Unsuspecting Travel Hero and Travel Zero Awards 2011

The winner of the 2011 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award goes to hrrmph (a.k.a. Hugh R. of Las Vegas, Nevada) for the nearly 9,300 word TripAdvisor review of his solo shore snorkeling trip to Kandholhu Island Resort & Spa in The Maldives. Not only was the review extensive and highly informative, but it provides an excellent example of the benefit provided by unbiased, anonymous, user generated reviews.

The double edged sword of anonymity frames the 2011 Unsuspecting Travel Hero and Travel Zero Awards. Travel information is power and the forces of good and evil are being contested. Photo Credit: xjrlokix |Flickr

The double edged sword of anonymity frames the 2011 Unsuspecting Travel Hero and Travel Zero Awards. Travel information is power and the forces of good and evil are being contested.
Photo Credit: xjrlokix |Flickr

This year’s Unsuspecting Travel Zero honoree is HotelReputationManagement.org, an Online Reputation Management group that will “aggressively improve your online reputation” with brazenly described methods including “the more content we create, the more we feed the monster and thus we bury the negative results deeper and deeper.” A poster-child for the Fake Review Optimization movement is born.

The huge travel stories of 2011 included the aftermath of Japan’s Tsunami, Google’s acquisition of ITA Software, American Airlines bankruptcy and Groupon’s highly controversial IPO. All dominated the headlines and were well covered by traditional media and the blogosphere. Conversely, the Unsuspecting Travel Hero and Travel Zero Awards go to those stories that were overlooked and deserve greater exposure – for better or worse.

Unsuspecting travel heroes represent the lifeblood of the global tourism industry. Their unheralded works of generosity provide immeasurable value to countless numbers of travelers, yet typically yield little in terms of immediate financial reward. For the Travel Hero, there is rarely a windfall return on investment resulting from the particular act of traveler-empowering compassion. For individual, the effect may be an unrequited contribution to assist others with common interests; for the business, an act may reinforce the foundation for guest loyalty, with customer retention measured over years, not by quarterly financial results.

On the other hand, one finds that Travel Zeros are typically focused on short-term financial gain that often reflects a willingness to sacrifice ethics, customer service or return business. A profit motive supersedes the priority for an optimized consumer travel experience. While reducing operating costs or growing revenues to maximize profit is no sin, when it results in a degraded travel experience, it does a disservice to both the traveler and the industry as a whole.

Past Unsuspecting Travel Hero award winners (see 2009 here and 2010 here) – Four Seasons Hotels and Enterprise Rent a Car both exhibited exceptional examples of customer service associated with their operations. Previous Travel Zero Award recipients AirTran & Hotwire both subjected travelers to hostile policies that traded what it traditionally deemed as a fundamental service for what could arguably be described as negligible profit opportunities.

Unlike past years, this year’s heirs bear no direct relationship to the provision of travel services, yet both play increasingly important roles in 2011′s most volatile and dynamic area – Travel Information. Exemplified by Google spending $750 million to access the “deep web” flight schedule, pricing and availability content managed by ITA and TripAdvisor’s IPO/spin-off from Expedia, those possessing unique travel-related information cashed-in big during 2011.

Nothing speaks more to unique content than user generated content – a favored contributor to freshness and relevance factors in search engine algorithms. When shared via social media, this content serves as a bridge between very specific content (a hotel located in a popular holiday destination,) social graphs (who likes that hotel,) and SEO (higher ranking in organic search results.)

This year’s recipients epitomize the ying/yang of user generated content, its impact on search engine optimization, review site ranking and ultimately, ever elusive social-media ROI. Both hrrmph and hotelreputationmanagement.com cohabit the realm of travel information – one philanthropically sharing valuable knowledge, the other, covertly subverting the process.

A Big Hrrmph About Something

Will Google use Google Labs to Cook Up Revolutionary Travel Tools?

Hrrmph prefers to maintain his anonymity, so he uses a generic TripAdvisor supplied avatar of passports

hrrmph’s TripAdvisor review of Kandholhu Island Resort & Spa is available here.

Despite its rather dubious distinction as TripAdvisor’s most verbose review of 2011, hrrmph’s 9,250 word tome about a five day snorkeling trip to The Maldives was not only well written and rich in insight, but it also addressed issues ranging from the destination selection process, travel time and budget to highly detailed recommendations for activities in the destination.

In addition to relatively standard, albeit more personally detailed, commentary on room descriptions, recreation and food & beverage options, hrrmph covered normally unmentioned subjects like an assessment of the typical guest profile (including typical guest beach & dining attire) & the interaction of guests with each other.

His exhaustive detailing (perhaps exhausting for many readers) covers the type of information that select groups of niche market guests want to know about a resort property, but that is rarely communicated in hotel or destination promotional materials.

