I’m writing this from the very cute, very quaint Headlands Inn in very cute, very quaint Mendocino, California. My wife and I are taking an extended weekend and – nerd that I am – I had to take my computer and check emails and blog whilst the wife is asleep!
We found the Headlands Inn online, I believe at the Mendocino.com Web site. The pictures and description of the Inn looked great, but we of course still had to go to TripAdvisor to look at customer reviews. The combination of pictures and recommendations convinced us that this was the place for our getaway. The Inn is as described – very friendly and attentive service, close proximity to the downtown shopping area, lots of lace curtains and fresh herbal tea.
What I realized during our Inn research process – and in talking to the Innkeepers – is that the Internet has enabled travellers to do much better research on hotels and inns than in the pre-dot com era. So much better, in fact, that I think we are now in an era where a hotel with bad customer service is in real jeopardy of going out of business in a matter of months.
You see, in the old days, the glossy travel brochure for a hotel and perhaps an AAA rating was the best you could do in terms of research. If you were going to a very popular destination (say, Las Vegas), you could get word-of-mouth referrals from your friends, but that was of course limited to the specific hotels at which they had stayed.
So a hotel with a good market department and a talented graphic designer could maintain high occupancy just by creating inviting collateral for prospective guests. If it turned out that a serious disconnect existed between the brochure and the actual hotel, in many cases this had little to no impact on the hotel – the traveller could not back out of his reservation, and it was difficult to spread negative feedback nationwide by word-of-mouth.
This is very similar to the analogy I made a few weeks ago about the cheesy art gallery catering to tourists in San Francisco. Because new tourists don’t realize that the place is a tourist trap, the store can survive on an endless supply of fresh blood.
But unlike art galleries – which are impulse buys and highly subjective – booking a hotel is a planned and research event. So as more Americans rely on Internet reviews to make their hotel booking decisions, it becomes less and less likely that a hotel with underwhelming service can survive – nice brochures or not.
Right now, my sense is that a lot of people look at brochures/hotel Web sites first, and then validate their choice with TripAdvisor. I would not be surprised if this process is flipped on its head in the near future; consumers go to TripAdvisor first, read reviews of all the top-rated hotels, and then go to the hotel Web site to check out pretty pictures as a final deciding factor.
It may even be the case that someday a collaborative filtering hotel site will exist – as you rate and review hotels it learns about your preferences and matches you to other travellers with similar preferences. Over a period of time, it ‘knows you’ and it can recommend hotels based on your specific likes and dislikes. No need to see pictures or read reviews, you just trust the Web site’s algorithm to find the right hotel for you (sort of a “I’m Feeling Lucky” button for hotels).
Taking all of this one step beyond B&Bs and hotels, the proliferation of and increased reliance on online consumer reviews may end up being the great levelling factor within all service industries. Restaurants, retail stores, repairmen, real estate agents, doctors, lawyers, dentists – all of these services will truly need to provide high quality customer service or face the wrath of angry reviews and lost business.
Last year I wrote a post about how the Internet would make Roger Ebert obsolete, the theory being that consumer recommendations combined with personalization (though collaborative filtering) would end up being much more powerful than one expert’s opinion on any topic. Pretty soon you’ll be able to add Frommer’s and Fodor’s to that endangered species list. And any B&Bs that may have gotten by in the past on a nicely Photoshopped image of their facilities.