48 – Reputation Management During COVID-19

by | May 6, 2020

In this episode of the Suite Spot, host Ryan Embree is joined by TMG’s Product Director Patrick O’Brien to discuss the role that online reputation plays during COVID-19.

Ryan and Patrick break down the influential power that online reviews are playing in consumer’s booking decisions during this time and the potential negative and lasting impact a bad review today can have on your business. Patrick shares some best practices that his professional review response team has implemented during this time when travelers are paying more attention than ever to every hotel’s reviews and responses. This episode details what the evolution of online reputation looks like as hotels start to enter into the recovery phase.

For help with improving your hotel’s reputation during COVID-19 or to submit a question for future episodes, call or text 407-984-7455.

Episode Transcript
Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree:
Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Suite Spot. This is your host, Ryan Embree, as always. Still recording live from my home studio here. With me today we have another remote guest that we’ve decided to bring in to the Suite Spot. Also a frequent guest of the Suite Spot, that is Product Director of Travel Media Group, Patrick O’Brien. So let me get started by welcoming Patrick again to the Suite Spot.

Patrick O’Brien:
Thanks Ryan.

Ryan Embree:
Patrick, up to this point, you know, as Product Director, you work with all of our solutions at Travel Media Group, but really kind of where you started was the reputation side of things. So I know we’ve talked up to this point about the COVID-19 crisis and our educational series through our blogs, our webinars, and through this podcast. But I thought a really insightful episode would be to bring you on Patrick and really drill into reputation because I think reputation sometimes gets lost on hoteliers. You know, we talk about, you know, what are we going to do about our bookings? What are we going to do about generating more business? If you could, let’s start by just saying why are reviews still important right now for hoteliers?

Patrick O’Brien:
Yeah, so I think that the, you know, the initial thought from hoteliers is occupancy is down. People aren’t staying at our hotel and so, you know, as you mentioned, reviews are there for, not important. But technically we’re faced right now with a unique time where hotel demand in effect, according to Smith Travel Research is at zero. We’re still booking around a million rooms a night. But, you know, it’s created a new benchmark of what demand is when there is no demand. So being faced with that as a hotelier, your options are very limited in the number of guests that are going to be in your market and looking for a hotel room. So first and foremost reviews are a fantastic way to let guests know that your hotel is still open, that it is safe, and also, you know, potentially what amenities may or may not still be available because something that you have up and running today may no longer be up and running tomorrow. This is all done through sort of a verification process of other guests. So it’s not necessarily just you saying, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” It’s other guests going in and identifying, “Hey, this a good hotel to be able to stay at or this is not a good hotel to stay at.” We talked about in the past how reviews are vitally important to your business because it helps the guests set their expectations prior to arrival and this is even more important today. You have to think that for the most part, all of your reviews pre COVID-19 are irrelevant to today’s traveler. They don’t care how good or bad your hotel was prior to because most likely that is not the current condition of your hotel. However, if you have a low lifetime score or bad record of positive reviews, you know, you may be removed from the selection immediately. But again, the content of your reviews prior to COVID-19 are not going to be as relevant to the travelers coming today. I think the other interesting thing is that the sector of hotels who are currently experiencing the lowest percentage of drop-off in occupancy really is kind of in the economy and mid-scale sector. Many exterior corridor properties are doing better because people have less interaction with employees and other guest and less touch points. But again, these are the hotels that vary drastically typically in service and comfort levels. So by nature people are going to be more interested in the available reviews that are out there. But most important it is letting guests know that your hotel is open for business and what business is going to look like today, because that is drastically different than six weeks ago.

Ryan Embree:
Absolutely. They’re looking at your reviews through a magnifying glass, right? You thought reviews were important then, they’re even more critical now. And I love that you touched on that point of these guests aren’t looking now maybe six weeks back because the game has changed. You know, they’re looking at in the span of this past month what other travelers are experiencing. Travelers are smart. They know right now that travel demand is low so they are going to be more cautious with the reviews that they see. As hoteliers, of course we want to be promoting advertising, marketing and try to get as much occupancy as we can, but almost seeing it through another traveler’s eyes is going to give them that peace of mind that a business really can’t. Give us an example of how one negative review during this time impacting bookings during this time.

