Most travel articles are upbeat and glowing in tone. The azure beach, the quiescent hammock, and the attentive concierge have become staples of most publications.
But where are the stories about late check-ins, surly concierges, and hotels in needs of remodeling? Most magazines don’t write exposes because the resorts take out ads that keep the publications afloat. That explains why TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) launched in 2000.
TripAdvisor provides honest feedback from fellow travelers and consumers on what they like and dislike about resorts, hotels, restaurants and vacation packages. Were the rooms clean, did the hotel live up to expectations, and was the staff accommodating? Some, though, have questioned the authenticity of some of the feedback (more about that later).
Founder Stephen Kaufer, who is still CEO, was inspired to start the site when he was planning a trip to Cancun and found only marketing fluff on most hotels’ web sites. The secret of TripAdvisor stems from the “wisdom of crowds,” explained Brooke Ferencsik, its director of communication, based in Newton, Mass. Over 40 million reviews are posted, and most travelers have vacationed recently, so the feedback is current. It provides the “real scoop to figure out whether the property or destination is in line with a traveler’s needs,” he said.
TripAdvisor includes reviews of over 45,000 hotels and half a million restaurants located in 70,000 cities, and attracts 50 million monthly visitors according to comScore, an Internet ratings service. TripAdvisor was acquired in 2004 by Expedia, which also owns 16 other travel sites including Cruisecritic, FrequentFlier, SmarterTravel, and Airfare Watchdog. Each runs independently.
Its home page is organized into hotels, flights, restaurants, things to do, vacation rentals, and forums. On a typical day, it spotlights one leading vacation destination, such as Williamsburg, VA, offers top 10 places to dine in Europe, and includes a question-and-answer with notables such as The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Westberger. Theme articles such as 10 best vacation rentals provide helpful tips to vacationers.
To make it easier for users, reviews can be sorted by ratings, date, and business or leisure travel. Hotel photos can also be uploaded to provide a better sense of what it has to offer. To speed things up, the site introduced a summary box of hotels that have been reviewed by 50 or more people. International travelers can visit one of many overseas sites such as the U.K. TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.co.uk) and French site (www.tripadvisor.fr).
The forum allows users to ask specific questions and obtain timely answers. After the hurricane in New Orleans, users could ask whether the hotels in the French Quarter were open. Guidebooks are printed a year in advance but TripAdvisor offers feedback from readers who have visited a hotel last week.
Consumer reviews can be extremely subjective and detailed. For example, of the 256 reviews of the historic Sagamore Hotel in the Lake George, NY area, one reviewer noted that the room was clean “except for dust in the corners of the upholstered chairs” but praised the resort’s restaurants, accommodating staff, and the room’s breathtaking views. But another consumer was less impressed, describing the Sagamore as “past its prime, a collection of tired condo units surrounding a main hotel.” His room was “five-years old, dark and moldy, and wasn’t renovated.” Readers need to sift through many reviews to obtain a sense of the dominant consumer feedback.
Dan Lieberstein, a New York music editor, used TripAdvisor to plan a four-week trip to Italy with his wife and described it as very helpful for selecting hotels and choosing local eateries. Though some reviews were overly opinionated and could be dismissed, he focused on hotels with more than 50 reviews and figured if 45 were positive they were probably reliable. When using TripAdvisor, “you have to put in the time and do the research—the hotels aren’t going to pick themselves,” he said.
TripAdvisor has triggered controversy over the authenticity of the anonymous feedback. The editors of the Good Hotel Guide accused hotels of submitting “bogus reviews” to TripAdvisor to improve their ratings and generate sales. The editors said, "Many hotels are now massaging their TripAdvisor profile by inspiring reviews which pretend to be independent, but in reality are written by friends, relations and public relations companies."
While Ferencsik didn’t go into specific details, he said, “The site has tools and quality assurance specialists” who can filter out the dishonest hotelier who writes a fluffy review to boost sales.”
Unlike Facebook, TripAdvisor relies on advice and feedback from strangers. But now TripAdvisor has a partnership with Facebook where users can log onto Facebook on Trip Advisor and see whether their friends have visited Seattle through a certain application.
Why do people contribute reviews since they’re not compensated? Ferencsik said, “The travel community loves receiving advice. It’s a way of giving back. What makes the system work is when everyone shares reviews.”
TripAdvisor generates revenues from ads on the site including ones taken out by hotels and resorts. Do they get anything in return for their ads? “We are all about being unbiased. We don’t provide any benefits or deals for advertisers,” Ferencsik stated.
Some travellers still prefer obtaining advice from a professional travel agent or reading travel magazine where experts visit hotels, but TripAdvisor serves as another vehicle for obtaining information and person-on-the-street feedback.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.