Inside Yelp – how should hoteliers manage their online reputation? [interview]

Yelp LogoA few weeks ago I learnt that someone I’ve had the pleasure of knowing over the last few years through EyeForTravel, has moved roles and joined a company that’s always intrigued me – Yelp.  Rosie Akenhead had a key role in organising many of the EyeForTravel events, including the fantastic Travel Distribution Summit, from which so many stories have been derived for my blog.  I was keen to talk to Rosie about her new role and get an insiders view of Yelp to see what I could learn from the experts about how hoteliers should be working with Yelp and managing their online reputation.

I’m sure you have already heard of, or even use, Yelp.  But by way of background, Yelp is one of the biggest consumer review and recommendation sites on the internet, with an average of 108 Million unique monthly visitors and a total of 42 million local reviews contributed as of the end of Q2 2013.  Founded in 2004 in San Francisco to help people find great local businesses, Yelp provides a platform on which to share what’s, good, great and not-so great about local businesses – from hotels, restaurants, shops and local services to spas, mechanics, pet groomers and health professionals. The following transcript is an interview with Rosie Akenhead, Manager of Local Business Outreach, UK,  who shares with us some key tips for hoteliers looking to navigate the online world of reviews

Q: Tell us more about Yelp

A: Yelp, in a nutshell, is a site and mobile application that connects people with great local businesses – anything from hotels, restaurants, bars and spas to dog groomers, mechanics, even dentists!

The Yelp community is made up of engaged locals who connect online and off, to share their opinions about local businesses, and have written more than 42 million rich, local reviews to date. With an average of 108 million monthly unique visitors in Q2 2013, Yelp is the leading local guide for word-of-mouth recommendations.

This video from the owners of Avo Hotel in Dalston, London, helps explain how businesses fit into the mix at Yelp:

Q: Tell us about your new role, and what your objectives are as you begin working for the company.

A: I’m the Manager of Local Business Outreach for Yelp here in the UK and Ireland.  In plain English, that means I help educate local businesses, including hotels, about how to use the free suite of tools Yelp provides business owners, and how to manage their reputation online.

Yelp ImageQ:Did you use Yelp before you started your role, if so, what were your primary uses?

A: I did indeed.  Before Yelp, I was working for a travel trade publication, so I was always using it as a resource for good local businesses to test out when I was in a place I didn’t know so well. What’s different now? I use it all the time to wow friends and family with my great choice of cool hangouts and suggestions of places to check out right in my backyard!  It hasn’t let me down yet.

Even before I took the job at Yelp, I mainly posted reviews where I had an ‘average’ to ‘great’ experience and wanted to share it with others. I think that feeling must resonate with other reviewers, since nearly 80% of our reviews are three stars or above on a five star scale (a fact which certainly surprises most hoteliers).

Q: How strong and how widely used is Yelp in the UK?  Strongest markets?

A: Yelp was born and bred in San Francisco, USA.  We now have people working for Yelp in over 100 cities in 22 countries across the world.  We have Community Managers in 7 cities in the UK and Ireland (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin) whose role it is to interact with Yelp users and business owners in that city, and provide opportunities to connect them to each other.

With the acquisition of our European competitor, Qype, last year, Yelp’s presence on this side of the pond is going from strength to strength as we move forward with integrating the two companies to create a single platform under the Yelp brand. We’re seeing consistent growth in all our European communities.

Q: Hotels are forever being told they have to manage online reputation – how does this fit with Yelp?

A: Having worked in travel and hospitality for four years prior to my time at Yelp, I know for certain that hoteliers already know that that they need to manage their online reputation. That’s obvious. Most have made efforts to better monitor their presence online in one way or another. Yelp is a key place for hoteliers to have a presence, and this can be done relatively quickly and free of charge.

The guidelines that we set out for businesses are to a) make sure you claim your listing, b) fill out your profile and c) make sure you take the time to respond to reviews either privately or publicly.

Managing your reputation online starts with ensuring consumers can find the right information about you, wherever they look. The conversations you then have with those consumers helps build their trust and awareness of your hotel. Consumers are already looking for local businesses on Yelp, and research has shown that the information they find drives them to a purchase decision, so hoteliers need to make sure they are a viable option when they are searching in their hotel’s area by claiming their page and making sure the information is up to date, correct and complete.

