Kosta's Pizza and Seafood has received high marks from TripAdvisor reviewers. The diners rave about the baked haddock, pita bread and pizza. But none of the commenters acknowledge the historic significance of the Boston-area restaurant. In 2000, a software engineer and some pals created an axis-shifting travel Web site above the Needham business. Appropriately, TripAdvisor.com came to life in a room smelling of Italy.
A lot has changed since the hatchling days above the pizzeria. Back then, co-founder Steve Kaufer and his wife searched in vain for independent reviews of resorts in Mexico, the vacation that inspired the site. The couple relied on glossy brochures supplied by a commission-driven travel agent. Today, the Kaufers, plus millions of other travelers, can sift through 250 million unvarnished reviews and opinions, including 160 new submissions a minute.
Last month, TripAdvisor moved into splashy headquarters less than three miles from its birthplace. Nearly 900 employees work in the $US120 million ($A170 million) building, which will eventually accommodate hundreds of new hires. The company also owns or manages more than two dozen travel media businesses, such as Cruise Critic, SeatGuru, Jetsetter and FlipKey.
Without question, TripAdvisor has become a monster. Not a mean ogre that eats all of your Girl Scout cookies but a friendly, helpful beast that accompanies countless travellers on their vacations.
"Travellers are much better off today than they have ever have been," said Adam Medros, the company's senior vice president of global product. "The traveller is empowered to make their trips amazing and not 'oh-it-was-okay.' "
This summer, the annual study "Portrait of American Travellers," by travel marketing company MMGY, highlighted the barrelling trend of user-generated content. Forty-one per cent of about 2800 respondents said they visited a travel review site for destination information, up 7 per cent from last year. Only 37 per cent said they relied on friends and family for trip ideas. In addition, more than half of the participants said they trust review sites over ratings by such established opinionators as AAA and Forbes.
"TripAdvisor has freed me from dependence on any individual or company that wants to profit from my choices," said Ginny Cunningham, who has used the site for more than a decade. "Frommer's, Fodor's and travel agents are great, but they're exceedingly limited in the real-life feedback they offer."
To understand how the company has altered the vacation-planning universe, I journeyed to Planet TripAdvisor. I found hotel managers who start the day by reading reviews written by recent guests and travellers who feed the community with hundreds of postings. I also gained a deeper understanding of the company's own journey, a multi-part adventure that involves exploring uncharted territory as well as revisiting well-trod paths.
TripAdvisor: This is your review.
The ins and outs of TripAdvisor HQ
TripAdvisor HQ sits in an office park off Route 128, surrounded by Coca-Cola trucks belonging to the neighbour's bottling plant. The brick building with a soaring glass wall doesn't scream New Media Lives Here, but telltale signs abound. A drone hovered overhead. A row of parking spots were reserved for job applicants. Two guys in floppy shorts played Frisbee near a Roman-style amphitheatre that hosts bands.
I followed Matthew Gabree, director of global office experience, into the lobby, a playful space with vintage luggage used as shelving, a tower of Rubik's cubes and a world map made of travel photos. In the background, a TV touted the company's benefits: happy hours, free lunches, summer-casual Fridays. (I visited on a Wednesday, which felt like a Friday, so the end of the week must be as liberating as the Fourth of July.)
"We wanted it to feel like a hotel reception," said Gabree, who appeared surprisingly formal in pants and a button-down.
Staying on-theme, Gabree showed me TripAdvisor's version of the hotel gym, a bright workout facility with cardio machines, weights and a yoga/pilates/spinning studio. He introduced me to a virtual trainer named Wellbeats - for when you only have 20 minutes to squeeze in your kickboxing training.
In the building's atrium, stadium-style seating rose like Machu Picchu. At the peak, "embalmed" vegetation mimicked green walls, an eco-update of plastic vines. In the game room, Gabree pointed out the fraternity house diversions, including Atari, ping-pong, craft brew taps and a wall-size mural of superheroes.
"Sometimes you just want to play shuffleboard and have a beer," he said.
In the Hungry Owl (see: company logo), the kitchen staff prepares a global-cuisine-of-the-day; last Wednesday was Germany. There is also a grill station, 30-foot (9-metre) salad bar and gas-fired pizza station, a nod to the company's origins. Snack hubs provide all-day fixes of cereal, chips and coffee.
In the more traditional workspaces, I saw pods of employees glued to their computers and hunched over laptops. One worker typed with a dog on his chest. No loud voices (or barks) broke the deep concentration.
