Some properties think of TripAdvisor as their best friend, others their worst enemy. But when it comes to online reviews, it is the one place that every hospitality professional turns to. There can be no denying the impact that the review giant has had on the hospitality industry, and Sally Davey knows this all too well.
From competing with TripAdvisor with her own start-up, Tripbod.com, to becoming a valued member of the review giant’s international team, Sally has seen the industry shift over the years, and has seen the role that TripAdvisor, and guest reviews, have played in this evolution. She speaks to us about the importance of online reviews in levelling the hospitality marketing playing field, the value of management responses, and so much more.
Tell us a bit about who you are, and what your position is.
I head up Industry Relations at TripAdvisor and am responsible for the company’s non-commercial relationship with industry. My team focuses on listening to feedback from the industry and identifying opportunities to improve operations and partnerships, as well as ideas for thought leadership projects. This often leverages TripAdvisor’s unique data asset to help provide the industry with leading indicators of forthcoming market changes.
What was your first job, and how did you come to work for the largest travel review platform?
My first job was in a local pub in the Lake District, UK as a kitchen helper and then waitress. I continued working in hospitality throughout university before starting my own travel company. This grew into a business called Tripbod.com which TripAdvisor acquired in 2014.
How did you first come across TripAdvisor — was it as a potential employee, as a competitor, or as a reviewer — and what were your first thoughts about the company?
Being an entrepreneur in the space I couldn’t not be aware of TripAdvisor. Lots of my local partners, when I was building Tripbod, were great fans of TripAdvisor, but as a start-up I wanted to disrupt it! At the time I felt TripAdvisor was doing a great job being the world’s largest platform for reviews and opinions, but that smaller businesses like mine could do a better job of personalising the experience. The challenge, of course, was getting to market.
When I was introduced to the Head of Product at TripAdvisor at the time, I was keen to see if there was a business development opportunity. What I didn’t expect was to be so deeply impressed by the people I met that day and the company culture that came across.
It turned out they were investing heavily in personalising the user experience and making some great strides, so it was an awesome opportunity to have impact from within — which I think they now call ‘intrapreneurship’!
Do you think that the founders of TripAdvisor ever imagined how far the company would grow?
I think you always go into business with ambition and dreams, and Steve (TripAdvisor’s co-founder, and still our CEO) certainly does not lack vision! But there is also an element of organic growth to success, and having your users define your direction. As a company, we listen to our users – both industry and consumers – all the time so we can ensure their input is central to our decision making.
I think some things have changed significantly since TripAdvisor’s inception, and others not at all. The company still has the same ambition as it did on day one — to help real travellers share their real insights into real destinations, which goes far beyond the sales pitch of a glossy marketing brochure.
How we do that, and indeed how the industry engages in that with their own opinions, has evolved enormously. And thankfully our user experience has changed dramatically. Nowadays we don’t bombard you with pop-up windows like everyone did in the ‘good old days’!
Has the role of feedback changed since it has become freely viewable (and freely voiced) online through platforms like TripAdvisor?
I think the role is still the same – to share feedback with a service provider that either gives well-deserved praise or gives suggestions for improvement. The difference now is that more opinions are shared and that is a really good thing.
Some people just don’t feel comfortable giving feedback there and then in person, even if it is a glowing report, so it’s important for people to have their say in the way they feel comfortable sharing. This then benefits others considering booking with that same business, and can really help raise the profile of businesses that otherwise would struggle to achieve the same brand reach as competitors who have bigger budgets but possibly not as great service.
TripAdvisor is a meritocracy that creates a level playing field based on quality, and that has made a meaningful impact on a lot of businesses in lots of parts of the world.
What would you say the role of guest feedback is in the hospitality industry?
Every industry cares what its consumers think, especially if they want those consumers to come back. In hospitality, this is all the more important because travel is such a high-spend and high-emotion purchase.
We have seen over the years that reviews help improve standards and reduce costs for businesses in paying for market research — they have what they need right there in the reviews for free! We also have third-party data to show that improvements in service quality and therefore review score leads to increased demand and revenues, so guest feedback really can be the start of a highly virtuous circle.
How would you say that TripAdvisor has changed the landscape for feedback?
You only have to walk around a destination and count the TripAdvisor stickers in windows to know the impact has been significant. Businesses want to collect reviews, for all the reasons above, and because it gives them further opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
As travel consumers, we are all individuals with different tastes and needs, and those differ depending on the type of trip we are on, so it’s critical that we connect the right consumer with the right property, based on their needs at that time. TripAdvisor is working hard on doing that better than ever and that means it’s a fantastic opportunity for all businesses on our platform to access the market.
What would you say to properties who view TripAdvisor reviews as damaging to their brand?
The vast, vast majority of TripAdvisor reviews are highly positive and we know that most people want to praise the brilliant service they have experienced. It’s also important to share critical feedback when appropriate, because it raises standards across our industry and ensures transparency. We hope that businesses see that as an opportunity to shine, and that one poor review within a large number of positive ones does not negatively impact their business.
What’s more, with the manager response tool, the last word goes to the business owner which really is a huge benefit. So I would always suggest businesses view critical feedback as an opportunity to thank the reviewer for their feedback, use it as an opportunity to improve and also to actually attract more business – we know, for example, that thoughtful management responses can actually increase future bookings, so there’s really nothing to lose!
If you could give one piece of advice to hospitality professionals looking to improve their listings, what would it be?
Make sure you engage, frequently and thoughtfully. As mentioned, management responses are invaluable, but so too is current content. Make sure your listing content is up-to-date and consider seasonal adjustments to ensure you are really appealing to travellers who are thinking about booking right now. Photos are extremely important, especially of the inside of your property so it’s worthwhile investing in some great shots.
Is there a review or response that sticks out in your mind as portraying the value that this kind of platform holds for hotels?
I was in Cape Town a few years ago and met a wonderful entrepreneur called Siviwe who had grown up in the Langa township. He wanted to start a tour company to show visitors to the city a different side of local life, from the perspective of his own community. One day someone told him about TripAdvisor and so he started asking customers for reviews and his business really grew as a result. Using his business success for good, Siviwe founded an incredible youth charity in that same township, which has been a major success and contributed to hundreds of children’s education in his community.
For me, that reflects the power of a great entrepreneur and also of how TripAdvisor can really be an opportunity to grow great businesses – making sure the voices of the most brilliant and passionate business owners are heard by the visitors who are looking for the best experiences in a destination, regardless of where they are from or what marketing budget they have.
What is the best hotel that you have ever stayed in, and why?
I have been very lucky to stay in some remarkable places. I’ve experienced the high end of the market, such as incredible ethical safari lodges in South Africa, as well as very small, low-key properties like amazing pubs in the Lake District that wow you with their service and personal flair. Each experience is so different that I couldn’t possibly choose just one!
What I will say is that, for me, the link that connects all the best places I have stayed are those that take their responsibility seriously — to their local community and environment. I consistently find that those businesses also deliver the best service and experience, so that’s what I look for when I travel.