Taking Ownership of Reputation.
By Daniel Edward Craig
Wednesday, 31st October 2012
No one has a higher stake in the reputation of hotels than ownership, so how closely are owners paying attention to online reviews and ratings?.

Very closely, for some. When I was a general manager, whenever I received an email alert of a TripAdvisor review and it was a bad one, my eyes would shift nervously to the phone. Soon enough it would ring, and the hotel's owner would be calling to find out exactly what went wrong and how we were going to fix it.

More recently, at a conference in August I had the opportunity to chat in-depth with Steve Busch, owning partner of the 68-suite Jefferson Clinton Hotel in Syracuse, New York, and I discovered a forward-thinking and refreshing perspective.

The term "hands-on owner" can send shivers of dread down the backs of hotel managers, but Busch is no typical owner. A longtime hotelier himself, he started as a bus boy while attending the University of Las Vegas and worked his up and around, eventually becoming a general manager.

Busch's intimate knowledge of hotel operations is evident not only in his team-oriented approach but in the remarkable success of his hotel, which has ranked #1 on TripAdvisor for five years running.

In this condensed version of our Q&A session, Busch discusses how his team goes beyond reputation management basics like monitoring and responding to feedback (he personally responds to many reviews) to advanced strategies and tactics, like always striving to be "remarkable", why "cleanliness is godliness", and why he stays in the worst room in the hotel.

How did you achieve #1 ranking on TripAdvisor?

Well, now we're Number 2 so I'm not really sure if I'm qualified to speak on that …  In my opinion to be #1 you have to be best out there. No request can ever be too large and no detail too small. That holds true for every guest that stays with us. I have always appreciated the story of the employee who drained a pool to help a guest find a ring.

As an owner, you recognize the importance of reputation to your hotel's success. How do you convey this to staff and management?

Ownership needs to treat staff and management the way it wants staff and management to treat the guests of the hotel. The satisfaction of the people that work at the Jefferson Clinton Hotel is the number one priority of our ownership group. Together, our number one priority is our guest.

How do you balance the need to invest in the property in order to generate positive reviews with the need to run a lean, profitable hotel?

That's always a challenge. Sometimes we get it right and not so much others.  However, I believe that I can't satisfy myself then I can't satisfy my guest. That makes the capital decisions much easier. Whenever I stay at the hotel I want to be put in the worst room in the house. If it isn't right, and I'm embarrassed, we improve it as soon as possible.

How has your TripAdvisor ranking impacted revenue?

When we noticed several years ago that we were ranked high on TripAdvisor we also recognized that our REVPAR Index % was continuing to rise. Hoteliers have always known that if you have better services and products than your competition, you will get higher market share. What was different about this was that we were not doing anything special. No new renovations, sales effort, amenities, etc. The only variable we could see as having impact was TripAdvisor's own popularity. As the web site continued to grow in popularity, we too benefited simply by having a higher ranking.

It supports the theory that people are willing to pay a little bit extra for something they know is good, but not willing to pay less for what is not. If you're in the top 10% of your market on TripAdvisor, you should charge a premium for that distinction.

You have a theory that if a hotel is getting a lot of five-star reviews it probably isn't charging enough for rooms. Can you elaborate?

First, we have to recognize that we are in business to make money. There is no other reason for our existence. With that being said, there is a direct correlation between price, product and expectation. The less you charge, the less expected of you. If guests are too happy, then you're probably not charging enough for your rooms.

So does that mean you're okay with not being #1?

We were #1 a long time, over 5 straight years, but things change and the hotel that unseated us is certainly deserving. Part of me says as long as reviews show that associates are doing a good job and the guests are pleased with our hotel and service, I should be okay with where we sit. The other part of me wants to get back to the top as soon as possible. So to answer your question … I'm really sick over it. I check a couple times a day to see if we climbed back up.

Can you share other tips for managing reputation?

I don't believe there is any magic pill. However, spending anytime managing a bad reputation makes no sense. Therefore, step one is that if you have a bad reputation and guests are saying bad things, then you need to [fix] what is in your control. That being said, guests will "remark" about things that are "remarkable". If it's not worth "remarking" on, no guest will. We always strive to provide good "remarkable" service.

For example, we have umbrellas' by the door when it rains. We keep a set of jumper cables behind the front desk if your battery dies. There is always ice cold fresh water in the lobby and we never let our best room sit vacant … we'd rather upgrade it for free and let a guest feel special. The list is endless and only limited to what we can think of or what ideas we get from others.

Also, cleanliness is godliness. If your hotel isn't immaculate – it needs to be.  Cleanliness, good and bad, is a very "remarkable" item in our industry. Lastly, little thoughtful things and random acts of kindness matter a lot when it comes to hospitality. All these things go into making for great experience. When staff is doing their job, and is helpful and smiling along, it makes for a strong "vibe" that the guest can feel. At that point a good reputation will follow and managing it for the hotel becomes easy.

What do you recommend to other hotel owners who would like to achieve similar success?

Product drives reputation and reputation drives profit. I think Warren Buffet's comment in his annual letter this year sums it up pretty well … "We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can't afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation."

How involved is your business's ownership in managing reputation? Share your comments at http://reknown.com/blog

Daniel Edward Craig is a former hotel general manager and the founder of Reknown, a consultancy specializing in social media strategy and online reputation management. He collaborates with ReviewPro as Industry Advisor, Engagement. Visit www.reknown.com.

Copyright: © 2012 Daniel Edward Craig. Reprinted with permission.
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