In most cases, hotels lack the subject matter expertise required to create relevant content for specialty travel disciplines. Those that contract experts to author the content often run afoul of experts who cannot write, or accomplished writers with limited expert insights.

Four Seasons Hotels, with its advertising subsidized magazine, generates dozens of feature articles each year covering experiences of interest to gourmets, families, adventure-seekers, couture and wine enthusiasts, or any other topic that may appeal to luxury leisure travelers. This editorial content is always at least tangentially related to a hotel or its location, but there is no embedded call to action with a toll-free number, discount coupon code or points reward – the experience and article stand uncommercially on their own merits.

The beauty of social media is that hoteliers are suddenly able to benefit from the sharing of expertise by true experts – their guests. Allowing them to tell their stories unencumbered by targeted messaging, pre-defined points of differentiation or the latest hotel features provides a degree of authenticity that appeals to travelers. An added benefit is having the cost of quality content creation drop considerably.

The value of this material can not be underestimated – it provides important insights that help guests differentiate properties to find the best fit.

Such content is exceptionally important to properties like Kandholhu Island Resort & Spa – especially since this particular hotel does not seem to have a website. Hugh mentions that the hotel can be booked through the larger Kuramathi Island resort, but that website is quite limited and makes no specific mention of Kandholhu.

It is apparent that without user generated content provided by TripAdvisor and the Maldives Complete website, hrrmph might not have ever stumbled across the resort.

In the case of Kandholhu Island, the resort should pride itself for inspiring hrrmph’s review, not through blatant or highly orchestrated reminders to “Vote for Us on TripAdvisor,” but by providing exceptional service. hrrmph notes two specific examples:

  • “At the evening meal on the first full day at the resort (my second night), the manager stopped by and we discussed my ambition to snorkel around the entire island starting at daybreak. For no additional charge, he had a Zodiac boat and crewman waiting at dawn. As I made the circuit around the island, the boat stood by offshore at a distance of about 25 to 75 feet from me.”
  • “At 05:15 luggage was collected and I was off to breakfast. Breakfast was a full-on made to order affair with the staff kindly suggesting a mixture of my favorite items and a few lighter ones. They deftly knew what I wanted even before I did. There was the Kandholhu magic again.”

Those are the types of experiences that create indelible memories of a hotel – independent from the memories of the destination. Hotels have become quite accomplished at selling features – nice beds, HD televisions, free Internet, but in most cases, remain woefully poor at selling benefits that are relevant to the guest. That’s where hrrmph thankfully filled in a gap.

If soliciting user generated reviews, hotels should strongly consider suggesting guests address

  1. The purpose of the trip
  2. How the hotel improved their travel experience
  3. Ideas on how future guests can help enhance their travel experience

Why Hugh Writes

While hrrmph prefers to remain anonymous, through an email exchange, the man responsible for that TripAdvisor profile, Hugh R, expressed some of his motivations for writing such a comprehensive review.

“I later learned that the time spent on research is a necessary and worthwhile investment for discerning people who crave that ‘wow’ feeling.”
- Hugh R. (hrrmph on TripAdvisor)

Hugh was simply being generous by sharing a considerable quantity of information that was otherwise unavailable to travelers.

Hugh revealed that his background is technical writing, so noting minutia is apparently part of his DNA. hrrmph not only detailed the resort’s room category configuration and every imaginable room feature, recreation and food & beverage option, but adds example mini-bar prices, and shout-outs to ten line staff members.

It would appear that having the ability to write on an unstructured topic of personal interest probably represents a somewhat cathartic experience for an individual whose writing is normally strictly constrained, lacking any opportunity to express appreciation for exceeded expectations.

Of course, conspiracy theorists will assume hrrmph’s choice to remain anonymous is the smoking gun – hinting at a bogus persona for a fake review authored by the hotel. However, hrrmph’s narrative, structure and tone is more focused on the trip purpose (snorkeling) than the hotel itself.

Hotels can learn a valuable lesson from this approach for their own promotional material – A trip can be considered a work of art; the guests comprise the subject, the destination is the canvas, but their experience is the paint on. The hotel merely provides the frame – its role is to enhance the work, not dominate it.

During a period when many outspoken critics of TripAdvisor are arguing that anonymous reviews should be eliminated, High R. shared an important insight through our email exchange – if he had to reveal his true identity, he would have never submitted the review.

Hugh does not want his personal life and his professional career overlapping. By remaining anonymous, Hugh can speak freely, without worrying about the risk of inadvertently voicing an opinion that is interpreted as representing his employer.

The world is a little it richer from Hugh/hrrmph sharing his experience – especially snorkelers interested in exotic, aspirational or prospective bucket-list destinations.

