TripAdvisor & other online review forums: the cost of free feedback for tourism leisure and hospitality businesses.

Conversations with clients in the tourism and hospitality industries often touch on TripAdvisor, and other online review platforms such as google reviews.

Very occasionally in conversations with clients, TripAdvisor is referred to by an owner or manager as being a “good” source of feedback.

So, are online reviews a good source of feedback? And could they serve as a good primary source of feedback?

Why they’re good

TripAdvisor itself is both loved and hated by business managers and owners (often at the same time) and for a number of reasons.

As a means of obtaining useful and valid feedback for businesses though, it has some key things in its favour:

  • It shows (usually) the comments of real customers, often in significant numbers.
  • It is free (to some degree – or it can be used for free).

These are two very attractive points.

Most operators seem to agree that if a customer has had a very bad experience, the customer will usually shout about it on TripAdvisor or another review platform (even if it’s not until weeks or months later). This should mean that you can find out about most things that make customers very unhappy, by reading reviews on TripAdvisor.

You should also be able to see a fairly balanced picture. Online eview platforms like TripAdvisor help the market to both reward overall strong performance and customer satisfaction, and penalise poor performers, and do something in between for those that are more average.

Overall, most people believe that the large review platforms reflect and communicate the feelings and views of real customers. That is their very point.

So TripAdvisor and other online review platforms are certainly a source of feedback (both positive and negative) which comes (most of the time at least) from real customers. There are often large numbers of reviews, and the feedback is often valid. When it’s valid, then it should also be valuable to the business in helping it to improve. And it costs nothing.

All good so far.

The Case Against

(Before going any further we strongly recommend that readers invest 20 minutes reading this article about TripAdvisor. This well written and thought provoking article points to, among other things, a significant number of claimed fake reviews (which means not from actual customers – reviews that are typically posted to boost or reduce the profile of businesses), and the lack of a commercial incentive for Tripadvisor to verify reviews, or reviewers. The article links to a number of other resources which suggest that there are a growing number of tourism professionals who share concerns about TripAdvisor’s business practices. There are also some interesting further updates and discussion at the bottom of the article)

A TripAdvisor profile (the average score of a business, the number of reviews, and particularly any negative comments) will clearly have a huge impact on any business that has one (and businesses don’t have the choice to not have a profile). The same applies increasingly for google reviews and other review sites, depending on the industry.

Most potential visitors of a leisure, tourism or hospitality business nowadays will visit TripAdvisor (and / or Google Reviews / other) before deciding how to spend their precious time and hard-earned money.

Online praise and criticism has a huge impact on how many visitors and guests (new and even old) will actually come to see you / stay with you… and therefore on how many people will even get the chance to impress.

Negative reviews literally “warn people off”, and they do so very effectively, potentially for years. If the overall score is poor or just mediocre or if they see a particularly off-putting review… then the harsh reality is that many people just won’t visit the business in question. They won’t take the risk. And who can blame them?

This leads onto the obvious question: even assuming that tripadvisor contains only genuine, balanced reviews, isn’t it better for a business to gain feedback and learn lessons in private, rather than in public?

There is another unfortunate reality however that stacks the cards against businesses listed on review sites: unbalanced, harsh (and occasionally malicious and defamatory) reviews.

As one client (an all day visitor attraction) said recently:

“If a visitor spends the whole day, has a wonderful time and all the standards are high, except the restaurant staff are just on a bit of an off-day.. some people will go home and leave a review that just says “RUDE STAFF!!”…and then describe that one negative area, and totally ignore how much they enjoyed the rest of the day.”

This scenario might look familiar to some readers. Things can be much worse than this of course (see the above linked-to article, for an indication of the potential scale of the “fake review” problem).

Regardless of a lack of balance (or even truth!) though, a single negative review can and often will sit there for years, putting off hundreds or thousands of potential visitors or guests.

Whenever a negative review is posted on line, some damage is done. The moment it is published, it generally becomes too late to avoid the results of that damage.

