By BECKY GILLETTE
Years back, Marion Wingo, owner of Oak Shade Bed and Breakfast in Ocean Springs, used to get most of her bookings from advertising with the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce and then by word-of-mouth.
“Now, of all the ways I get guests, the online reviews are the single greatest factor,” Wingo said.
Wingo’s location a block off the beach in the historical area of Ocean Springs is popular. The property is shaded by an ancient oak draped with Spanish moss, and her business motto is, “Why stay at a hotel when you can stay at home?”
Bad reviews on Facebook or with ratings companies like TripAdvisor and Yelp! can really hurt a property. Wingo said owners of lodging establishments can help prevent that by immediately dealing with any problems.
“I had a situation once where I doubled booked someone, which is inexcusable,” Wingo said. “You only do that once. But I offered them a free three-night stay in the future to compensate, and they were happy.”
Online reviews in general are more powerful now than ever, said Olivia Ann Hodges, social media specialist with the University of Southern Mississippi.
“People like to share their experiences, good and bad, and they have the tools to do so the second they leave a hotel due to our current state of technology,” Hodges said. “This places more pressure on hotels to make sure that every customer interaction is a positive one, as a guest may be quick to widely broadcast a negative experience during their stay. Personally, before I book a hotel when traveling, especially internationally, I will check out both TripAdvisor and Yelp! for reviews and photos of the hotel, and will only book a room at a place that has primarily received positive reviews.”
She typically trusts online reviews. If there is just one bad review out of 100, most likely that experience won’t repeat itself or the review may not have been fair. But multiple bad reviews are a red flag.
“Hotel management should respond to every bad review in order to try and clarify and/or simply rectify the situation,” Hodges said.
“Hotels should be aware of their online presence, and make sure to designate one person (or more) to respond to negative reviews. Sometimes it may be necessary to gather further information, and in some cases, you may want to either ask the reviewer for their contact information in order to further assist or, alternatively, the hotel may want to provide the contact information for a staff member or manager who has authority to rectify the situation. While it is best to respond to every negative review, there may be a couple that are written by ‘trolls’ and do not warrant a response.”
A manager of a historical property in Natchez, who asked not to be identified, said some guests threatened a bad online review if they weren’t given a free room.
In one case, guests were observed by other guests tearing down curtains in a room to take pictures of it to threaten a bad online review.
This property has nearly a 90 percent approval rating from TripAdvisor, and the few complaints are sometimes perplexing. An example is a complaint the furniture isn’t more modern when the whole idea of an antebellum hotel is to provide an authentic experience consistent with the era when the hotel was built.
“You are always going to get some bad reviews,” the manager said. “That is just the nature of the beast. Who goes online and makes negative comments? People who stay up late at night and have nothing better to do than complain.”
While being interviewed for this article, a new five-star review (the highest rating on TripAdvisor) came in on the property with the reviewer saying she was “astonished to read a negative review.”
Linda G. Hornsby, executive director, Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association, said a whole book could be written on how to manage online reviews.
“Hotels are experts,” she said. “They have entire departments that monitor the integrity of the postings. They know what they are doing as far as responding. They are foolish if they don’t respond to negative reviews. There are vehicles set up for hotels to respond to unwarranted concerns or even warranted concerns. Reviews can be reported that are inappropriate.”
Hornsby said problems such as the fraud experienced by the Natchez property are rare. Damaging property is a criminal act.
If a negative review is legitimate, she said property owners should look into it and make the necessary correction. If they then post they took the complaint seriously and corrected it, that becomes a positive thing.
The online reviews are particularly important for attracting younger customers.
“Living in the digital age, younger people’s trust in brands and organizations has eroded,” said Ryan Whittington, assistant director of social media for the University of Mississippi. “An important statistic is that 99 percent of buyers trust peer recommendations. That is a powerful metric. Social media puts consumers face-to-face with like-minded individuals, and who best to talk than someone else who has used that product or stayed at that hotel?”
His No. 1 one tip is to be quick to respond to negative reviews. That can be difficult for organizations that do not have adequate staffing. It can also be a problem if the person responding has to delay posting a response until getting permission from a supervisor.
“My boss understands social media,” Whittington said. “He says, ‘We trust you with that.’ Also, be willing to offer something if there is a legitimate concern. My wife and I use hotels.com all the time. If we send an email afterwards, we are expecting a response. That may not be a comp room, but a call back or a free chocolate cookie. People are beginning to expect more out of these organizations.”
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