Review sites guide travelers, especially affluent ones

Travel review sites continue to gather steam as a force in guiding travelers in their vacation and business travel choices. And some of these sites are working to create more of a one-stop shopping option, offering not only bookings but ancillary products like restaurants and attractions.

Just over half the Consumer Trends sample reported having used travel review sites in the past year, and of those nearly all said they had at least some influence in their travel choices. Over the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of respondents who feel that these sites have "very much" influence on their travel choices, rising from 21% in 2013 to 27% last year, and 37% this year.

The survey also found that the credibility of travel review sites has improved over the past year, with 45% of those who used such sites rating them "good" in terms of providing accurate and helpful advice. That is a 10% improvement over last year.

Phocuswright research validates the survey, finding that more than one in three online travel shoppers visited a travel review website like TripAdvisor in 2014, a seven percentage-point jump from 2013. The company said that traveler-posted reviews are now the most widely used online feature in travel shopping, beating out professional reviews, photography, video, interactive maps and information on social networks.

In addition, 56% of online travel shoppers read travel reviews before making at least half of their leisure travel bookings, Phocuswright said.

While TripAdvisor might be synonymous with traveler reviews, according to Phocuswright it is not the only show in town.

"At this point, travelers expect to have reviews wherever they shop," said Marcello Gasdia, director of consumer research for Phocuswright.

"Credibility is also important. The strategy used by OTAs when they realized they had to do something to deal with the review sites is to claim to have quality reviews because reviewers must be validated that they visited a hotel or destination."

In fact, according to Booking.com, a Priceline Group company, the number of reviews on the site is continually increasing. (Currently, only people who have booked and stayed in a hotel can write reviews on Booking.com.)

"We have over 50 million recent, verified, authentic customer reviews, with an average of over 100,000 new reviews being added each day," a Booking.com spokeswoman said. "That's an average of over 70 reviews per accommodation."

While booking sites like Booking.com are adding reviews, review sites are adding bookings. TripAdvisor launched an instant-booking platform in May 2014 that enables users to compare prices and book hotels through hotel and OTA partners without leaving the TripAdvisor site.

In June of this year, TripAdvisor added Marriott's hotel portfolio to its platform, after having already added Accor, Choice and other major brands.

Booking.com said its research showed that those who engage more with reviews make more bookings over the course of a year. And that trend is even stronger among those who attribute their reviews to themselves rather than writing them anonymously. In a survey across 16 markets, Booking.com found that the opinion of online reviewers ranks third after price and location as the biggest influencer in a booker's decision, ranking higher than the opinions of close family and friends.

The importance of reviews as opposed to friends and family, especially among the affluent, is reinforced by the annual MMGY Global Portrait of American Travelers. It appears that the more affluent the traveler, the more likely he or she will be to rely on reviews. According to that survey, "affluent travelers believe third-party reviews more than friends and family," and that number has gone up significantly.

"One reason the affluent rely on reviews," said Steve Cohen, vice president of insights for MMGY Global, is that "they're looking for experiences that their friends aren't having. They are looking for people who are like them."

Recognizing this, American Express Travel has partnered with TripAdvisor so that cardholders can view the reviews of other cardholders because "they want to see what people like themselves are thinking," according to Claire Bennett, executive vice president of American Express Travel.

The review wave shows no signs of abating.

"The biggest thing in reviews now is reviews of things not central to the travel experience," Gasdia said. "You'll see review sites branching out into restaurants, activities and more. That was accelerated by Priceline's purchase of Open Table," a restaurant review site.

Like Priceline, TripAdvisor is adding nonhotel options, recently acquiring Lafourchette (restaurants) and Viator (attractions) to broaden booking options.

Despite the growing influence of review sites, analysts see a place for agents as the ultimate reviewers.

"Travel agents should be the best reviewers of all," Gasdia said, "because they may have first-hand knowledge. It's all about trustworthy information."

Cohen agreed. "The resurgence of use of agents by the affluent and millennials is based on the fact that agents have been there, and travelers are going to them for that knowledge," he said. "They use review sites to validate the agent's insights."

CORRECTION: A comment that Booking.com has "over 50 million recent, verified, authentic customer reviews," was updated to correct the attribution: It was said by a spokeswoman for Booking.com, not by a TripAdvisor spokesman.

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