Our reliance on online reviews have turned the old saying on it’s head: there is definitely such a thing as bad publicity! This is why all operators should guard their online profile for all they are worth.

There is always going to be an amount of criticism online, even if you are genuinely perfect. Some criticism is inevitable. Some of that criticism will be unfair, but it all of it potentially harms your business.  Businesses in the tourism hospitality and leisure industries should not add to it with avoidable, “fair” criticism any more than they need to.


As most tourism, hospitality and leisure business owners and managers know all too well, it is impossible to overstate the impact of a profile on a site like on TripAdvisor. It could nowadays be likened, in business terms, to a force of nature.

That might seem like an over-the-top similie, but this massive record of public opinion and sentiment can either give life to a business and create abundance, or it can wreak havoc and destruction. It deserves to be handled with skill, care and respect.

According to a global study by TripAdvisor itself, Online Reputation Management was the number one investment priority (for the businesses listed on TripAdvisor) going into 2016. It may be in TripAdvisor’s interests to stress the importance of online reputation management, but its importance is clear nonetheless.

So, are online reviews a good source of feedback?

If you are taught lessons publicly about how you need to improve, you should definitely take those lessons on board. But surely, you want to receive more of those lessons in private, and less of them in public.

Lessons learned via TripAdvisor should be taken extremely seriously, but no, TripAdvisor is surely not a “good” way to get feedback. The public delivery of the lessons means they come at too high a cost.

Sites like TripAdvisor help customers tell each other which hotels, which restaurants, which attractions are worth visiting, and which aren’t.

As a business, you would surely want to try to influence any conversation that is taking place about you in public. This is all you can do to guard yourself against the irrational and unbalanced criticism you will inevitably receive anyway (from both real and from fake reviewers).

If you are not perfect, every time, surely you want to learn any lessons that you can, in private. Your reputation is too important – it has a massive effect on your present and future levels of custom.

Online reviews are far more useful and powerful as a marketing tool, than as a feedback tool.

Some Sensible Steps

Here are a few suggestions that almost any hospitality tourism or leisure business can try in relation to customer /guest / visitor feedback:

  1. Always respond to online reviews, especially negative ones. Thank the reviewer for their feedback.  Tell them that you are genuinely sorry that they had a dissappointing experience, and apologise for any area of complaint that could be valid. Make it clear that you would like a chance to understand or clarify where you went wrong (if this isn’t totally clear), and to make up for it in future (if you possibly could). You could ask (publicly) for the reviewer to contact you directly to discuss it more, and explain in your public reply that you’ll do everything in your power top put things right.
  2. Take every opportunity to tell customers (and your online audience) about how pro-active you are in seeking feedback and in monitoring, maintaining and improving your standards. This might include Mystery Shopping activity and / or spot checks, as well as online review monitoring, industry and award-related checks and reports, and listening and responding to customer feedback in all its forms. The goodwill (and forgiveness) that will be generated towards a business that obviously really cares will be immense, and will help neutralise or negate more negative reviews.
  3. Continue to improve and refine your offer and improve all aspects of the customer or visitor experience in the light of all the (genuine / rational) feedback that you receive.
  4. Improve your on-site complaint handling procedure, and train all staff to be receptive and responsive to complaints. Try to get customers to air their grievances fully and in their own time, but discreetly. Make the customer clear that you’ll do whatever it takes to make up for any mistake and win them over. Make sure that unhappy visitors never get the chance to go home with their complaint unresolved.
  5. Obtain detailed, comprehensive feedback discreetly (e.g. through Mystery Shopping and Surveys) to help you identify strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Act on all feedback to pre-empt or avoid as many negative reviews as possible, and maximise the number of genuine promoters of your business and brand.

These steps may seem a little easier said than done, and certainly they’ll take time, energy and focus.

We can help leisure tourism and hospitality businesses to put these steps in place, and we’re always happy to chat about challenges and potential goals and solutions, and to help in any way that we can.

Give us a call on  01392 984224 for an informal chat.

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Paul works creatively with a broad range of B2C and B2B organisations to help them find ways to compete more effectively. Read More...

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