TripAdvisor: The New Bully on the Travel Information Block?

All over the world, hoteliers are paying to be part of the TripAdvisor universe. Here, friends in Venice proudly show off their TripAdvisor certificate.

In my last few years of European guidebook research, it’s increasingly impossible to ignore a new power on the block: TripAdvisor. Many guidebook mainstays have faded, and now small hotels and restaurants can be made or broken by their TripAdvisor rankings. While I am still committed to finding, evaluating, and listing the best hotels for my travelers in Europe, I expect that in the future, fewer people will rely on guidebook listings for their hotels and more will use online services.

I never even visited TripAdvisor.com until a few months ago. Considering the power it wields over so many of my hotel and restaurant friends in Europe, I was curious. It is, admittedly, an impressive collection of reviews from travelers. But anyone can submit feedback, and my hunch is that a significant percentage of them are by friends of enemies of the place being reviewed. I find more and more small hotels offering a free breakfast to people who promise to write kindly about them on TripAdvisor. Conversely, several hoteliers have told me that occasionally guests threaten them with a bad review unless the hotel gives them a deep discount.

I also have serious doubts about TripAdvisor’s restaurant rankings, which reflect the tastes of tourist reviewers rather than local foodies — and therefore skew toward glitzy, obvious places rather than good-value, authentic, hidden alternatives. (If you’re not convinced, see how your favorite restaurants in your hometown stack up on TripAdvisor.)

While it can be helpful to look over TripAdvisor’s hotel and restaurant listings, I wouldn’t rely on them blindly. On the other hand, I’ve found the most helpful categories are those listing tours, sightseeing experiences, and entertainment. When in Salzburg, I clicked around the TripAdvisor reviews to survey the many little outfits doing Sound of Music tours. And from TripAdvisor, I learned that the big shot who owns Red Bull (the energy drink) has an ego-boosting space at the Salzburg Airport (called “Hangar-7″) where he displays his hot cars and fancy personal airplanes, viewable by the public for free.

For me, the most interesting dimension is the huge impact TripAdvisor and other Web booking services are having on hotels all around the world. Hoteliers in Europe have told me they see all marketing these days as two branches: publicity (traditional ads) and recommendation (TripAdvisor). They know that a good TripAdvisor ranking can make their business — and a few bad reviews can sink them. They’re awed and terrified by the power of this one website.

As “recommendation marketing” becomes the dominant force, powers in that arena are jockeying for position. The rise of TripAdvisor goes hand-in-hand with the new power of booking services like Booking.com, Venere.com, Hotels.com, and Expedia.com. All of these services pay to have a link on TripAdvisor. That way, when people search hotels on TripAdvisor, they simply click through to reserve — not directly with the hotel, but through the booking agency (which the hotel must pay a commission).

If you own a small hotel needing to rent rooms via the Internet, you now feel like things are out of your control. To be listed by any of these services, hotels are pressured to pay fees, additional fees for good placement and photos, plus even more fees to allow travelers to book rooms directly. A “parity clause” requires hotels not to advertise or sell rooms for less than the price promoted on these booking sites. While a few hotels refuse to be controlled by online booking services (and don’t play the Internet booking service game), most find it’s the only way to stay in business.

I’ve talked to hoteliers who are trying to migrate to Facebook, where they can sell rooms outside of the booking-site commission racket. To get around the “parity clause,” they are creating clubs where members can get “fan rates.” Even if this works for them now, the hotels fear that Facebook is just waiting for them to do the hard innovation work…and then Facebook will come in, co-opt the business, and extort their own charges and fees. (By the way, Europeans trying to get into the social media swing find Facebook viable for reaching American adults, while it attracts a younger clientele in Europe.)

Now Google is getting into the mix and positioning itself to be the default way to book a room. Hotels report that Google is dropping by to film 360-degree views of their places. European hoteliers told me they worry that Google may soon threaten to make everyone play by its rules for placement in searches.

In short, European hoteliers tell me that if you’re an investor, pull out of TripAdvisor and invest in Google and Facebook. That’s where they predict the next power will reside.

So, in a nutshell, as a community of travelers, we are enjoying new recommendation and booking services — but, whether hotels like it or not, we are all paying 20 percent more than before for our accommodations. This money is not going to the hotels, but to Internet companies.

What’s your take on Trip Advisor as a source of information for your European travels? Have you enjoyed good experiences through TripAdvisor, or do you find the rankings biased? When you book a hotel, what do you find the best method?

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