I’d say one of the best steps for hoteliers to make is to respond to reviews (which you can do privately or publicly on Yelp) and start conversations with customers past, present and future.

Q: What steps should a hotelier take to have visibility of their content on Yelp, and how should they go about managing their reputation?  Are there costs?

A: As mentioned previously, the first step really should be claiming their business page on Yelp. It only takes a few minutes to claim the page and set up an account and is completely free (honestly, it is, no catches).

I always say to people, you need to claim your Yelp listing! All it means is you are optimising a channel whereby a different set of educated, affluent customers can find you and do business with you directly. Having a listing with photos, full contact information including your website and telephone number, is an easy way to improve the number of people doing business with you.

Yelp Image 2Q: Is a hotel automatically included in search results of Yelp, or does the hotel need to add themselves to your service?

A: Most hotels are already listed on Yelp, and if a hotel is not listed, it is a very simple and quick process to add the business from the Yelp mobile app or the website. To check, simply type in your business name and location at www.yelp.co.uk. Once created, the place to claim and set-up your business account is here: www.biz.yelp.co.uk

Most people are quite surprised to find that their business is already listed, has reviews and that people are viewing that page every day.

Q: Can you give us some stats please?

A: On top of the 108 Million unique visitors to Yelp every month and the 42 Million reviews submitted to date, it is also worth noting that our mobile app is used on 10.4 million unique mobile devices every month, and every second a consumer generates directions to or calls a local business from the Yelp app.

Also, 59% of all searches on Yelp came from mobile web or our mobile app combined, highlighting further just how many people are searching for information whilst on the move. What does this mean for hoteliers? People are looking for instant information, instant resources and a place to stay and spend money.  if they can’t find it, they’ll turn somewhere else.

Q: Will Yelp look at becoming a hotel booking application in the future?

A: I think it’s important to initially state that Yelp is, first and foremost, always about the customer’’s experience.  We seek to show them authentic, honestly reviewed local businesses which they can trust, and that remains core to Yelp’s DNA.

We do have an API facility available for hoteliers.  This can be implemented in a number of ways from within your own website or mobile app to help highlight the great local businesses in the vicinity of your hotel, whether that be restaurants, shopping districts, services or the nearest theatre box office.

We’re always looking to improve the consumer experience and make Yelp as helpful as possible, so keep an eye out for future updates!

Many thanks to Rosie for sharing with us just how hoteliers can manage their online reputation with Yelp and some great stats.

If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them at the end of this post.

Hotel Insight talks Olympic preparations with Crowne Plaza London Docklands [Interview]

You may have seen my post about the Crowne Plaza London Docklands.  As the hotel is in the centre of the Olympic Games, I caught up with the hotels general manager, Joanne Taylor Stagg whilst staying at her hotel, to hear how they are preparing for the busiest time in the properties history.

Q: With the Olympics fast approaching, what planning have you had to put in place to cater for the demand the event puts on your property, and what has been the biggest challenge?

Our Olympics planning process has been on-going for over a year and in the past 6 months has really been ramped up to ensure that we try to cover every eventuality. I think the biggest challenge is that nobody really knows what to expect so we are making plans and ever mindful that our most important part is our ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

From the elements we do know, travel poses the biggest challenge. Due to the anticipated high demand on public transport throughout the games, we have changed our teams working hours to allow them to travel to the hotel with as little disruption as possible.

We have reviewed all of our stock levels and where possible e.g. stationary we are placing bulk orders pre-games to ensure are well equipped during this high demand period. For all our orders that will be required during the games, we have set up a delivery rota throughout to handle the overnight drop offs, that we have never had to cope with before. This has required additional staff and a significant amount of planning and training.

Q: Do you still have availability for any of the Olympic Games period?

We currently have a few rooms in inventory over the Olympics period; however we do anticipate we will be operating at full occupancy throughout the games.

Q: Across London we are seeing highlight inflated rates, with even ‘budget’ hotels being sold for well over £350 a night.  How do you personally view how London hotels are inflating rates?  Has revenue management been a challenge in the build up to the Games?  

We have seen a lot of London hotels increase their room rates during the games due to the high demand; this was in part driven by the significant number of rooms that LOCOG held across the City. This led most hoteliers to believe there would be more demand than there actually was and when tens of thousands of rooms were released by LOCOG, prices inevitably fell.

