Two key findings in the Consumer Trends survey were an increase in the use of review sites by travelers who use agents and the growing importance of sites such as TripAdvisor in travelers' decision-making. (Read more from the Consumer Trends survey here.)
The results show that some travelers might be more interested in validation of their choices than others. While the percentage of travelers who say they are influenced by review sites stayed roughly the same as the previous year (55%), the number of respondents who used an agent in the past year and said review sites were influential jumped from 59% to 72%.
The growing power of these sites is evidenced by the fact that one in four respondents said review sites have "very much influence" on their choices, up from one in five last year. That jump comes largely from younger travelers (age 21 to 34), more than a third of whom indicated that review sites have "very much influence" compared with 22% the year before.
There is no disputing the size and reach of TripAdvisor, the industry leader. According to its spokesman, Kevin Carter, the site reached 150 million reviews this year, covering more than 4 million places, including hotels, restaurants and attractions.
The survey also showed significant changes in the types of travel product for which sales are influenced by review sites. While nonresort and resort hotels have dominated when it comes to the influence of these sites, the number of people influenced by the sites in choosing an all-inclusive resort grew from 32% to 40%. For those booking packaged and escorted tours, it jumped from 15% to 22%.
Travelers who used an agent in the past year indicated they were more influenced by review sites for all-inclusive resorts, packaged tours and escorted tours than those who did not use an agent.
In a blog post on its website, Tauck, the luxury tour operator, offered cautionary advice about how review sites should be used, and recommended that travelers read the reviews on Tauck's own sites by travelers who have actually taken the company's tours.
The blog concluded: "Most importantly, rely on websites where the reviews are verified. You might not know it, but it's impossible for most travel websites to verify whether or not people have actually experienced what they're reviewing. And if a review isn't based on firsthand experience, how reliable or trustworthy can it be?"
Cruises are also seeing an impact from review sites. In fact, TripAdvisor has long owned Cruise Critic, which is a major source of professional as well as user reviews.
Melissa Paloti, director of product development for Cruise Critic, said, "More and more people are reading cruise reviews. With a cruise, you are committing a significant amount of money to be on a ship for days at a time; you can't simply leave and go down the road if you don't like it. People don't want to make a mistake, so they want to get an idea of what it will be like before they book."
About 50% to 60% of Cruise Critic visitors use a travel agent, according to Paloti, who added, "It's something we always encourage, especially for people who are new to cruise. Having a well-informed customer can help an agent, too, if they are able to ask informed questions and are aware of some of the advantages of not booking entirely based on price, and instead upgrade to a balcony cabin, for example. And we added reviews of shore excursions last year so people can share their experiences with those."
There are those who think agents should see review sites as tools rather than competition.
Adele Gutman, vice president of sales, marketing and revenue for the Library Hotel Collection in New York, has gained a reputation for her marketing efforts around TripAdvisor.
"It's smart for a travel agent to use TripAdvisor as a tool," Gutman said. "It will tell you quickly what a hotel's real strengths and weaknesses are, and since you know your client, you can best match them to the hotel that really works for them."
Gutman said that even with the availability of sites like TripAdvisor, "there is a role for an agent to enhance a client's experience, especially for those [clients] who do not enjoy doing trip research. Some people just book the hotel that is No. 1 on the list without looking at the website and really seeing if it meets their personal preferences for style and facilities. Some travelers do not have time to read the details on types of cancellation policies, and that can have a negative impact on the stay, so if a savvy agent can help a customer navigate all those detail they can make better choices."
To read the Consumer Trends report, click here.