Wednesday, April 14, 2010

VS usually shoots itself in the foot. Will it do so again with this new idea?

Visit Scotland is going to tie itself more to Trip Advisor and customer reviews for their grading systems.
Is this going to cause big trouble for them or is this going to cause very big trouble?

We are not in membership of VisitScotland and we are so pleased not to be, so we have no axe to grind. VS membership is expensive and it is bureaucratic. A survey of self catering guests shows that only 30% know of VisitScotland and their grading system, but very few people use it for their self catering accommodation.  Those who do, use it as a small part of their decision process.

I am the first to acknowledge that VS in its early days set quality standards for accommodation and hospitality which are exemplary, the envy of the English and Welsh Tourist Boards. We have very high tourism standards in Scotland, and this is due in no small part to the work done by the early organisation, and its management not by the present lot. VS has seen its best days.

Yes, there are visitors who are devotees of the Grades, mostly they are Hotel and B+B guests, and some people will not book anywhere without a 4 star grade. But owners of 3 star properties are leaving VS, in droves.

Here is their recently departed part-time Chairman on the subject of accommodation providers (having just received. £150,000 in bonuses on a basic salary of £24,000)

He wrote, "I have been frustrated by sections of the industry not taking a lead and taking things forward themselves. It still feels like a large part of the tourism industry is living in a dependency culture. In fact, it is one of the most supported ­industries in Scotland at national and local level, and yet ­Government ­agencies can never do enough to please. Isn’t it time ­businesses asked themselves if they deserve support? Why should they get help when the butcher down the road does not? Are they doing their bit to support growth in tourism by investing in quality, and ensuring they understand and meet their customers’ needs?

Whole regions of Scotland are resigning from VS Mr. ex-Chairman and taking matters into their own hands. Was Glencoe whingeing, when it set about revising its local infomation website - to be published later this month - at a cost of £thousands and with help from many people, plus subscriptions and special payments from all members? The industry whinges, Mr. ex-Chairman, when your web site does not produce enquiries as promised and when your inspectors seem to have their own private agendas for grades. It costs a forune to join you and the benefits are iffy. Yes, it is ok for 4 star and above, but worth little for the majority of owners.

The VS problems are two-fold - the failed booking system - everyone moans because they do not get enough VS enquiries; together with the cumbersome and picky quality control system. "You can't get 4 stars, you haven't got all wool carpets in every room" "You have not been putting parsley on the scrambled eggs" "Your walls are not perpendicular" "No we cannot make allowance for your wonderful view, and your architect designed house" "It does not matter if it is in the slum area of Arbroath. If it meets the standards it can get 4 stars" All of these are true examples.

The Trip Advisor idea link up idea started in England.
“In response to overwhelming demand from both the industry and the consumer, VistEngland will combine the best of the existing star rating schemes with the best of user review generated content to provide the visitor with a better and more comprehensive picture of what’s on offer.”

The VS study had a 2,000 strong samples of providers and guests. Neither a breakdown of the sample, nor an indication which company carried out the research are provided. These are basic requirements. It was probably Taylor Nelson, so that would be ok. I suspect that the best slant has been put upon the results, and a lot of negatives left out. Behind all of this is a drive to slash costs.

80% of the industry want a combined system (of Star gradings and Trip Advisor)
75% of the industry believe user reviews improve their business. (Yeah right, as long as the reviews are good.)
40% of consumers are sceptical of user reviews.
Half still look at user reviews and Trip Advisor is by far the most popular. (Look, even I look at Trip Advisor when we go away but only casually and only because Google maps always include it).
Put another way, when reminded about review sites, nearly half of customers would never use one anyway.

The VS study is a sales document. It is full of stuff from providers about how their bookings improved with the use of Trip Advisor. Many of the questions are of the "What if..." variety, being virtually useless as a guide to actual behaviour, as anyone in the market research profession will tell you.


Vs are going to slash the costs of grading, of that there is no doubt. The Trip Advisor idea is an attempt to boost the apparent quality of the scheme. But the potential flaws are massive.

It is going to use Trip Advisor, with or without a sharply modified quality grading system. Trip Advisor? I've just looked up "hotels in Glencoe Scottish Highlands". We know every hotel very well. First of all the Trip Advisor search facility does not show any at all. None.Zilch.

But if you put the hotel name into the search then they come up with reviews. The reviews are all over the place - for every hotel. Louisa Legg at the Glencoe hotel has the habit of replying to every single Trip Advisor review and I think this will become standard practice. What a bore, though.

When people have a moan they can be truly viscious, but people who are happy tend not to put in comments. With 1,000 bednights a week, one big hotel will not be able to make every guest totally happy. It cannot be done.

The biggest problem is that small properties can load favourable reviews into the Trip Advisor comments, through using friends and family. It is standard practice in small businesses if they can be bothered. We can't, by the way, be bothered, that is.

But for big properties, a big danger comes from deadly rivals, sticking in horrible write ups deliberately to downgrade the competitor's hotel. What hotels have to do then, if they can be bothered, is to "cover" the write up with favourable ones from their friends, so the bad review goes down the list.  You can also influence results by asking your guests deliberately to write a review once you've seen what they write in your guest book.

Well, good luck to Dr. Michael Cantlay, convenor of the Loch Lomond national park. Deputy chairman of VS, he has stepped up into the top job now.

What he should concentrate on is the Advertising and PR campaign to get visitors to Scotland. It is excellent and should not be cut. It needs the money from the government for this, because the results are gained by all. However it is wrongly slanted. He can forget about the market in the USA. The biggest market by far is in England, 90% of it then we get down to about 10% of visitors from overseas, the strongest contingent being from Germany. Don't ask me, I don't know.

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