Patrick O’Brien:
Sure, in essence the pandemic has created a “reset button” for your review content. So a negative review that you received today is your new normal. If you had a lifetime of positive feedback and reviews and you get negative review today, that’s your new normal. And you know, although supply has diminished a little bit with temporary hotel closures, it’s still significantly outweighs demand and no one wants to be the hotel that makes the few potential guests they have access to question whether or not they’re going to have a worry-free and stress-free stay during a pandemic. And in addition, review flow overall is down. So that negative review is going to haunt you every day for a long time before it gets moved to the second page of results. And again, like I said, it’s your new normal and it’s going to stay there for a long time. We’ve seen hotels who prior to this outbreak were getting over a hundred views a day across all sites. Now they’re getting less than that across all sites in a month. So again, the power and impact of that negative review is going to be much more long lasting. You don’t want to have anything that even gives the impression of fear to a potential guest. And prior to COVID-19, so for a long time, I spent a lot of time analyzing the impact of reviews on a hotel’s ability to be chosen and selected in their market and review flow is obviously a significant factor in a hotel’s review health. So looking at all of these things that impact the traveler’s decision to buy, we developed and had been testing our first impression index and that really measures and analyzes a hotel’s reputation, health market strength and the consumer popularity in real time. That can be used to drive critical decisions at the property level, like revenue strategies. We’ve currently amassed a large amount of data analyzing and tracking all hotels across the United States and their real time changes in first impression and right now review flow shows the biggest changes in impact to overall score. So because that review flow is slowed down so significantly, the impact of a negative review is exponentially larger than it was six weeks ago. And so you need to be doing everything that you can at this point to ensure that there are no negative reviews on your review sites.

Ryan Embree:
Another way to think of those reviews as we’ve always kind of described them to hoteliers is your online billboard. So something at this time getting a negative review. Imagine that billboard all of a sudden magnifying by 10 times because people are going to be looking at that billboard a lot closer and paying attention to it. And that billboard staying up a lot longer than it used to because you’re not getting the review flow there. That first impression score that, that we released, that Travel Media Group really couldn’t have come at a better time because of the unique way that travelers now are making their booking decisions. Let’s jump into content, right? What are travelers looking for in review content? What as hoteliers do we want to see in those reviews and what do we not want to see in those reviews?

Patrick O’Brien:
First and foremost, you’re really striving for this point as people to talk about how they felt safe and comfortable at your property. I’ve gone out to the grocery store, you know, a few times during this and I always just laugh about, you know, like sometimes I’m like, “Oh my God, I feel like I shouldn’t be out at all.” And you know, a lot of travelers are feeling that. So you want other people to reinforce the fact that they felt comfortable, that during all of this that’s going on, they didn’t have any stress about saying at your property, that everything seemed clean. You want people mentioning the cleanliness, you want them mentioning good building flow that follows social distance and guidelines, you want them to discuss positive aspects of implemented changes. For example, you know, you always had a breakfast buffet or a continental breakfast and now that is like a grab and go offering. If guests are talking about, you know, that it certainly helps start your day off correct, you know, it was all that they needed but also that it allowed them to reduce one additional touchpoint in their day. Whether or not that’d be going down and sitting in the breakfast area or going to a restaurant to get some takeout. They were able to get a really good start to their day, a really good breakfast without having to encounter one other potential stress point in that stay. You also want them to discuss great service. How did your employees manage a personable experience with appropriate social distance? You know, what extra steps did they take to ensure the guest’s safety and comfort level? Those are going to be the really big important drivers that are going to make an impact. You certainly do not want people talking about issues with room or facility cleanliness. This may be a time where, you know, someone mentioning that the beds really weren’t as comfortable is not near as harmful as a guest saying it didn’t look like house keeping came in and cleaned the room after the last guests. You also need to know that just as stressed as we all are as travelers, your employees are equally as stressed. So you want to make sure that you’re taking care of them because you can’t afford to have that stress level seep out into the guest experience that’s happening at your property and ultimately into those online reviews. We’ve seen increased examples lately of front desk workers who, you know, are dealing with their own stresses both professionally and personally, starting to get annoyed with guests and yelling at them, which obviously is not going to help a guest who’s already experiencing higher anxiety levels with traveling. We’ve even seen some examples with alleged physical altercations at properties between front desk and guests, this is obviously never good in any business climate and it’s not easy to explain the way, but this type of behavior could potentially force your hotel into temporary closure, because guests reading that and seeing that will stay away from your property at all costs.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, of course, travelers are looking for safety, security, cleanliness, and service. These have always been at the foundation of the hotel industry, but again, now they are underneath a magnifying glass and that traveler that came through your door six months ago and wasn’t pleased with the cleanliness of the hallways or the way your amenities were cleaned. You know, that might not be as big of a problem as it is today. So we definitely need to focus on that. We talked about sharing our policies and procedures that we’re implementing through our website and social media. This is another communication outlet and channel to do that to potential travelers that are looking to book and will give them peace of mind. Obviously the other part of reputation is responding to those reviews. You and your team over the course of a year respond to tens of thousands reviews all over the country, sometimes internationally. So how are you and your team, your professional response team handling responses to reviews during COVID?

