Pay to say - does sponsoring compromise a review? 

As the travel and leisure sector experiences growth across the globe, and consumers increasingly take holiday planning into their own hands on-line, how important are bloggers and on-line critics to influencing choices of travel, destination and accommodation? 

From looking to booking

In short, very. In the US and Western Europe the roles of on-line reviewers, bloggers and rating sites are integral to the process of decision making. The World Travel Organisation identifies China, Germany, the USA and the UK as the largest markets for outbound travellers. In these markets 65% of travellers search for information to research, plan and book their travel on-line. Therefore, the accuracy and authenticity of reviews is vital not only to inspire potential travellers but to convert to decision-making and set expectations. 

According to USTA, the process of decision-making is on average 3-5 months in advance of travel. Being informed sets expectations and allows for more informed purchasing and value comparisons. In the cruise industry alone, one site - Cruise Critic - receives 6.17 million unique visitors monthly and offers over 360,000 reviews by independent travellers. 50+ million forum posts alone. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown , Editor of Cruise Critic:

Reviews by travellers are vital and carry more weight than paid-for or paid-by bloggers because the reviews are honest, real and often are related to the aspects of Travel that the ‘average person’ wants to know. The details and things-to-consider that an experienced traveller such as a blogger might take for granted!

That is not to say that a blogger does not help persuade or influence a decision.

"Paid bloggers that are transparent about their affiliation or association help influence the inspiration portion - where to go, what to see", but she adds "it is the unpaid actual visitor reviews (accompanied by real photos or videos) that really shape potential visitor decisions". 

The biggest markets

As China is the biggest market by volume for travel, it is interesting to note that over 50% of Chinese travellers now prefer to research and book their own vacation plans according to Johnny Pan, Associate Publisher of Conde Nast Traveller China. With over 122 m Chinese outbound travellers per year, the integrated platform WeChat is critical for obtaining advice. On WeChat the ability to see, select and rate reviewers is a critical component of transparency of information.

As TripAdvisor begins to integrate search and booking engines, the role of bloggers and reviews has become more specific and specialist. The search for expertise and detailed Q&A from an independent source is valued. However, the role of DMO's and promotional marketing is an equally vital part of the process. The ability for destinations and experiences to leverage their own marketing materials is critical. Integrated digital content in the form of reviews, itinerary suggestions, ideas and logistical tips are all part of the 'empowered traveller' mindset and booking tools. 

We are all experts now

Travel agents, like paid-for reviews, blogs and marketing are seen as useful but biased. Holiday researchers want to hear from visitors like them, who paid the same and were treated the same, not given the special attention of a reviewer. Interesting to note, that on sites such as TripAdvisor and its specialist sister Cruise Critic, more than 80% of reviews are positive. In a sector all about creating joy and memories, this underscores the importance people place on sharing the 'good news' of where they have been and enjoyed themselves. We all value having our 'expertise' rewarded, and are happy to share the 'secrets' of a good holiday. 

Therefore, the future of reviews in travel will continue to be both paid-for as well as voluntary but the type of review will have a different role in influencing decision-making for a traveller. Those seeking inspiration will use a different model to those seeking comparison pricing and are booking-ready. 

Chris has worked over the past 25 years across all sectors in the area of Brand Strategy and Marketing for Corporate, Consumer and NGO Brands around the world.

A passionate innovator, Chris believes in the power of creativity to define the future through branding. In particular, Chris is a lead practitioner in Corporate Vision and Purpose strategy.

 

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