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Orbitz.com: Consumer reviews help drive hotel sales

CHICAGO – Hotels listed on the online travel agency Orbitz Worldwide’s sites benefit from having more consumer reviews, a senior executive at the online travel agency (OTA) said Tuesday.

“Clearly, hotels with no reviews or a limited number of reviews normally translate into hotels with lower volume,” Sam Fulton, Orbitz Worldwide’s senior vice president in charge of retail, said in an interview at the online travel agency’s headquarters during its first-ever blogger and analyst summit.

“It’s hard to image someone making a booking without having some sense of what other consumers are saying about that property,” he said. “We believe it’s an important part of the experience.”

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The number of reviews on the company’s best-known site aimed at leisure travelers, Orbitz.com, surpassed 1 million last year. The pace of growth for reviews should accelerate as Orbitz attracts more younger customers, who grew up with the social web and disproportionately rely on friends’ recommendations than older travelers.

During Tuesday’s summit, Orbitz’s senior leadership team – including CEO Barney Harford – described a growth strategy that hinges on enhancing customer loyalty, making Orbitz easier to use for the world’s booming population of mobile device users and expanding in international markets such as China, Russia and Brazil with local-language sites. The company’s sites include Orbitz, CheapTickets, ebookers, HotelClub, RatesToGo and the Away Network.

Orbitz.com has also been focusing on boosting its hotel room sales. Harford told the group of bloggers and analysts that the OTA’s room night growth in July jumped 22% vs. July 2012, and 20% in the second quarter vs. the same period a year ago.

The site encourages customers to write reviews of hotels they stay in, given the growing role in how travelers choose hotels.

“We follow up with them after every hotel stay,” Fulton said. “We email the customer and ask them to write a review.”

But since the hotel industry’s in the midst of a period marked by major renovations and brand conversions, Fulton said they’re beginning to focus more on the question of older-vs.-newer reviews. One of the questions being asked is this: If renovations produce a better hotel, how would consumers know based on old reviews? Changes may be needed “so we can give our customers the right information,” he said.

To address the issue of renovations, Fulton said they’re considering presenting consumers with additional information, such as an overall review score – plus a glimpse at the results over the last three months to make it obvious whether the score is trending up or down. Consider this scenario: If a hotel revamps its dark, empty lobby into a bright and airy space with a lively bar, barista station and rows of bookshelves, would older reviews that complain about the former lobby still be relevant?

“Recency is something we look at quite a bit so you can see if trend going up air or down. We’d like to make more clear to consumers,” he said.

TripAdvisor recently began allowing hotels that undergo significant renovations or change brands or ownership to erase their old reviews, a senior TripAdvisor executive recently told hoteliers who attended ReviewPro’s Aug. 27 webinar. A hotel that simply changes management isn’t allowed to erase old reviews. Though older reviews don’t count as much as newer reviews in a hotel’s TripAdvisor score, they still could contain criticisms based on the property’s prior look or management style.