Two of the larger review and booking sites in the hospitality business--TripAdvisor and BedandBreakfast.com--have recently made some changes to their search parameters that have upset many innkeepers in Stowe and beyond. Search parameters are the criteria used to direct Internet users to the things they want to find. In the simplest example, a traveler visiting one of the above sites would type in “Stowe” and a list of properties in Stowe, Vermont, would be returned. A search for “Vermont” would return a larger, more varied list.
So it was with some dismay that innkeepers in Stowe recently discovered that a potential guest using TripAdvisor or BedandBreakfast.com to search for inns and B&Bs in Stowe would see properties that weren’t actually in Stowe listed in the results. Specifically, properties in neighboring Morrisville, Elmore, and Waterbury all appear in search results for Stowe.
The appearance of these non-Stowe properties in the Stowe listings had the effect of dropping several inns down in the rankings. The Auberge, for example, was pushed from 8th to 10th on the ranked list. One property in Elmore and one in Morrisville pushed us down. With that information in mind, there are a few things to consider from three different points of view: the traveler, the innkeeper, and the review site.
If a traveler searches for properties in Stowe by specifically typing in “Stowe,” it’s reasonable to assume that the traveler wants to stay in Stowe--not Elmore, not Morrisville, not Waterbury. By returning results that aren’t in Stowe, the review site has created a confusion for the traveler to overcome. Navigating the Internet can be a time-consuming and frustrating process for many people, especially when they’re trying to plan out their vacation. Skewing the results leads to wasted time for the traveler, significantly impacting the experience of something that should be pleasurable. After all, that’s what vacation travel is for.
Innkeepers have been forced into the online social review model in the past decade. I say forced because innkeepers are unable to opt-out of the review system. Review sites have executed an amazing sleight of hand by convincing innkeepers that they actually can control their reviews and rankings directly. This is supposedly accomplished by simply doing a good job and organically growing reviews from satisfied customers. The strength of a system like this is its separation: the innkeepers welcomes the guest, the guest has a positive experience, and the guest writes a positive review for the inn. The more positive reviews, the more business is attracted to the inn.
The flaws in this system are many. Guests are subjective reviewers, bringing their own expectations to the experience. What pleases one guest might irk another. Exaggerations can occur, and the innkeeper has little recourse, except for a spot to spin the review by adding feedback. Another flaw in this method is its exploitability. Over the years we’ve seen new inns become established by accumulating hundreds of positive reviews in a short period of time. We’ve also known of innkeepers who offered guests a quid pro quo for positive reviews. And we’ve heard of innkeepers creating online personas specifically to leave negative reviews about their competition.
From the point of view of the review site, this has been a boon. Innkeepers are driven to the site with offers of paid upgrades (the features of which facilitate the booking process, leading to an expansion of the innkeeper’s bottom line); travelers are driven to the site seeking information; and advertisers are driven to the site to capitalize on the convergence. For many innkeepers, the sticking point occurs over the control of their images and intellectual property. Inns can’t simply opt-out of many online review sites. The sites claim that the reviewers control the content, and they only provide the platform for the communication, therefor, they can’t control whether or not a property is featured on their site.
This brings us back to the situation with properties outside of Stowe appearing in searches for “Stowe.” Many of the innkeepers I’ve spoken with wish to discontinue their premium services with several of the review sites, and others would like to opt-out entirely. After all, it’s easier than ever to promote a lodging property without subjecting yourself to the whims of third-party sites. Some innkeepers reading this may wonder what all the fuss is about. Their inns may be located more remotely, so that the notion of sharing a region is actually a positive development on a review site. But for Stowe innkeepers, the stakes are higher. For over 50 years Stowe, and its privately funded marketing organization, Stowe Area Association, have promoted the town’s unique charms and offerings. For neighboring businesses to piggyback on that reputation without paying the same property taxes, without facing the same competition, and without funding directly the marketing of the area is unjust.
The biggest loser in all this is innkeeping itself. There are many, many wonderful innkeepers who have embraced the metier of innkeeping, not the business model. But when innkeeping is monetized and leveraged, it necessarily becomes about the money. And when anything becomes about the money, it loses its soul.