Patrick O’Brien:
It’s always been important to us and we’ve always taken a very high touch approach to review response for our team. You know, most review responses, whether or not they’re positive or negative are typically reviewed by three different people before being posted, which really allows you to make sure that it is the best response that you could provide that guest and again to potential future guests. And our system allows us to be able to do this high touch approach and still get responses done very quickly. But certainly now, not that every review is a crisis, but I like to think of it as sort of having your own PR firm, make sure that everything is handled appropriately and that you never miss an opportunity to really make the most out of each review. But this is even more important now. Our team is using this time to ensure that every response includes and highlights as you mentioned, updates on property procedures you can also take the time to, you know, let people know about amenities and things that may be a little bit different than the normal expectation, but it’s a great way to kind of highlight that. And we’re giving the hotel the ability to really let the pandemic traveler know that they care and make sure that those expectations are met. So it’s really important to highlight the procedures and reinforce that the hotel’s taking to make sure that every guest is safe and that every safe stay is going to be a comfortable one.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, it’s a very hands on partnership that you have with the hotelier, especially during this time, you even have a tool where hoteliers can sign in and actually give notes to your team about those different policies, about how they want to handle these types of responses there. And you have the quality, like you said, with the different types of checks, which is very important during this time where reviews and communication and responses are going to be extra scrutinized by travelers. But that’s mixed and blended in with the timeliness and the quick response. We have some hotels that we’re working with that have under a 24 hour response time and some even quicker than that. So why is a quick review response but also quality review response so critical in this time?

