October 18, 2018

Everybody’s a Critic

How hoteliers handle online reviews in a cut-throat market
By Ross Boissoneau | June 9, 2018

Social media has made critics of us all. Had a great time with your friends? Tell the world. Lunch was outstanding? Let everyone know. Your accommodations didn’t meet your expectations? Blast the place online.

But what if you’re a hotelier in one of the most touristed (read: competitive) regions in the state — and at the receiving end of those complaints? Should you apologize, explain, dismiss the complaint, or not respond at all? The whole world’s watching.

A look at several sites and conversations with those on the front lines provides the universal reaction: It depends. It depends on the situation, on the site, and on the resort or hotel’s policies, both in terms of social media and in terms of what the disagreement is about.

“There are so many of these review sites out there,” said Chris Hale, vice president of sales and marketing at Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire. That’s certainly true — there’s Facebook, Urban Spoon, Google, Glass Door, Yelp, TripAdvisor — a nearly endless supply of places for people to praise or protest. Hale said it’s impossible to keep up with all of them, so he chooses to spend his time and energy on TripAdvisor. “You can’t care about them all. I don’t pay attention to Yelp,” which he said is very focused on restaurants.

If you go to Yelp and search for Shanty Creek Resort, you’ll see an average of three stars on the reviews. Comments include everything from “The rooms are nice, loved the hot tub” to “the saddest breakfast” — in the same review. Complaints about food are followed by praise for the food. Ditto the lodging and the staff. What you won’t find is any response from Hale or anyone else connected to the resort.

Shift to TripAdvisor, and it’s a different story. Over three quarters of the reviews are positive, either excellent (52 percent) or very good (26 percent). While most of the reviews are positive, some are not, but neither opinion is dismissed online or at the resort. “We do stub our toe from time to time,” Hale admitted.

He said the staff typically knows which guests are unhappy, and they try to address the situation when an issue occurs, such as a long wait for dinner or to check in. Sometimes that can mean offering a free drink when someone has to wait. Sometimes it just means listening to a complaint and empathizing. “We know at checkout time (those) that are most upset. We try to cut it off at the pass,” Hale said.

That’s not always successful. And that can mean an unhappy camper who reaches out from behind a keyboard to tell the world. “We know somebody’s going to be dissatisfied, and as a society they flame online,” Hale said.

Reg Smith, the vice president of hotels with Stafford’s Hospitality and general manager of Stafford’s Perry Hotel, echoed Hale. “We stick with Trip Advisor. It’s the biggest and most influential,” he said. “If it’s bad, I respond personally. That personal response is what you have to do.”

And like Hale, he said that sometimes it’s just best to ignore the review and move on. “There are some reviews where the best response is no response,” said Smith.

“We want our guests to know they’ve been heard,” said Jillian Manning, the public relations manager at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. She said the resort looks at all the reviews to see how — or if — they will respond. “The goal in responding to any review is to directly address the guest’s feedback, whether that is positive or negative. We then pass along praise and constructive criticism to our teams so we can keep improving our services.”

But sometimes it’s not about improving service. Sometimes people just want to vent. Hale said some people have unrealistic expectations, and no matter what he and the staff do, those people will never be satisfied. At that point he typically lets it go, and if they choose to express their unhappiness on a review site, he chooses not to respond.

He cited one instance where a guest expected that the cost of a room would include ski rentals. “Not in the history of ski resorts does it include that. I know going in to that argument I can’t win. It’s not worth it to address it, so I leave it be,” he said. At least in that instance, all was not lost. Members of the public chimed in to address the situation and defend the resort’s policy.

Manning said that while not all online critiques are responded to, Grand Traverse Resort & Spa compiles them and then uses the data to determine how to address concerns brought up. “We use a software tool to track reviews across multiple platforms. We can compare how we’re being reviewed year over year, during different seasons, and for different services in the resort. Our marketing director pulls weekly reports to share with the entire executive team, so we have everyone from the spa director to the general manager looking at reviews,” she said.

Hale, Smith, and Manning say the review sites can and do serve a useful purpose. They enable the public to see what people are saying and assess the situation from the perspective of a customer, but also see how or if they are responded to. “I’m a consumer too. I look at reviews,” said Smith.  “Nobody’s perfect. If it’s a poor or negative review, you look to see that someone cares.”

So while a general overview of the ratings and reviews provide a customer’s view of a property, the most enlightening may be when there’s a comment and a response. That’s true for both positive and negative comments.

For example, a customer at Northwoods Lodging in Beulah posted a two-star review, complaining about cobwebs and a musty smell, noting that she stayed a second night only because of a non-cancellation policy. She also dismissed the breakfast (“all sugary carbs”) and said it was way overpriced. The manager responded online, apologizing and stating “I wish that you had mentioned your issues while you were here. We would have moved you to another room.”

At the Ramsdell Inn in Manistee, many of the 86 reviews on TripAdvisor merited a response, from four- and five-star reviews, which were met with “We’re glad you enjoyed your stay” to one who gave a one-star review complaining about the noise from the bar and the street traffic. A lengthy response noted that the guest was a competitive cyclist who expected complete quietude at a downtown hotel in the middle of summer. “Over and over this gent complained … over and over we tried to satisfy. We wanted nothing more than to satisfy this guest. What he asked of us was unreasonable and couldn't be accommodated.” 

That gets back to what Hale said. Sometimes, no matter how hard hosts try, they just cannot satisfy a guest. Then, when that person writes a scathing review online, the question is whether to address it or not. In the case of the Ramsdell, a reading of the complaint and response would seem to indicate that the buyer does need to be aware of the circumstances. This person would obviously have been much happier at a more remote location.

Then there are the back-and-forth interactions in which a scathing review is met by a harsh response. Nobody ends up looking good. Amusing to read, perhaps, but consumers may end up losing respect for both the reviewer and the property. So no one ends up walking away happy, and potential customers are probably less likely to stay than if the hotel had simply not responded at all.

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