We have tried to keep a pragmatic approach and balanced our long term relationships with our existing clients with the Olympic impact.

Q: How has your property been getting ready for this critical few weeks, and how long ago did preparations start?

Preparations started well over a year ago, and our Olympic Strategy Action Plan is being reviewed more and more frequently as the 27th July rapidly approaches. We have covered everything from counter terrorism to our linen order, cycling to work and transport options to cross training our team and pretty much everything in between. We have tried to plan for every eventuality.

Q: How have you found dealing with the Olympic committee’s, in terms of committing stock and organisation?  Reportedly a huge about of room stock was released back to London hotels – have you found this?

Large numbers of bedroom stock was released back to hotels in various phases as has been widely reported in the press. This has made it difficult for the hotels to set their pricing as any revenue manager or system relies on accurate data to make good decisions. I believe this is one of the main reasons we saw very high pricing early on, which has subsequently been reduced.

Q: Your team will be at the centre of ensuring everything runs smoothly at probably the busiest few weeks the hotel will have experienced – how have you prepared them – are they gaining excitement?

Training, training and more training. We have covered everything from refreshing our service behaviours to disability awareness training. During the games our support staff will be moving into operational roles, so cross-training plans have been a great help and also given the teams a taste of what to expect. The teamwork has never been better in the hotel. The race around the world charity events where IHG sponsored us $1 for every KM we cycled, definitely helped get us in the mood and having Victoria Pendleton in the hotel to cheer us on was something all our cyclists will never forget.

We have already planned a much deserved party for the whole team between the Olympics and Paralympics to thank them for their hard work and to make sure we are all geared up for the Paralympics too.  And once it is all over, I’m certain we will be able to look back with pride and know we did our bit to ensure London 2012 was a real success.

Q: Have you got to know any of your Olympic related guests in the build up and heard their stories?  (I’m thinking about the couple you told me!)

In the build-up we have got to know a number of Olympic related guests and hear their stories. We hosted Tommy Godwin who won 2 Olympic medals for cycling in the 1948 games. He brought his medals in to show us and told us what it was like to compete back then, it sure has changed a lot over the years. We have also had a number of Paralympians stay with us and every time I meet one of them I am truly humbled by the obstacles they have overcome to compete in the sport they love. Then there have been the very proud family members, I particularly remember the American lady who called us the day she found out her son would be representing their country. She was so excited and emotional; the reservationist who took her call also shed a tear or two of joy at his selection.

Our thanks to Joanne for her time in talking with Hotel Insight and sharing her experiences – good luck to the whole team!

Ric Leutwyler on Utell & Pegasus’ strategy on social media

I just stumbled across this video from October 2010 on YouTube, and wanted to share with you.  Ric Leutwyler, Chief Operating Officer, President Utell Hotels and Resorts and COO of Pegasus Solutions was interviewed by Asia Travel Tips and speaks about how social media works within Utell and Pegasus, and how they are helping Utell properties get started with social media and it’s importance all over the world.  He also talks about Facebook booking engines on hotel pages, as well as mobile app’s and how Pegasus lead the way in this area.  Slightly dated now, but still well worth a watch.

Courtesy of Asia Travel Tips

So what’s this Airbnb?

Good question.  For the UK certainly, its kind of appeared under the radar of many of us and is probably now finding it’s feet and becoming more established.  But Airbnb is actually a great idea – the principle being that if you want to rent out a room in your house as if it were a hotel room – you can!  Airbnb let’s you do just this.  So, you can pretty well see why I decided to write a post and tell you about it.  It affects our industry – but in good and bad ways. 

A lot of people I’ve spoken to have been pretty negative about it, saying it will take away paying hotel guests.  But think about it.  Mainly, Airbnb offers exactly what it says on the tin.  Spare rooms (of all standards too – seriously, check some of the photos – I’d rather risk sleeping on the streets!).  A different kind of guest will use this service, however, brands like Travelodge may worry.  It’s also for those people who don’t want a bland hotel room, not necessarily budget rooms. So here’s your action point hotels – make your property unforgettable and unique.  Bring your guests what they want.

A question I’ve been asked a lot how it works, and from a users point of view, what’s the experience like.  Well to help, I spoke to an experienced user of Airbnb, Lisa.  My interview with Lisa is below.