Patrick O’Brien:
Yeah, I mean obviously you want to not only get back to the guests that left the review, but you know, you also want to showcase that response to potential guests that are going to be staying at your property. And I think a good way to sort of highlight this is to go back to the first impression index that we released and as I mentioned, that index changes in real time and review response is a factor in that index. So no matter what you do, there’s always going to be some gap between when the review was published and when your response was published. However, a guest does not care about that gap. They are searching in real time and at the moment any reviews are there without a response are a direct reflection of your property. That guest is most likely looking at your reviews right now. They’re not going to come back and look at those reviews again in a day or two and see that you did respond. What they see today or at this moment is going to be the impression that they leave with your hotel. Most travelers will be forgiving if a review was left today and there’s no response, but since most sites showcase a review date, it is clear for the travelers to see that you are actively managing your online reputation. So every day that passes without a response, that forgiveness decreases exponentially. Review response can kind of be like planning for a travel or a flight. There are things within your control and timing within your control and things that are outside of your control. For example, you can’t control, you know, at what time of the day a review is published. You can however, start to identify the release times per the different sites so you can make sure that you are on the lookout for reviews around those times to come in so that you can get to them as quickly as possible. Then you can also control, you know, what priority you place on review response and obviously the higher priority and the quicker that you get to them, you’re going to minimize the amount of time that they sit unanswered. The last step of that that you really can’t control is the review sites, audit, and publishing process. So you need to plan for it like you would plan for getting through TSA at different times of the day or in the week. So in order to minimize the total time it takes to respond to a review, you almost have to treat your task of responding as instantaneous. Because again, you know, this guest left a review two hours ago, guests coming to my site now may see that it came today, but they don’t know how long ago it came. They just see that I didn’t respond. And that inaction in essence is an action to the traveler telling them I’m not really that concerned specifically if it’s a negative review. So it is critically important just because of the travelers, you know, buying process and their journey in that process to make sure that your response is good and is as timely as possible.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, I absolutely love that analogy of planning for travel or a flight with these review responses. You know, you put these procedures in place now when the traveler knows that you have time, right? They know that this is a time where fewer people are traveling. So they are sitting behind their desk as they’re doing their research and if they’re not seeing a review response, they start to question in their head, you know, first of all, are you open as a business? And secondly, you know, how much do you care about your guests? How much are you going to be able to ensure the safety of the guests that I’m coming during a pandemic? If you’re not responding to the guests that are leaving you feedback online. So again, if you could put those policies and procedures in now where there’s not a lot of people, it’s going to get easier as we start to ramp up. You know, we’ve been hearing all about that eventual ramp up that we’re going to have. We’re going to get to a point where, again, that property that you talked about earlier, they’re going to be having those same 100 reviews, maybe even more coming in to handle. So if you can handle these now, put a really strict procedure in place, SOP with your team, you and your team it’s going to be a lot easier to handle later down the line. Now I want to talk about properties that might not be seeing many travelers walk through their door. We know some properties, maybe they’re only seeing one or one to 10 guests in a night, some we know unfortunately have had to close intermittently. How can they use or leverage their hotel’s online reputation?

Patrick O’Brien:
First and foremost, you need to really provide the best experience that you can for those travelers that are coming in that one traveler a day or a couple of travelers a day or a few travelers a week. Whatever that is, you need to be going above and beyond for them. You no longer have the excuse of, you know, we’re running at full occupancy and I’m just trying to make sure that, you know, everybody’s having the best possible stay they can. You need to make sure that these guests that are coming have an amazing stay. There’s different things that you could do, it may be sending them texts to see if there’s anything that you could have delivered to them or just to make sure that they’re comfortable. At checkout you must ask them to leave you a review. If you need to, let them know how important it is your business. Many people now are doing anything and everything they can to support local businesses and you know your hotel is no different, so you must ask them to leave a review. You’re getting so many few reviews. You want to make sure that you’ve got the opportunity with every guest to maximize the impact of that guest to your overall business and that’s just not in revenue dollars that they’re spending that is in word of mouth and online reviews to other travelers who may be heading out as well. If you have an active list of past guests, you could potentially identify those who have not left a review in the past and look at creating some type of personalized email campaign to let them know that you’re just, you’re thinking about them during this time, and hope that they’re safe and you know, potentially ask them to leave your review. The trick here though is people are stressed out, they’ve got high anxiety levels so you gotta really make sure the messaging is right with that and you also have to have some way to identify that those guests had a good time versus those who didn’t have a good time, cause as we discussed before, you don’t want to put a strategy in place that’s going to get you negative reviews. But again, really the big thing is, is that every guest now is financially more important to your business than ever before. And so you need to make sure that you are maximizing the impact of that guest from the moment that they book with your hotel to post-stay. You’ve got time, make sure you’re doing everything in your power to get the most benefit for your business out of each and every guest.