Every floor is named after a continent (Europe) or region (the Americas). Visiting each level is an immersive experience. The furnishings, artwork and even the decorative plants all capture the flavour of the destination. In the "South Pacific," for example, an arrow points to the "dunny," Australian slang for toilet. In "Africa," Gabree and I passed Mauritius.
"One day," he said wistfully, "I'll get there."
He was not referring to the conference room.
The early years
Adam Medros remembers when ... there were only 35 employees. When Zoe, the company's third hire, used to order sandwiches for the whole staff. When the site had less than a million reviews.
The executive's early memories date from 2004, the year he joined the company and three years after the first guest submission - a four-bubble review of Captain's House Inn in Chatham, Massachusetts, US - appeared on the site. (Originally, the founders had envisioned a compilation of links to professional reviews.) That solo review seems so quaint now: The site added nearly as many reviews and opinions last month as it did in all of 2010.
For Medros, one of TripAdvisor's greatest contributions to travel planning is lifting the opaque curtain on reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions. The reader can nearly see the writer through the screen.
"It's not just a collection of reviews. It's the unbiased nature of the reviews and the idea of transparency" that is appealing, he said. "As a reviewer, your profile is on the page for others to evaluate."
Last year, the company introduced a points system that helps users better know the commenters. Members earn points through written submissions, photos, videos, forums and ratings. Brad Reynolds (user name: BradJill), for example, is the site's most prolific reviewer. The Level 6 contributor has earned more than 2.1 million points and 106 badges in such categories as Hotel Expert, Helpful Reviewer and Top Contributor.
He seems like a trustworthy guy.
Because anyone can post, the personal information adds a layer of credibility to a platform susceptible to fraud. (On Booking.com, which displays 50 million reviews, the company verifies the individual's status as hotel guest before allowing him or her to upload a critique. On Travelocity, only guests who have booked the hotel on the site can submit one.) Overly gushy or vindictive comments ring alarms that a business has orchestrated its own good press or sullied a competitor's reputation. Firms also approach property owners and offer to write glowing remarks for a fee.
For security reasons, Medros said, he couldn't describe the company's anti-fraud detection program in detail, but he did say they use 5o or so filters and algorithms to pick up on "behaviour that looks different." He compared the process to a biologist singling out mutations among normal cells. A team of inspectors investigates the claim, and if their suspicions are verified, TripAdvisor may affix a red badge to the hotel's listing, a scarlet letter that could scare away business.
Although the company implemented safeguards, Medros says fraud appears in only a tiny fraction of reviews. "The owners know it doesn't pay," he said, "and the scale and community deters it."
Over the past few years, TripAdvisor has been stretching its wings beyond reviews. Travellers can now compare prices from different booking services and reserve a hotel room without leaving the site. The company is expanding its attraction and restaurant categories and introducing app features, such as "Near Me Now," that advise on the fly.
Another focus: personalisation. With "Just for You," TripAdvisor offers hotel suggestions based on the user's predilections and research on the site. The more you share, the sharper the recommendations. Medros assured me that the tool wasn't surveillance-style creepy.
"It's not spying," he said, "but, 'Hey, I know your preferences.' "
There's no hiding from the monster.
Hotels and TripAdvisor
Nearly every workday, David Bueno starts his morning by reading the latest batch of TripAdvisor reviews. The manager at the Jefferson, the upscale Washington hotel, and his marketing manager tackle the comments one by one.
"It does take a lot of time," he admitted, "but the guests take their time to post reviews."
The pair try to respond within 24 hours. If the comment is positive, they can post a reply lickety-split. If the review mentions a flaw or dissatisfaction, however, his staff will run through several steps before responding. They will confirm that the reviewer was indeed a guest and will investigate the problem so they can provide a proper explanation, if not a solution. For example, a visitor mentioned erratic newspaper delivery service, a poor Wi-Fi connection and the bottled sparkling water that continued to appear in his room even after he informed the staff of his distaste for the beverage. Bueno wrote that he would follow up with the responsible departments and that the hotel was working on improving Internet service. He signed off with his email address.
Bueno's level of engagement is the norm. The Mayflower, a few blocks from the White House, has a front-office team that responds to reviews within two days. Staff at the JW Marriott Miami addresses reviews daily. Hilton Worldwide devised a strategy for handling social media and TripAdvisor comments. The pillars are pay attention, respond and resolve.
