Starwood's Seminal Decision to Include Reviews on Their Websites

Starwood Hotels announced on Friday that they will now begin including user reviews on their websites. I very much support this strategy and congratulate Starwood on being first to market with what will prove to be a seminal move in the hospitality space. Here’s why…

In a few short years, user-generated reviews have become an immutable third element of the hotel shopper’s experience, along with the traditional “price” and “location”. It is important, however, to view the development of user reviews within the larger context of online shopping for hotels. Consider that, from roughly 1997 through 2005 (or possibly later), TPIs/OTAs thoroughly ate hotel brands’ collective lunch by realizing and leveraging the power of online reservations. Hotel brands eventually caught on and have since been involved in a carefully orchestrated turf war with Travelocity et al. While TPIs/OTAs certainly form an important channel, hoteliers have lured shoppers to their own sites in the past seven years by offering “best rate guarantees” a more robust shopping experience (hopefully including rich photo and video content), and more. 

As a category, however, TPIs/OTAs continue to evolve and innovate much faster than hotel brands. This is particularly true with mobile (and tablet) web and apps and especially true with reviews. Even as they otherwise optimize their websites for best-possible experiences that will draw traffic from the OTAs, hotel brands have been losing out on revenue because reviews --that must have information for nearly all hotel shoppers-- are not available on hotel brand websites! The end result is that even brand loyalists are forced to browse reviews on TripAdvisor or any other review site of their choice before attempting to book at the brand site. And of course, a good many of them are lured into the bookings paths of these others sites instead... Whether the reviews or good or bad, shoppers are going to read them. Hoteliers should do like Starwood has done and bring those reviews to their own sites, where they are more likely to convert shoppers in a direct channel and to gain ancillary data points (like time spent reading reviews, etc) to boot.

So while we can congratulate Starwood on bringing reviews to their site, we must ask ourselves the next question: How will they change the habits of a market that has been taught for the past 15 years to read reviews on independent and objective sites like TripAdvisor? Including user reviews on a website is an important first step, but not enough to change market behavior. There has to be something else that will draw users to the site for one-stop reviewing+booking. The trick to changing this engrained user behavior is to evolve the review experience and make it more useful to guests than it is today. If --and only if-- they succeed on this front, will shoppers use this new functionality on Starwood’s website in any meaningful quantity.

To Starwood’s credit, this is where their new solution shows great potential. They include new filters for reviews like Loyalty Members (or not), Purpose of Travel, and Frequency of Travel.  While l would like to see additional filters (average review score by authors or "travelling with children", for example), this is a great start and will certainly evolve in time to help people see scores that correspond with their general tastegraphs.

Overall, I think that Starwood have done a great job in anticipating challenges and by simply being brave enough to be the first to dive into the pool. The rest of us can watch carefully for market signals regarding willingness to believe the authenticity of reviews that are hosted by the brand. I’ll be looking, too, for any signs of operational strain that could be caused by having to vet reviews and validate that the authors actually stayed. We should also be on the lookout for evidence of new search strategies that might be deployed: Will Starwood always link to the homepage or booking engine? Or would review pages make for a more appropriate first stop in some cases?

How about you? Are you willing to trust Starwood reviews?

Edit: Despite my enthusiasm in this post, Starwood's solution is not perfect.  See next post for more thoughts...