Quick—what's the top-ranked hotel in the United States? Don't happen to know? Well, according to TripAdvisor, it's New York's Sherry-Netherland, the gothic brick tower perched at the southeast corner of Central Park. The online review site honored the 1927 landmark on its list of the top 10 Travelers' Choice Hotels last week.
Chances are, the place didn't need the publicity. Like the other hotels on TripAdvisor's list—including the Talbott in Chicago and Napa Valley's Bardessono Hotel & Spa—"the Sherry" (as regulars call it) is already famous enough to draw titans and celebrities from around the world. Its guests have included everyone from Ernest Hemingway to David Bowie. Its average room rate is $615 a night.
But from a marketing perspective, a spot on TripAdvisor's list is nothing to sneeze at. TripAdvisor is the largest travel site in existence. Each month, some 350 million people visit the platform for vacation advice. Any hotel in the U.S. top 10, then, stands to benefit handsomely from the fact.
And that raises a delicate point. Since TripAdvisor's rankings are based on guest reviews, do hotels actively encourage their guests to leave feedback on their stays? And if so, isn't that practice a little gauche for the luxury segment?
Answer: Yes they do—and no it's not.
In fact, TripAdvisor pretty much expects that even premium hotels will nudge guests toward its site in hopes of notching positive reviews. "We encourage hotels to tell their guests to leave feedback," senior publicist Julie Cassetina said. "It's a natural part of the hotel experience."
"Our concierges mention to guests upon checkout that they would appreciate it if the guest would post on TripAdvisor," Sherry-Netherland evp and coo Michael J. Ullman told Adweek. It's a discreet ask, and one in keeping with the hotel's character. But though the Sherry might be 89 years old, the grand dame hotel has become quite tech savvy with customer reviews: If guests give their stay a high score on the hotel's online comment card, a button appears that takes them directly to TripAdvisor's site.
"We do actively ask that guests utilize TripAdvisor to express their honest opinion of our hotels," said Nick Cohen, who directs the Langham Hospitality Group's e-business division. "Even within the luxury segment, it's important to embrace the power of TripAdvisor since customers utilize the site to research the full spectrum of hotel accommodations."
That's a more significant admission than it might sound. Historically, luxury brands have been late to adopt Web-based technologies. A 2015 report by McKinsey revealed that e-commerce sales still accounted for a mere 6 percent of revenue for luxe brands. And for years, the country's top hotels turned up their noses at the idea of online reviews.
"Initially, luxury hotels tried to ignore TripAdvisor," said Matthew R. Arrants, evp of Pinnacle Advisory Group. "In fact, even after it had been established that responding to online postings is considered an industry best practice, there was one chain that specifically refused to." (He declined to mention the chain.)
"Luxury hotels used to consider themselves above social media in general, taking the stance that 'social media isn't luxury,'" added travel industry consultant Daniel Edward Craig, CEO and founder of the firm Reknown. "Then [hotels] realized that some of it is actually important."
Craig has even conducted a survey of hotels to see how they feel about asking guests to leave online feedback. And while some properties remain uncomfortable with the practice, most have come around. Today, he said, "lots of hotels ask guests for reviews, including luxury properties."
The catch is, asking is about as far as a hotel can go.
Trading a bottle of wine for a positive review? Tossing in a complimentary meal? Those tactics are against TripAdvisor's rules. So is, obviously, paying shills to crank out positive feedback. "Hotels cannot go on and boost their own ratings by writing reviews of their own properties," Cassetina said. "We have a whole team dedicated to making sure there's no fraud on the site. To be clear, hotels can encourage guests to leave a good review, but they cannot bribe guests."
Which means the hotels that made TripAdvisor's list are there because guests genuinely enjoyed their stays. And since TripAdvisor ranks a staggering 950,000 hotels worldwide, and logs 190 new guest reviews every minute, it takes a huge number of satisfied customers to land a hotel at the top of the list.
The Sherry-Netherland surely has plenty of glowing reviews. But, more to the point, following each of them is a polite and considered response from the front desk—an indication, surely, of management's awareness that TripAdvisor reviews matter a great deal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, once a hotel does make TripAdvisor's top 10, there are measurable benefits that accrue. "A hotel's ranking on the site does impact the business' bottom line," the Langham's Cohen said. "For our Chicago property in particular, their top ranking has absolutely helped to drive not only awareness but also direct online bookings and revenue growth. The hotel's overall online transactions have grown incrementally, and we can also track significant growth in the hotel's profile views on TripAdvisor as well as users clicking to our website from TripAdvisor and making a reservation."
So it's a good bet that there's a bump in bookings going on at the Sherry-Netherland, where the perks include Aveda toiletries in the marble bathrooms, hand-loomed French carpets on the mosaic floors, and room service by Cipriani. And while such goodies might not be worth $1,150 a night for a suite, they're obviously worth a few glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.