Concluding my posts about my experience with the ownership of a boutique hotel in Sihanoukville I would like to touch on the world’s largest review website.

I had not paid much attention to this site before. When I traveled (mostly for business in the U. S.), I used Expedia to choose my hotels and car rentals. Since the majority of the hotels were chain-owned it was not hard to pick one as you usually know exactly what you are getting determined by the standards the chains impose on the individual properties.

But when my friend and partner opened a boutique hotel in Phnom Penh we assiduously followed this website to see the latest ranking. As it happened that hotel was one of the first boutique hotels in Phnom Penh (the Blue Lime) it almost exclusively got rave reviews and a very high ranking. Over the years with the increase in small boutique hotels there that changed but it is still in the top ten most of the time. So when we opened our hotel we also checked TA what guests would have to say about us – mostly positive too though.

In order to increase our position and visibility on TA we signed up for the business account at a cost of $80/month. We thought this was good advertising money. As result we indeed got a better exposure as a sponsored hotel. However, when we got a few outright untruthful and personally disparaging reviews that TA wouldn’t remove we canceled that account. Lo and behold, since we had been in business for over 2 years at that time already it didn’t have any effect whatsoever on our ranking. Even the hotel has been closed for 3 months we are still ranked #15 on their site.

The negative side of TA is that you don’t need to stay at the hotel to write a review. Although you need to confirm that you are not affiliated with the property but who can check that. This leaves the door wide open for reviews written by friends or for money, which according to news reports happens quite frequently.

Once I complained about an insulting review by someone who hadn’t stayed but the guest complained about the reception. TA responded that the guest’s experience with the hotel is sufficient for the review. The insult was not deemed as such. So what could I do? Reviews don’t get weighted by the guests’ length of stay or the category of the hotel. I believe someone who stayed a minimum of 3 days can certainly make more precise observations than someone staying only one night, e.g. from 10 pm to 7am. They may evaluate the rooms, beds, etc. but most certainly not all the features of a hotel. Likewise the category of the hotels – people expect an inordinately high standard for very low prices. As business people we know this is just not possible. A high standard does have its price, in Cambodia this would start at $70 to $80 a night. Good staff is more expensive, so is fresh food, a well-stocked bar, a clean pool, etc. What a lot of people don’t understand is that they can’t get a full-service hotel for $25 a night. People need to go to a guesthouse without service and untrained staff for that. So hotel reviews really need to be taken with a grain of salt.

There is a British website (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) that reviews only luxury hotels (unfortunately). The owners of that site and their staff visit each hotel they list on their website. They are experts and their reviews can be trusted. I wish those huge companies like TA or the Priceline group would do the same with each hotel they list. They got sales staff in each country so why not use trained staff to check hotels before they are listed.

The hotel sector is the core of TA’s business but in comparison with the Priceline group it pales in terms of sales. The 450 million users currently don’t mean much for the sales volume.

People attribute to much importance to so-called peer reviews these days to begin with. But one must really differentiate between the ones on the hotel booking portals like booking.com and TA. More lopsided examples can be found in TA’s other categories, e. g. restaurants, localities, airlines, etc.

I do write reviews myself for the sole purpose of offsetting other clearly ridiculous reviews, especially about restaurants. I found the best example in Phnom Penh. A French restaurant was ranked #1 – the food is mediocre but the place is always packed, mostly by tourists and expats who can afford the higher than average price for Phnom Penh. #2, one wouldn’t believe it, is a hamburger place. Now hamburgers can taste great but nobody would ever think that they are gourmet food. There is no such thing as a gourmet hamburger. The best restaurants in town appear ranked in the 30ies. What does that tell you about  reviews. They are pretty much worthless. I tried out most of the top-ranked restaurants there and found only one satisfying. Most of them are rather pretentious and not really operated by trained chefs, excepting the top restaurants in Phnom Penh, Topaz and Malis. Which trained chef besides the ones working in luxury hotels would choose Cambodia for a career? It appears that people come to Cambodia not knowing how to make a living in this rather different culture. There are but a couple of options for them. They open a bar/restaurant or a hotel although they might have no experience in that sector. It is quite obvious that in general people are not gourmets; that doesn’t speak against them but they shouldn’t write about food. We recently traveled to Paris and Munich. Michelin-starred restaurants didn’t show up in both TA listings among the top 50. So again, don’t go by TA choosing a restaurant. Check the Michelin guide online (no Cambodian listing) which has listings for low-priced but good restaurants too, or Fodors. Forget TA. It’s not worth the trouble.

Now check out the airlines section on TA. They rank airlines with five balloons that normal people haven’t even heard of, ie. Air North, Air Chathams, Tajik Airlines. So where is Singapore Airlines, Thai, Lufthansa, British Airways? At least Emirates and Singapore Airlines can be found among the top 20. Again, not a tool to go by.

Now if you do write reviews TA appreciates that very much. They encourage you to continue and send you frequent emails what a good job you did, how many people read your reviews, and you become a senior member after a mere 2 or 3 reviews. My goodness, the whole thing is a sham, come to think of it. They make their money from advertising, the business accounts, from commissions for bookings made on their site, and from Google hits. This may be a good business model but it’s not a consumer site. For that you better visit consumer reports or similar sites.

Like most top internet travel companies TA is American and was part of the Expedia group, which is the largest online travel booking site in the world followed by the Priceline group and Sabre. TA became a publicly traded company in 2011 after being spun off from Expedia. Their revenues were $1.56 billion in 2017 – still a formidable size, no doubt, but the online booking market is estimated at $560 billion, which is roughly 50% of the entire travel market of over $1 trillion.

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