Ryan Embree:
Just as important as it is to have one review, it’s just as important to give that one traveler an amazing experience because they could be the ones writing that review and that could influence a number of other travelers that were still determining whether they’re going to stay with your hotel or a competitor. That could be the determining factor. So I challenge hoteliers out there, if you’re listening to this, really approach every single guest as someone that that could be a real influencer on review sites during this time where 5 to 10 bookings really, really makes a big difference. It might not have seemed like that six months ago, but in this kind of COVID time, that’s where we are today. As we continue to kind of fight through this, Patrick, there’s a lot of things that hoteliers can do today to set them up for success after the crisis and after we see the return of travel to a substantial amount. Can you kind of share with us some ideas on that?

Patrick O’Brien:
This has to happen on multiple levels. This could probably be its own segment and I think you all have done a great job at kind of creating these workshops and this information around some of these opportunities to be successful. You know, for me, kind of breaking it down on a high level, you need to ensure that every guest experience is amazing, not great. It’s amazing. You also want to make sure that you completely dialed in your safety procedures and business flow. Going out a couple of weeks ago to a grocery store, it was sort of like, okay, just make sure that you don’t get too close to people. Now there’s plexiglass in front of the cashiers. You can go one way down an aisle, they only let a certain number of people in at a time, and even outside they’ve got spacing that you need to stand in before you go in. So really make sure that you’ve thought through sort of that flow of how a guest is going to interact at your property and make sure that that’s all dialed in. And that you’re letting people know about that. You want to make sure that you have a plan in place to solicit reviews from all guests. It can no longer be like, well, you they didn’t really feel comfortable about asking them. You have to, it’s vital to your business. You need to make sure that you’ve got a good content marketing strategy in place. This is going to extend beyond just online reputation, but it is going to be the messaging on your website, social media messaging. How can you let people know that they can feel comfortable doing business with you? And one of the most important things for me is what I’ve recently started of calling the garden club effect. Now that people are staying home, their lawns and landscaping have never looked better. So start using analytics from your online reviews and internal surveys to take this slower period and make property changes and updates, because these will pay off huge dividends as travel opens back up. You’ve got the time now that you don’t have all of these variables sitting in there with running at full occupancy and having to wear all these multiple hats, and running around like a crazy person. You’ve got the ability to go in and make improvements at your property. Focusing on the current traveler. There’s not a lot of leisure travel occurring or business travel. So can you extend offers to essential personnel who may need to stay close to work during this time or offer 8 to 10 hour room rentals for people who are having to work remotely, but identify who the travelers are that are actually staying in your market, really focusing on them. And it’s also going to take hotels working together. Last I would say, don’t sit back and wait for this to be over. Many businesses are obviously taking a very cautious approach to this situation, but now is the time where you really can create competitive advantages in your marketplace because you have more time on your hands and less variables due to the decrease in regular occupancy. So take this time to be innovative to make those updates to your property. Again, most of your competitors probably aren’t going out and actively soliciting reviews. So if you can do that, you are going to be that much further ahead of them as travel starts to open back up. So ultimately I would say just don’t sit back and wait for this to be over. It’s your business, you need to fight for it. And now is your opportunity to really, really create some positive change for your business, that again, will pay off huge dividends. Um, as travel begins to open back up.

Ryan Embree:
Such a thorough list there of insights on what hoteliers can do now to impact how they’re going to get out of this. And it’ll be interesting to see, Patrick, I really am curious to know the correlation between how quickly hotels that really started to get proactive about their reputation today, how quickly they ramp up in comparison to hoteliers that as you spoke to, that kind of setback and kinda just wait for this thing to end. This is not the time to kind of put your head in the sand. This is the time to actively use the resources that are available that are around you, insights to gain that competitive advantage because when that travel starts to return, it’s these reviews today, these review responses that we get today that they are going to be basing their decisions on. But as we know, nothing in the hotel industry or travel industry probably will be the same after this. Everything’s going to have some sort of evolution when it comes to operations, he way we manage our guests, the way we manage even our staff. How do you think the evolution of reputation will happen as we return back to traveling regularly?