The Astroturf is Always Greener

hotelreputationmanagement.org - Good Luck, I'm Behind 7 Proxies

This hotelreputationmanagement.org image is shared by the 'Good Luck, I'm Behind 7 Proxies' meme... Coincidence?

Based on unique monthly visitors, the aggregation of TripAdvisor’s main site and various localized websites rank as the world’s largest online travel property.

As a result, the “wisdom of crowds” endorsement for a top ranking in destination hotel listings now directly impacts website traffic and booking volume for the subject hotel.

Various service providers, many with deep experience in the search engine optimization (SEO) discipline, have also discovered that helping hotels attain high review rankings can translate into big profits.

The vast majority of those choosing to take the black-hat path logically prefer to maintain a low profile – or ideally, no profile at all. However, some more brazen groups have taken to overtly promoting their capabilities online. The poster-child for this group is our 2011 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award winner – hotelreputationmanagement.org.

The promotional pitches for hotelreputationmanagement.org speak for themselves:

“We Move And Force Negative Search Results And False Online Reviews About Your Hotel Off Of Page One, Page Two, Page Three, Page Four and Page Five…”

This sort of brute-force approach requires a relatively low-tech, high touch effort for success. The high tech aspect is typically related to avoiding detection by US Federal Trade Commission or UK Advertising Standards officials who tend to frown upon these sorts of endeavors.

The steering philosophy of hotelreputationmanagement.org is best characterized by their approach to SEO:

“As your dedicated team of online reputation advocates, we will do everything imaginable to influence Google’s search results for your hotel’s benefit. We will strive to achieve your goals BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.”

- hotelreputationmanagement.org

Doing “everything imaginable… by any means necessary” would not imply that the group sticks to white-hat tactics when supporting its clients. Similarly, the magnitude of the impact they purport to make does not lend itself to conventional industry best practices. For example:

  • “If your hotel needs 5,000 Followers or 50,000 Followers, we created flexible Twitter marketing campaigns that fit just about any hotel’s budget.”
  • “If your hotel needs 5,000 Likes, 10,000 Likes, 50,000 Likes, hundreds of thousands or millions of Facebook Likes, we have flexible campaigns that fit just about any budget…”
  • “If your hotel needs 10,000 views or 500,000 views to your YouTube video, we can deliver.”

As a point of reference, the 5,000+ room MGM Grand in Las Vegas is just now nearing 50,000 Twitter followers after nearly four years on the platform. Starwood’s lauded Preferred Guest Program is only now nearing 100,000 Facebook Likes. 500,000 YouTube views is approximately equal to the aggregated total views for the famed Rapping Southwest Airlines flight attendant…

The upper range numbers casually regarded as targets by hotelreputationmanagement.org reflect traffic volumes that only a rare few travel companies ever attain; heady levels for a single hotel location – especially when the content itself is never mentioned.

One must wonder if the ability to unleash a tsunami of positive recommendations, ratings and reviews in support of a client is also wielded to smite competitors with negative sentiment. It certainly falls within the scope of “everything imaginable… by any means necessary.” If the end justifies the means, one must assume no options are taken off the table.

The .org designation is somewhat ironic as that is normally reserved for non-profit or non-commercial organizations – groups dedicated to philanthropically benefiting the community by fostering education and understanding. The objectives of hotelreputationmanagement.org appear to designed to drive profit from aggressively manipulating a community’s perceptions of its clients. Online Reputation Management in its purest sense – no truth in advertising problems here…

A final interesting note is that hotelreputationmanagement.org looks remarkably similar to restaurantreputationmanagement.org, doctorreputationmanagement.org, dentistreputationmanagement.com, franchisereputationmanagement.com and attorneyreputationmanagement.com to the extent that they even share the same office addresses and toll-free telephone numbers.

hotelreputationmanagement.org is the Top Travel Zero for 2011 because they subvert the value of social networks to educate travelers, aid in discovery and improve transparency. Instead, social search becomes a numbers game to be conned, with sharing derailed, relevance masked and engagement suspended.

More evil than black-hat SEO tactics that merely aim to outsmart anti-spam algorithms to capture high rankings, large-scale black-hat reputation management tactics create indelible perceptions by effectively manufacturing sentiment and applying it in context against its target. Fighting such methods by relying on white-hat methods can become a daunting challenge.

And that is what makes organizations like hotelreputationmanagement.org so scary.

I won’t spend any more time detailing the brazen claims and abhorrent business practices of hotelreputationmanaement.org – they disgust me. The good news is that physical revulsion is a new criteria that will be factored into identifying future Travel Zeros moving forward.

It seems in today’s wild west of social media where pioneers are exploring new boundaries, buzzards, snake-oil salesman and train robbers are a natural part of the ecosystem.

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.