USA Today and parent company Gannett partnered with HotelMe to soft launch a hotel review site that takes a novel twist to the fake review issue: Two dozen hotel brands have signed on to verify whether review writers actually stayed at the property regardless of how or where they booked the room.
Hotel industry veteran Trip Schneck, who co-founded the site and District Hospitality Partners with Frederic Malek, says HotelMe has attracted $3 million in seed funding from Thayer Ventures, USA Today, the founders and other angels.
Media giant USA Today, which has committed to integrating HotelMe into USA Today Travel and to promote the joint venture through paid and in-kind marketing, has a minority stake in the enterprise and will handle ad sales, Schneck says.
Hotel brands participating in the patent-pending verification process, which would lead to either “RealStay” or unverified review designations, range from Hyatt and Best Western, to La Quinta, Four Seasons, and Radisson.
Although Hyatt is a co-founder of Room Key, the new hotel-booking site founded by major hotel chains, notably absent from the HotelMe partnership roster at this early stage are the other Room Key founders, including Choice Hotels, Hilton, InterContinental Hotel Group, Wyndham, and Marriott.
However, Schneck says a couple of these brands could be coming on board shortly, and HotelMe has had discussions with Room Key about providing search functionality to HotelMe.
New slant on user reviews
HotelMe, which is in beta, is geared to attack the fake review problem as it cites unnamed “industry experts and researchers” who argue that more than 40% of user reviews are fakes. That statistic, though, is open to debate.
“It’s only going to get worse in terms of fictitious reviews and we think we have a pretty good solution to that problem,” Schneck says.
The two most prevalent approaches to user-generated content are typified by hotel-review leader TripAdvisor, which has collected more than 75 million reviews and opinions, and doesn’t require verified hotel stays, and online travel agency sites such as Booking.com and Expedia, which mandate that users book stays on their sites before posting reviews.
The OTA approach limits the ability to scale, and TripAdvisor’s tack, which it shows no compunction to abandon because of all the consequent SEO juice and engagement for advertisers, sacrifices some authenticity.
HotelMe states that for a review to be trumpeted as a RealStay on its site the “hotel or brand being reviewed must join our authentication platform (patent pending) and confirm that the reviewer actually stayed at a particular location. We offer this process as an unbiased service to all willing hospitality participants.”
It isn’t a matter of someone at HotelMe phoning a hotel chain or property to find out if a guest really stayed there.
Schneck says the process is automated through APIs, with review writers entering their names, the property and the approximate date they stayed there, and the hotel providing corroboration or lack thereof.
The fake review question is a hotly debate issue in travel industry circles. The extent to which hotel guests are aware of or care about the problem is another question.
Destinations guides and bookings on hotel sites
In addition to displaying verified and unverified user reviews, HotelMe offers hotel information and photos, rankings, user-written guides to local restaurants and points of interest, and the ability to book stays on hotel websites.
Schneck says HotelMe is geared to be more hotel friendly than most review sites as bookings take place on hotel websites rather than through online travel agencies.
HotelMe, which currently accesses about 110,000 properties, primarily in North America, sources its hotel listings information from Alliance and Google Places, Schneck says. Brands representing about 10,000 hotels have agreed to verify reviews.
Like all startups, HotelMe’s challenge will be to build the still-sparse content, scale the user base, and attract major partners, in this case hotel chains.
Having the marketing clout of USA Today and Gannett certainly won’t hurt, as HotelMe will be marketed in print and online.
On the content-building question, many of the hotels displayed, even those from partner chains, have no hotel reviews, verified or unverified, associated with them on the site.
In its first baby steps toward getting off the ground on that front, HotelMe’s soft launch kicked off September 17 with a sweepstakes designed to spur hotel guests to get into review-writing mode.
Schneck says the site, which is a year-and-a-half in the making, is focusing on building its review content to get critical mass, and has other features ready to go in the near future.
Says Schneck: “Our goal is not just to build authenticated reviews, but also to offer like-minded reviews to like-minded individuals.”
Disclosure: The author writes the Digital Traveler column for USA Today.