Jan. 29, 2012 -- In a sign of how powerful online reviews are to travelers, some of the world's biggest hotel companies are adding customer reviews of their hotels to their own websites.
Starwood launched its own customer reviews in October. Marriott and Four Seasons followed. Now, others are jumping in:
•Hilton Worldwide will add customer reviews by the end of this year, says Chuck Sullivan, senior vice president of global online services.
•Holiday Inn's parent, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), will test "verified customer reviews on all of our consumer-facing websites early this year," says Michael Menis, IHG marketing vice president.
•Radisson-parent Carlson is evaluating options for customer reviews on its brand websites, spokeswoman Joan Cronson says.
Hilton hasn't determined whether to let customers post reviews on Hilton's websites, similar to Starwood and Marriott, or incorporate them from a third party such as online review giant TripAdvisor. That's what Four Seasons is doing on its newly revamped website.
"Consumer reviews are a very positive thing," Hilton's Sullivan says. "They help provide customers with a real understanding of a property. We believe that direct channels — specifically, our Web brand hotel pages — have to be seen by the guest as the ultimate source of truth."
Menis says reviews are important because they play "an important role in helping a customer make their ultimate booking decision." Including them, he says, reflects the new ways IHG is trying to communicate with its customers.
The hotels are betting that an occasional bad review is better than having no reviews at all.
They're also betting that their best customers will put more faith in reviews that are on their websites because they — unlike TripAdvisor — have the ability to confirm whether a review writer really checked into that particular hotel.
Questions about whether some TripAdvisor reviews are fake or written by a competitor out to disparage a particular hotel have been raised.
"We know that there is tremendous credibility in being able to say that these user reviews are written by someone who actually stayed on property," Sullivan says.
Since Starwood launched reviews on many of its hotel websites in October, more customers have written reviews than the company expected, says Chris Holdren, a senior Starwood executive.
So far, almost half of Starwood's nearly 1,100 hotels have reviews. Most of the remaining properties have at least one, but Starwood isn't publishing them on the hotels' websites until there are at least five, he says.
Customers can write a review and rank their stay on a scale of one to five, with one being the worst and five the best. When searching for reviews, customers can filter them by "Star Rating," "Purpose of Travel," "Frequency of Travel," "SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) Level," "Above/Met Expectations" and "Below Expectations."
Starwood's loyalty program members are writing most of the reviews, he says.
"We knew this would be valuable, but it's even more valuable than we had predicted," Holdren says. "We are seeing great engagement from guests."
As an example, he points to the 45 reviews for the Westin Paris-Vendôme. The hotel has an 80% thumbs up rating, but you can also see that 20 customers gave the hotel five-star reviews, and four customers gave it just one star.
Most reviews tend to be positive, yet they mix in some less-than-positive experiences.
For example, review writer TahitianDreams writes: "The concierge (had a bit of an) 'I don't really care' attitude, but the SPG desk representative was fantastic and was very kind and helpful at every level. She was great!" The writer recommended the hotel and gave it a five-star review.
Four Seasons, meanwhile, says it's banking on most travelers knowing and loving TripAdvisor and its reviews of properties.
On the newly revamped FourSeasons.com, hotel shoppers will find a "Reviews at a Glance" box that lets them link directly to TripAdvisor, Twitter and Facebook entries to see the latest, unedited entries.
"Given the popularity of travel reviews and opinions on TripAdvisor for more than a decade, it's not surprising that hotels are more interested in having customer reviews on their own sites," says TripAdvisor's Brooke Ferencsik.