Unpacking social media in the hotel industry

A Yelp users looks at the page for the Godfrey Hotel.  The Chicago hotel subscribes to Check Mate, a mobile platform that allows hotels to track the social influence of its guests. / megan k. rauch / MEDILL
A Yelp user looks at reviews for the Godfrey Hotel. The Chicago hotel subscribes to CheckMate, a mobile platform that allows hotels to track the social influence of its guests. / megan k. rauch / MEDILL

By Megan K. Rauch

Seth Rau is a self-described travel junkie. The Ohio native has visited nearly all 50 states and countless countries. Rau says he enjoys exploring new hotels and restaurants, and he frequently writes reviews of them on Yelp and TripAdvisor, both online review sites.

On a recent trip to Argentina, Rau was pleasantly surprised to discover that the boutique hotel where he was staying had given him a 10 percent discount on his bill. The reduction came after the hotel staff had seen that Rau had written a favorable review on TripAdvisor, which specializes in hotel reviews.

“That’s probably highly unethical, but whatever. I got to save a little,” Rau said in a phone interview.

The practice of rewarding customers for favorable reviews is frowned upon and even against some review sites rules, says Kristal Richarte, the reputations manager for the Venetian and Palazzo resorts in Las Vegas.

So is punishing guests whose reviews of a hotel or restaurant are less than favorable. The Broadway Hotel in Liverpool, England, recently came under fire for charging a couple an extra 100 pounds after the duo called the hotel a “rotten, stinking hovel” on TripAdvisor.

Fine print in the book policy for the hotel stated that it would charge the fee for any bad reviews posted online.

“Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not. For every bad review left on any website, the group organizer will be charged a maximum 100 pounds per review,” the policy said.

TripAdvisor said the Broadway Hotel’s booking policy violates the website’s policies. “It is completely against the spirit and policies of our site for any business owner to attempt to bully or intimidate reviewers who have had a negative experience,” said TripAdvisor spokesman James Kay.

“We take pride in the fact that consumers know they can rely on TripAdvisor to help them make informed decisions. We built this community by giving customers a platform to share their honest opinions, whether good or bad. We strongly believe in their right to do so,” Kay said in a statement on the company’s website.

For better or worse, hospitality companies are recognizing the value of social media. Many hotels are adopting new practices that better embrace social media as a business tool.

“It allows us to be more cognizant of our level of service. So this presents us with the opportunity to treat each and every guest as if they are a social media guru,” said Richarte.

The Venetian and Palazzo resorts have over 20,000 reviews on TripAdvisor combined. Richarte says review websites provide a tool for the hotels to help guests engage with a hotel before arriving.

“Social media showcases a resort’s qualities through photos, reviews, etc. Before a guest’s stay, this is so important because you are building them up for their visit. It is truly our portal in connecting with guests before, during and even after their stay,” she said.

Some hotels are even taking the process a step further, using a guest’s social media presence to inform his or her experience at the hotel.

CheckMate is one such example. The mobile platform allows a customer to check in, upgrade to a better room and make other requests before arriving at the hotel. In doing so, CheckMate allows users to bypass the sometimes long and tedious process of checking into a hotel at the front desk.

The company announced in October that it had partnered with Google Now, meaning users will now be able to check in using their already-existing Google accounts.

Hotels that subscribe to CheckMate will be able to see the social influence of their guests and their posts on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Having this information will better inform hotels of the specific needs of their guests, says Drew Patterson, co-founder and CEO of CheckMate. Hotels want to know which customers are likely to write reviews, and they may offer perks to these guests to encourage them to write reviews.

“Reviews are incredibly important,” Patterson said. “The people who write reviews have a disproportionate influence in the industry, as only 10 percent of traveling Americans write reviews.”

According to Yelp, approximately 97.5 million Americans and 133.2 million unique visitors worldwide come to its websites every month. TripAdvisor’s website says it receives 315 million unique visitors per month worldwide, which indicates that many more people are seeking the advice of the reviewers than there are reviewers out there.

In Chicago, both the James Hotel and the Godfrey Hotel subscribe to CheckMate. Neither hotel returned a request for comment regarding their use of the platform.

It’s in a business’ best interest to ensure that the review-writing guests are getting the best experience possible to ensure they receive good reviews online.

Rau, who lives in Las Vegas, has received a number of perks for writing reviews on Yelp, including VIP access to nightclub events on the Strip. A local pizzeria also once gave him a free cannoli for writing a favorable review on Yelp.

Michelle Hon has written over fifty reviews for Yelp, and she has received more perks as a result. She’s been writing reviews for Yelp since 2009, and she became an elite gold member in 2010.

“As an elite member I am invited to almost monthly events hosted by Yelp that provide free food and drinks from local restaurants. In addition to food and beverages some of the events also include music, photo booths and photographers, raffles, and free swag items like sunglasses, Chapstick, mints, and gloves,” she wrote in an email.

“Many businesses donate their food and services to these events as a way of advertisement to attract the Elite members and their family and friends to visit their establishments and use their services in the future,” Hon continued.

Occasionally, Hon added that she will receive special messages through the website from new businesses that are hoping she will come check out their goods and services in exchange for a review. “Since being a user, this has only happened to me a handful of times, but it does happen,” she said.

Richarte maintains that the benefits of social media access are more for the hotel guests, not the hotels themselves.

“A guest’s social media presence affects his or her experience by means of engagement and enhanced knowledge of what the property offers,” she said. “However, nothing can be done to encourage a favorable review, aside from ensuring that each and every guest receives the level of service that we are committed in providing.”

Instead of favoring one guest over another, Richarte says hotels should be using online reviews to improve all customers’ experiences. “It is best practice to be consistent always,” she said.

Find out what people in Chicago think of these changes in the hospitality industry below.