, Adele offers an in-depth look at how hotels can properly assess then act upon their reputational UGC.
Is reputation management more art or science?
The science would relate to listening to the guests' feedback with the intent to find opportunity for improvement, researching the issues for their root causes rather than proximate causes, and collaborating with your team to find affordable ways to diminish or eliminate those friction points from your guest experience moving forward. The art would relate to communication, such as how you deescalate irate guests by taking a vulnerable and human approach in assuring them that you are on their side or that you are committed to helping them resolve any issues that they may have. Your teams want to hear the vision you have for them and your confidence in their potential to be the best hoteliers in the world. Great reviews are like great relationships; they begin with leadership and communication.
If there are serious product faults, how can reputation management help?
Good marketing can't fix a bad product, but great service can often overcome a property's inherent issues. I always say that you don't need to be a five-star hotel to inspire five-star reviews; a truck stop motel can provide five-star service if its rooms are sparkling clean, there's good food and guests are greeted with a warm welcome. If you don't have a view, if you are in an odd area or if the floors creek in your historic building, just do the best you can to diminish the issues and be honest about what guests can expect. Guests don't like to be surprised because you oversold yourself, and they will lose no time telling the world about the shortcomings if you didn't communicate authentically.
What are the basic rules for improving a property's reputation?
Where most businesses go wrong is that they are focused on responding to the complaint. Reputation is more than PR; guest feedback is the ultimate management tool. Instead of assigning responses to a social media intern, manager need to truly listen to their guests and find ways to reduce friction points, all while inspiring their teams to share ideas on how to lift guest spirits at every touchpoint of the customer journey.
Is TripAdvisor the main reputation source for guests?
You should be agnostic about how the feedback comes in after a guest has left. Whether it is in an email, on Facebook, on a text message, on Google or through an OTA, it doesn't matter for management purposes. Your customer is telling you how they felt, and that information is a valuable in that it tells you in real-time what is going well and what needs your attention. I do think that TripAdvisor is still the most powerful tool for travelers to find reviews and to see which hotels have the highest guest satisfaction ratings in the destination travelers are planning to visit. It is possible that Google may become as valuable in the future. Even offline word of mouth can have a powerful impact on your business, so just focus on the experience and try to ask the guests for feedback during their stay in order for you to correct issues before they become a bad review.
Many companies sell tools that collect and analyze a property versus competition. Is this necessary?
In a boutique hotel, I found it helpful but not necessary since we all check our review sites constantly and have alerts set up to notify us of new reviews. At a larger hotel, we sometimes receive as many as 125 reviews a week; having a tool is essential for organizing the reviews in one place, tracking issues, responding and sentiment analysis. What the tools don't do is show you how to resolve friction points or create a culture of continuous improvement. That's where I come in - to help set up a process for resolving issues and optimizing performance.
Will having a stellar property reputation allow you to reduce your Google AdWords expenditure?
I wouldn't promise that to be the case for everyone, but it certainly has been true in my experience. In smaller hotels, we had so much traffic to our website that we didn't need to focus on advertising. Rather, we focused on making the website beautiful, growing our database and converting lookers to bookers with rich descriptions or compelling offers. At larger hotels, we still spent, but our conversions were well above par thanks to hundreds or thousands of guests giving five-star reviews and elevating our perceived value.
How has reputation management changed with COVID?
Trust has never been more important to a hotel. In a nutshell, if you don't have a great reputation, it is generally because there is a gap between what you believe or say about your services and what your customers perceive about those same services. Right now, hotels that have proven through their online reputation that they deliver or exceed on what they promise are far better positioned to claim that they are delivering on the promise of maintaining a well-sanitized property. If you settled for just okay service before, it's not too late to take this moment to rise to the occasion and change your future. You can start now and outshine the competition by making sure that every guest feels supremely cared for, appreciated and respected throughout the guest journey.
How long does it take to reverse a bad reputation?
It depends on how bad your starting point is and how earnestly you are willing to work towards your goal. You can accomplish a lot in six months, and you will certainly feel the financial benefits, but a year or two can put you in a completely different position than where you are now.
Can reputation improvements offset the need for capital investments?
If you need to change the carpet, you should do it, but a team of kind and gracious people who are focused on the guests' happiness can do a lot to distract from small flaws. Focusing on guest satisfaction is a philosophical commitment to putting the guest experience first. That means you can often find expense savings by renegotiating or eliminating costs in other areas that are 'nice to have' but don't impact the guest experience, and then put that money towards assets the guest can see and feel. Your customer feedback will tell you exactly what matters most to them, so you don't need to guess. It's like having a free focus group providing data in real-time; you just need to know how to listen.