Patrick O’Brien:
The return to travel is not going to be instantaneous. You know, we’re not gonna, you can’t pick a date and say, “Well you know, on May 1st we’re going to be back up to occupancy levels of 27 million a night.” So it’s going to be kind of a slow roll and I think that you’re going to start to see, the beginning of travel come back and which is really good for hotels cause it’s going to be localized travel. It’s going to be people who in the beginning are willing and desperately wanting to take trips and feel comfortable taking trips up to maybe like five or six hours. So you’ll be seeing reviews from people really more familiar with the local area and expectations. I think that you’ll also see people who are wanting to help build the industry back up and leave positive reviews, help businesses out. But if you had cleanliness issues previously, those will be detrimental moving forward. I mean you have to have a plan in place as this comes back out to not have any cleanliness issues because again, it’s not going to be all of a sudden your market is flooded with travelers. It’s going to be that they start building up kind of in a snowball effect over time, but just like the travelers are building up over time, if you’re not the hotel that is the chosen hotel and the one that’s comfortable and the one that’s clean and people can feel safe at the, as that snowball starts to build up of travelers, your opportunity to become part of that snowball is going to get smaller and smaller. It’s just really important. Cleanliness obviously is going to be the big thing that they’re looking at. I think as a business you have to be focused to listening to what your reviews say, you can’t just move forward anymore and say, “Oh, you know, my reputation is pretty good. It’s good for the market. I’m doing good with it.” You have to look at what each individual is saying and dial in on each of those experiences on kind of a micro level and make sure that you’re putting your business in the best state to move forward. Then again, you know, your lifetime score is not necessarily going to change. As travel begins to pick up if, you’re 3.5, 3.6, or 4.0, that’s not necessarily all of a sudden gonna bump up in some huge amount. But again, you can think of this as your reset button in terms of content, framing your business. The content the people are truly going to reference moving forward and care about is really going to begin around mid March of 2020, anything before that is going to seem severely dated. I think that it’s going to be a point that six months from now, you know, a year from now, whatever, basically day zero is going to have occurred in March. People really aren’t going to go back to the content prior to that as much. It’s really going to be who are you today, who are you right now, and how are you going to deliver a comfortable, safe stay for me?

Ryan Embree:
Yeah, absolutely. I think recency is definitely going to be a playa bigger and bigger factor in booking decisions moving forward. But what an opportunity for hoteliers to really, as they start to recover and see those locals, if they can give a good experience to a local traveler within their market. As we start to see travel ramp up and start to spread throughout the country, now all of a sudden you’re getting referrals, reviews. Hoteliers that are, as you said, managing their reputation right now, if this episode doesn’t put it front and center on why reviews and reputation online is more important than ever, I don’t know what does. So I appreciate the insights and information, as always Patrick, we like to open it up to our remote guests and see if there’s any final thoughts that you have to say about today’s episode?

Patrick O’Brien:
Yeah, I mean, again, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this and really hopefully provide some helpful tips for hoteliers out there. It is, it is not an easy time, but I think that there is still a lot of opportunity during this time. And the hoteliers that really work to become innovative and to improve their overall product, now’s the time you can do it and if you do that, you’re going to be so much further ahead than everybody else. And that really is going to be your way to bounce back from this. But ultimately, for me and from everybody on my team, we hope that everybody’s staying safe and healthy and we are always happy to help and answer any questions and provide any insight that we can do. So we wish everybody the best and look forward just as everybody else to moving past this when things, you know, when it’s going to be a new normal, but when that new normal is maybe a little bit closer to the old normal.

Ryan Embree:
Absolutely Patrick and again we will be there, Travel Media Group will be there as we have through these past crisis to help all of our hoteliers out. So Patrick I want to thank you for joining me again today. We’re going to thank all of our listeners, hoping everyone is staying safe and healthy. Just to echo what Patrick was saying, we are all in a time, I feel like I always end our episode saying this unprecedented time in the industry, but if you are looking for help, you know we are here as a resource for you. You can always find more information on our COVID-19 resource page on travelmediagroup.com or you can reach out to us directly at (407) 984-7455. Thank you again for listening and we will talk to you next time on the Suite Spot. To join our loyalty program be sure to subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group, our editor is Anne Sandoval with cover art by Bary Gordon. I’m your host Ryan Embree and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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