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TripAdvisor guru travels the globe as ambassador to hoteliers

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Brian Payea does so much traveling for TripAdvisor that he needed to add an extra 20 pages to his passport – and he’s only had it for three years. In his “Industry Relations” role at the Newton-based travel website, Payea is the company’s globe-hopping ambassador, traveling an estimated 500,000 miles a year as he fosters relations between TripAdvisor and hoteliers and other travel suppliers. With today’s savvy travelers researching their vacations online and posting over 100 million TripAdvisor reviews and opinions from over 30 countries, tourism businesses are eager for insider tips to improve their ratings. “But for hotels, restaurants, attractions, and others, making the most of TripAdvisor listings is much more than boosting rankings,” said Payea. “It’s also about managing your online reputation, showcasing your property, and making the most of widgets,” said Payea, who leads seminars for leisure industry owners.

Q: What’s an example of a hotel managing its image on TripAdvisor?
A: I like to share this story, first told by a former general manager who talks about his days in the industry. He’s got street cred because of his experience managing a boutique hotel in Vancouver. There was a big construction project in front of his hotel for three years. If he took the traditional tactic, he’d try to minimize the visibility of it online to make sure people still made reservations. But then they’d show up unaware of all the equipment and disruptions, so instead, he communicated the situation and managed expectations. This is an example of going above and beyond to still create a very positive online reputation for the property.

Q: There’s an old maxim in sales and marketing that people are more likely to complain. Is that true for TripAdvisor reviews?
A: The average rating on TripAdvisor is 4.1 out of 5. One star, or the most negative review, is 6 percent, so most people are actually not complaining. If there are negative reviews, we advise managers to disagree respectfully while showing hospitality in a good light. I advise people to use every opportunity to show improvements: “We’ve fixed this or changed that.” Many businesses don’t realize they have the power to positively control their listings, whether it’s posting more details, or adding photos or a video. One of the biggest impacts that hotels can make is to read reviews and reply to them in a substantive way.

Q: How quickly have hotels ramped up their social media IQ?
A: When I first started doing this in 2006, a lot of properties still didn’t know about TripAdvisor until a guest mentioned it to them. Then they started catching up. Now we’re fairly universally known in the United Kingdom, U.S., Canada and Europe – people understand our impact on business. But in the emerging markets, many places are just starting to put our resources to work. I’ve been to India several times in the last few years – it’s a huge market – but there’s a different structure and payment system there, so we’re still getting up to speed in places like this.

Q: A lot of hotels are hiring social media managers or a customer-relations team that monitors all tweets, etc. What do you think of this trend?
A: When you know that the majority of customers are getting information through these channels, it makes only makes sense to make most of it. Many good organizations realize that customer feedback is so valuable that it’s included throughout the entire culture, with everyone reading reviews taking ownership of the information to improve the guest experience. There are properties where I’m told that administrators down to the housekeepers read reviews. Someone will be at happy hour and find out that there’s a new review and they’ll stop pouring wine to go and read it. The whole staff knows the value of criticism and praise and are plugged into it.

Q: Where have you been lately in your travels?
A: Some of my trips take 4-5 weeks – recent trips include several cities in Australia, onto Singapore, India, London, then the West Coast here. One of the things I’ve discovered out of necessity is something called the “Around the world ticket” – several airline groups have this. It offers more value, flexibility and elite airline status.

Q: You’ve traveled all over the world. What’s your favorite destination?
A: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay – I loved it. I was doing master classes in Buenos Aires, so I did a little exploring on the side. After being in the huge city of Buenos Aires, Colonia was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle. I didn’t know quite what to expect but had seen reviews on TripAdvisor, and ended up walking the whole town in a couple of hours, and seeing the early architecture, climbing the old lighthouse, regular tourist stuff. I was struck by how low key and relaxed it all was. While sitting outside, having a beer, a man and woman sat nearby and took out their guitars and played the most amazing music -- it was really captivating. The stop for a beer turned into a whole afternoon of just sitting there absorbing the atmosphere, enjoying the wonderful music.

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