Customer reviews on internet travel sites have become a powerful publicity engine for hoteliers because of their potential to bring in a flood of new business or drive customers away. The four-star Dubai hotel Al Manzil, owned by Emaar Properties, learnt first-hand last week just how powerful these reviews can be as it rose from near obscurity to the top of the city's rankings on the leading travel website TripAdvisor, thanks to accolades from a long list of former guests.
Al Manzil, which is in the shadow of the world's tallest building, is managed by the South African hospitality company Southern Sun. TripAdvisor lists 370 Dubai hotels, and the 197-room, boutique-style Al Manzil had to overtake grander, more iconic five-star properties such as the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Grosvenor House to take the top spot. Along with other travel sites, the TripAdvisor website, which ranks hotels on the basis of customer reviews and ratings, is playing an ever more important role in the choices customers make, analysts say.
Rohit Talwar, the chief executive of Fast Future Research, a London consultancy, said: "It is a tremendous achievement for the four-star Southern Sun Al Manzil Hotel. "This gives a customer-driven sense of the quality of service and facilities on offer. These rankings are far more than an interesting curiosity now. Such travel 2.0 sites, as they are known, are a critical part of the search process for a growing number of travellers when looking for a hotel or flight."
The management of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel makes a point of posting personalised responses to every guest review that is posted on TripAdvisor. The Ramee Royal Hotel, which appears at number 298, is effectively the lowest ranked, as the hotels below it remain unreviewed. "What an awful place, it's a big disgrace," one critic wrote of the hotel, which is in Dubai's Karama area. "The real royal shambles," another reviewer wrote. Some guests complained about loud music from the nightclub. "We appreciate travel websites such as these," said Alok Narula, the Ramee's general manager. However, he said, the criticisms on the site represented only a small sample of guest experiences and he thought a number of guests were satisfied, but their opinions had not been expressed on the website.
Mr Talwar said that how hotels reacted to comments on TripAdvisor was of critical importance. "I think other hotels in Dubai will start to pay a lot more attention to such sites if they are not already doing so," he said. "Some hotels actively encourage guests to post their reviews on the site. Others monitor the site very closely and act fast to address service concerns raised by travellers. Comments on TripAdvisor and other such sites can make a huge difference to booking levels." Richard Weilers, the managing director of Southern Sun Middle East, also recognised the importance of the websites and said it would not be beneficial for hotels to try to manipulate ratings. "At the end of the day, you can create many things, but customers would write back and catch you out," he said. "It would backfire and be a disaster."