Rohini Sharma wanted to go on a family holiday over the Easter weekend to Lansdowne, a hill station in Uttarakhand. The family was all set to go with accommodation tentatively booked at the Retreat Anand at this charming, colonial hill station, when the plan was changed to stay instead at the Bird House in Dehradun. Why? Because reviews and images posted on the Internet by other travellers did not paint a pretty picture of Lansdowne.
Instances like these are becoming more a norm than an exception as travel planning enters the Web 2.0 era. The Internet is full of reviews and opinions posted by travellers, and many people are using these as a key reference source when planning any trips. Such User Generated Content (UGC) is being seen as mostly credible and trustworthy, with the ‘authoritative’ voice of a professional writer no longer the last word when it comes to deciding one’s holiday.
“When planning a trip, I always check on the reviews and satisfaction levels of other customers. And then I also blog about my experiences so others can plan their trips. This is the future of travel,” says Rajat Nagpal, travel consultant and founder of TravelVidya.com. The result has been the phenomenal success of global sites like TripAdvisor.com and WAYN.com. UGC has seen them emerge among the most visited sites on the planet. In India too, significant investments are being made in sites like HolidayIQ.com, OkTataByeBye.com and Raahi.com. The last two have been promoted by MakeMyTrip.com and Yatra.com, both online travel service providers.
How do you choose the site that is right for you? “UGC has a cultural context to it. For example, Indians tend to travel in groups of four and above and they are seeking very different experiences compared with, westerners. You may thus want to visit sites where your unique needs are addressed,” says Hari Nair, Founder and CEO of HolidayIQ.com.
As reviews by fellow travellers become more ubiquitous, covering the remotest of locations and obscure properties, it is not always a simple exercise to use such content. How do you grapple with issues of data overload, credibility, half-baked postings and quality? Here are some tips to get reliable advice from the Web.
- Do not rely on only one source. Look for multiple perspectives, use your commonsense and follow your intuition. If there is one bad review about a hotel, take it with a grain of salt; if there are many within a short period of time, it is best to seek another.
- Start bookmarking sites and writers whose words you find trusted and credible. Sometimes, lesser known websites and personal blogs may be better than the bigger brand names. Be sceptical; this will help you spot posts written in sheer anger or out of a sense of revenge, as well as those ‘goody-goody’ ones posted probably by those with a vested business interest.
- Look out for pictures. These convey a lot because many reviewers do not have the gift of expressing themselves lucidly through the written word, even with the best of intentions. In fact, after reading mixed reviews, it was the images posted on the Internet that finally convinced Sharma not to go to Lansdowne.
- It may also be a good idea to check out the “blogosphere” for traveller experiences. These are often written with a greater effort than if one were writing for a third party UGC site; after all, the credibility of the reviewer is at stake on a personal blog. Of course, there is no guarantee that these reviews are the final word; the opposite can also be true, as Ruchi Tandon, a manager at ICICI Bank, discovered. “I have tried referring to sites like oktatabyebye.com, but the reviews can be misleading or biased sometimes. For instance, one review strongly dissuaded me from visiting the small seaside town of Guhaghar, for reasons including bad food at the resort the reviewer stayed at. But I still visited the town, and found it to be very nice with good clean beaches,” she says.
- Even if the reviews cannot be very descriptive, they are very useful for getting tips and basic information on weather conditions, the right clothes to wear, local culture and social behaviour, modes of travel, costs, security issues and other small points always invaluable to a traveller, suggests Tandon.
“I get a good sense of a place by reading reviews from people who have been there; I have found such content to be useful guiding points to what to look for,” says Shashaank Awasthi, an entrepreneur.
Who does not want a little publicity? But when public relations professionals cannot exercise at least a certain degree of control and restraint on what gets written about their companies, like in the case of UGC, then it can be a challenge in itself. With everyone having unrestricted freedom to write what they like, how do you keep the bad news away? “It’s worse when there are half baked reviews on halfbaked sites,” says Nair.
While blocking views may not be possible in a free world, this also means an opportunity for the travel trade in many ways. A negative post can be read as an early warning sign, and those who care for their customers can take corrective measures in time. If a bad review is without justification, or a result of a misunderstanding, companies can join in the conversations on forums where the travel notes are posted to present their view before such opinion can become common belief. This also means a closer bonding with customers, leading to increased loyalty and sales.
Of course, when feedback is positive, then companies can actually show them off. And even when these are on not-so-known blogs or websites, the power of the Internet kicks in. All such content is indexed by search engines like Google and Yahoo, and thus made accessible to prospective customers seeking such information.
For smaller businesses, engaging with customers online can offer benefits that traditional communication may not offer. This could be in the form of setting up groups on social sites like Facebook, publishing blogs, responding to posts on other blogs and websites and even writing on third party Web properties. “Smaller hotels are beginning to realise the value of such reviews,” says Nair.
All this means travel related businesses need to keep a track of themselves on the Internet. Surprisingly, few have fathomed the power of UGC. “We are trying to build trust with the travel trade too, and telling them we have no axe to grind when we allow user content to go up on our site. We invite them to react to reviews, but they have yet to start doing so,” adds Nair.