"A tweet or a[n online] review is no different than a phone call or an email," said Vanessa Sain-Dieguez, Hilton's director of social media planning and integration. "Feedback is feedback."
For smaller properties, the negative criticisms can be particularly crushing.
"When we get a bad review," said Carolyn Troxell, co-owner of the 11-room Inn at Westwynd Farm near Hershey, Pennsylvania, "I feel physically ill."
Carolyn and her husband, Frank, send a thank-you email that encourages guests to post reviews on Google, BedandBreakfast.com and TripAdvisor. They return the favour with a personal note. "Good or bad, I try to respond," she said.
She said that for less-than-shining reviews, "you have to be super, super polite." For a complaint about a wall's scuff mark, she gallantly replied that they already had plans to repaint the rooms. For a remark about a worn toilet seat, she explained that replacing them was on their to-do list.
Although her inn has received only one "poor" review in 10 years, Troxell has a request for future guests: "Before you tell 5 million people, can you please tell us?"
Reviewers on TripAdvisor
When Neil Epstein writes reviews, he focuses on the positive. He has praised the serene setting at the Cadet Hotel in Miami Beach, the attentive staff at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita in Flagstaff, Ariz., and the coq au vin at La Taverne Provencale in the French Riviera.
However, he broke his rosy streak in September after a disappointing experience at the Chateau de Berne in Provence. His headline - "Total deception" - captured his ire.
"I don't write about every property," he said, "just if they are exceptionally good or dreadful and not worthy."
TripAdvisor has more than 84 million reviewers, and their critiquing styles vary wildly. Balanced and tempered. Highly observant and specific. Overly enthusiastic. Nit-picking and negative. Yet despite the disparate voices, the contributors share a similar purpose: giving back to the TripAdvisor community.
"I never feel like my trips are 100 per cent complete until I've submitted my reviews," said Jennifer Horn, who has posted more than 120 times. "I feel like I owe other contributors, since they've provided so much valuable info to me."
All reviewers start their TripAdvisor careers as readers. When looking for accommodations, most devise culling strategies. They might focus on the top-ranked listings in that city, or search by property type or number of stars. When scanning reviews, they note patterns and look for a consensus, sampling the best and worst and several in-between.
"If there are 100 reviews and 25 say their room was dirty," said Denise Mills, who has written about 15 critiques, "then chances are the hotel is not careful about cleanliness."
Frequent users also pay attention to the time stamp. A hotel cited for broken air-conditioning five years ago probably fixed the problem. Older reviews might not reflect renovations, either. A better tactic: Scan the submissions from people who stayed there 24 hours to a month ago. (Booking.com, by comparison, deletes reviews every 14 months; TripAdvisor removes reviews if the property has changed ownership or undergoes major renovations.)
"TripAdvisor eliminates the time gap," said Reynolds, the site's most prolific reviewer, with 3743 posts since 2009. "It's real-time information."
When the readers switch roles, they apply lessons they've learned to their own critiques. Mills cares the most about cleanliness, location and service. Sara Downes, a contributor since 2005, prefers a more detailed portrait of a place.
"I describe any aspects that added to or detracted from my enjoyment of the hotel," she said. "For a hotel with nice decor, I would write, 'The large lobby was decorated with a rustic, hunting lodge theme which fit well with the surroundings.' That's what I want to read, so that is what I write."
After subpar experiences, seasoned contributors explain the problem rather than broadly dismiss the place.
"If it is below average, I want to know, what were the deficiencies?" Reynolds said. "I want to help people understand why it wouldn't be a better score."
In a two-bubble review of Singapore's Soluxe Inn, he noted such offenses as a sewage smell, a small room and a broken safe but ends with a hint of optimism: "Considering Soluxe Inn has only recently opened, it is our hope that they make the necessary adjustments so that this can be a better option for TA members visiting Singapore in the future."
Reynolds frequently looks beyond his own vacation requirements to help others. He takes pictures of a hotel's entrance to guide arriving guests and offers the best route or means of transportation to a destination. He notes structural features, such as a narrow staircase at a Rome apartment, that might prove difficult for people with accessibility issues. He even mentions the sporadic hours of Italian attractions - Venice's San Zaccaria church, for example, and Florence's Palazzo Vecchio - to prevent tourists from making wasted trips.
"Giving back to TripAdvisor is a natural thing," he said from his home in Hong Kong. "It's part of my daily routine."
At the moment, his habit is one to three reviews a day.
The Washington Post
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