Hotelier Robert Rauch has always been a big believer in word of mouth when it comes to creating buzz for his popular but somewhat off-the-beaten-track hotel.
But with Internet social networking, hotel-review sites and travel blogs - where word of mouth travels with the speed of a mouse click to reach millions of would-be travelers at any given time - the buzz can grow clamorous.And, occasionally, it comes with a bite.
Just a few years ago, guests with a peeve about a hotel stay were relegated to paper "comment cards," a vehicle unlikely to cause much discomfort for hotels since the comments remained private. Today, a bad hotel review - increasingly accompanied by video or photos - can make the rounds of various travel-related Internet sites and be viewed by potential guests around the world.
"We take all the feedback we get very, very seriously," said Rauch, who this year hired a staff "e-commerce coordinator" to track Internet reviews of Homewood Suites by Hilton, a 120-room hotel in San Diego. "It is healthy for the industry to have these unpaid, unsolicited comments - but it is democracy that can hurt.
"You can have thousands and thousands of people see a complaint, so the price of an unresolved complaint is huge," Rauch said. "The negative ones will kill you."
During weekly meetings, Rauch and his staff go over customer feedback from Internet travel sites, internal surveys and personal conversations with guests. As a result, the hotel recently switched its high-speed Internet service provider, beefed up its fitness center, and added and subtracted food items for its free breakfast.
"They didn't like our potatoes," Rauch said. "We changed the potatoes."
The diligence to detail and service has paid off for the hotel. Recently, TripAdvisor.com, the world's largest travel network, ranked Homewood Suites by Hilton No. 4 in popularity out of 236 San Diego hotels - ahead of larger and swankier digs such as downtown's U.S. Grant (No. 8) and the Westgate Hotel (No. 20).
The online stakes are high for the hotel industry, particularly for smaller, independent hotels that tend to benefit more than the big brand names from exposure on travel-review sites.
A recent study on HotelMarketing.com, which monitors online travel and the hospitality industry, identified travel products and services as the sector most at risk from negative online comments - with almost six in 10 saying that negative comments would lead them to abandon a purchase.
Yahoo Travel, in a survey this year, found that 61 percent of people now go online for vacation recommendations and that the tipping point for booking is often based more on user reviews, ratings and photos than on price.
And everyone has gotten in on the act, say industry observers. Popular sites such as Expedia and Travelocity now have consumer reviews, as do others including TripAdvisor, TravelPod, IGoUGo, HotelChatter.com and SideStep.
Carol Verret, a Denver-based hospitality industry consultant, said some consolidation sites now cannibalize one another, pulling reviews from mother travel-review sites.
The advent of video and photos online - where a hotel guest can, say, post photos of mold in the showers - further ups the ante.
"It doesn't suffice now for the poor hotels to just check written reviews," Verret said. "All it takes is one really bad picture and then others get on the site and say, 'The same thing happened to me' - that's when you are in real trouble and it's hard to spin.
"Hoteliers hate these reviews ... But you can hate them all you want; they aren't going away," Verret said. "Good or bad, they impact decision-making - big time."
Cathy Schetzina, director of research for PhoCusWright, which conducts online-travel-industry research, said many hoteliers are coming to terms with travel-review sites and are using them to their advantage. Instead of downplaying the reviews, they should use them as marketing tools, or as information to train and motivate staffs; she said.
"The vast majority of travel suppliers have become much more comfortable with the transparency that travel reviews provide," Schetzina said. "Instead of viewing traveler reviews as a threat, most embrace them as a way to gain information that can help to improve their business."
Such knowledge sometimes comes with a little pain - or at least some chagrin. Sites such as TripAdvisor can be a great leveler, allowing small hotels that shine in service or value to best bigger and better-branded names.
For instance, the most popular hotel in San Diego, based on the site's reviewers, was the Pacific Terrace Inn, a 75-room property on the beach. In contrast, downtown's luxury Ivy Hotel, which opened in May with lavish amenities such as private butler service, ranked a humbling No. 113 out of 236 San Diego hotels.
The Ivy also ranked No. 56 in San Diego in TripAdvisor's singles category, a surprisingly modest score for a hotel that actively markets a naughty image, with a specialty suite with king-size bunk beds, a group shower and a stripper pole.
While praising the Ivy's hip and stylish air, reviews of the hotel are split pretty evenly between negative and positive - critics cite it for poor service and value. The Ivy's management posted a response to comments on TripAdvisor, acknowledging that as a "new addition" to the San Diego hotel market, it has "many opportunities to correct." Rick Gluth, general manager of the Ivy Hotel, said the hotel has had a few kinks to work out, among them how to manage divergent hotel guest expectations.
One problem - and it isn't a bad one to have - is the hotel's wildly popular nightclub, Envy, which is mobbed on Fridays and Saturdays by locals and hotel guests alike.
"We are trying to be more proactive in our sales and marketing process, with group business and individuals who call to make reservations, to make sure expectations are well-aligned," Gluth said. "If a hotel guest comes expecting a quiet, romantic evening at the Ivy on a Saturday night, that is not what the Ivy is here to do."
Gluth said the Ivy focuses more on its internal guest satisfaction surveys, where it scores well, but also pays attention to TripAdvisor and other travel review sites.
"You look at a comment, read it for what it is, but not be necessarily knee-jerk about it," Gluth said. "As we fine-tune, and guests understand what they can expect from our unique environment, it will improve guest experience and be reflected in the travel blog sites."