One of the more striking findings to come out of the Travel Weekly Consumer Trends survey we released last week is that although consumers who use travel agents believe they are more likely to provide expert advice than any other booking channel, an agent's client is also more likely than other consumers to visit travel review websites.
And not just by a little. About 47% of all leisure travelers visit review sites such as TripAdvisor, but when it comes to those who use travel agents, a solid majority, 60%, said they visited a review site.
Initially, that might seem counterintuitive. If a traveler values expert advice, why bother to check what the masses think? But the data suggest that people who use travel agents highly value their vacation time and want every assurance that their money will be well spent. They may trust their travel agent, but they want to hear other opinions, as well.
Nearly all consumers who responded to our survey and use review sites said the sites have "some influence" on their decisions, but only a third rate them as "good" in terms of providing accurate and helpful advice, and just one in five say they have "very much influence."
That could soon change, however. No sooner had Expedia offloaded TripAdvisor than it joined critics of the site in pointing out that there was no way of knowing which comments under a hotel listing were written by guests who actually stayed there and which might have been written by, say, the general manager.
Or, for that matter, a competitor.
So last year Expedia announced it had launched a verified traveler program. If someone who writes a hotel review has also booked it on Expedia or its sister site, Hotels.com, the words "a verified traveler" appear at the top of the review. "They paid and stayed," Expedia explains in its "Verified Reviews" logo. "We double-checked."
With more than nine months of verified reviews compiled so far, I was curious to see if verified travelers had a different take on properties than nonverified reviewers.
I checked Expedia reviews for hotels around the world to find one that had a healthy percentage of verified listings and finally came upon the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe All-Inclusive in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Of the 187 reviews currently on the site, 109 were from the period after the first "verified" review appeared, on Oct. 20, 2011, and 39 of those -- approximately 35% -- were verified.
Expedia said the average rating of all 187 reviews was 3.9 out of five. I also calculated the average of the verified reviews to be ... 3.9 out of five.
Now one can't really conclude that because in this instance verified reviews came up with the same result as combined verified and nonverified reviews, the verified program therefore has no value. Rather, it might simply suggest that Barcelo doesn't try to stuff the ballot box.
Ultimately, the aggregated verified results themselves might not matter as much as the reassurance that having verified reviews on a site provides. The bottom line is trust, and the more one learns about how companies manage their online reputations, the greater the need for verified processes becomes.
(Note to Expedia: You have a link that says "See Expedia verified reviews." Why not have it lead directly to only the verified reviews, rather than to the entire list of reviews?)
Expedia, incidentally, is not alone in launching a verified traveler program. It is a key benefit of Traxo.com, an automated itinerary service that provides a host of ways for like-minded travelers to share and organize travel information.
The takeaway for agents is that it will not undermine your value in the eyes of clients to present them with shared feedback from your other clients. Expedia allows users to search for reviews by criteria such as families, couples, business travelers and students; it's likely you have a clientele that is much more granularly defined and who have much more in common with one another than simply that they are a couple or have a family.
Although it is tempting to rely solely on your position as a "travel guru" rather than incorporate the opinions of others, our Consumer Trends data suggest you will add to your credibility if you back up your advice with the endorsements of others who have followed it.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.