Q  Hi Lisa, thank you for talking to Hotel Insight.  How did you first hear about AirBnB?

I was travelling to New York to go on a dancing trip for three weeks and I just couldn’t afford the cost of a hotel for that length of time and I wanted more privacy than a dorm room.  So I did a search online, and I found AirBnB.  I loved it, it worked really well for me as a guest. It made my trip so much more affordable and comfortable, especially having access to a decent kitchen so I didn’t have to eat out all the time.
  
Q  How long have you been using AirBnB and what success have you gained from it?

I started hosting AirBnB guests in September last year when I quit my corporate job in my quest to claim back my time and use it how I choose.  Since then my room has very rarely been empty other than over the Christmas period for two weeks. I have met wonderful people from all over the world whom I now consider friends and we have learned a great deal from each other.  I am so happy I took the plunge for the rewards have been so much more than financial.  We are creating a global community of like minded people that help each other out.
  
Q  I’m asked regularly if it’s safe – what do you think, and do you have advise for anyone thinking of using the service?
 
That was my biggest question when I first started using it.  It is financially safe as the payments are made through the AirBnB site which has great cancellation policies that you can choose from to suit your style as a host.  The money is only paid over to the host the day the guest checks in and even still should something go wrong the guest is still entitled to a percentage refund.  With regard to personal safety as a female host living on her own I made the choice to only take in men who are travelling with a woman and as it turns out most of my guests are usually women travelling alone.  As an AirBnB guest I stayed with a female host also.  I know some people feel worried if they host their stuff will be taken, but in general people are good and respectful in this world.  And the AirBnB community mirrors this.  At the end of each stay the guests and the hosts review each other, so everyone tends to be on a level as they want to keep using this service.  AirBnB also keeps a close eye out to make sure their users are respectful on both sides of the coin.

Q  How much time does it take to manage once your advertising your property online?
 
I would say on average half a day per week which includes everything such as replying to booking requests, keeping my flat nice and homey, meeting and greeting guests and making sure they are ok as they take on London town in all her glory.
 
Q  Are there any costs involved?
 
The only costs for me setting up was buying a bed and linen.  Then I have running costs of electricity, water etc when guests are here but I used to have regular flatmates and believe me the profit margins are far greater with AirBnB hosting and its way more fun!  Every time a guest books on AirBnB take out a small fee from my profits, but I think it is well worth it as they run such a tight effective ship.  My guests also have to pay a fee to AirBnB which is clearly shown before they actually pay.

Q  What’s been your greatest experience from using AirBNB and can you think of any improvements that should be made?
 
My greatest experience is when I have guests bring home gifts to me.  There I am running around trying to make sure everything is ok for them, not quite sure if it is as who knows what really goes on inside the vastness of the human mind and then there we have a big bunch of flowers arrives in the door, or a house plant, or incense… It’s so wonderful when that happens for I know then in my heart they have been happy staying with me.  With regard to improvements I do find it hard sometimes to find certain things on their site so I think a sitemap would be good, but AirBnB being AirBnB they have already extracted that improvement idea from me.  All up I would say my experience so far has been a stonking 9 out of 10 as a guest and a host.

Thanks for talking to us Lisa.  If your thinking of using the service, do check out Lisa’s offering by clicking here.

Have you advertised your own room on Airbnb?  Used the service?  Then leave a comment and let me know.

Interview with Lucie Hys – Hotel Social Media Expert

Last year I spoke with Lucie Hys, a real social media expert working in the hotel industry.  Lucie is very passionate about what she does, and I have been a fan of her blog for a long while, so it was a real privilage that she agreed to talk to Hotel Insight.  You can see the interview here:

Q Please introduce yourself to the followers of Hotel Insight and describe your blog.

I am a hotel marketer, social media nut, and a passionate blogger.

I work as a Social Media Specialist for a marketing agency called Travel Spike, that specializes in travel. My main role is to come up with a social media strategy that would bring my clients at the forefront of competitors on social media channels. I watch the current social media trends, track and analyze the campaigns’ results, run social media contests, research applications, organize tweetups.  I also manage day-to-day operations, which means that I post updates to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms on behalf of my clients. As for blogging, I started my blog couple months back to share my knowledge about social media and travel. In my articles, I for example advise hotels on which social media mistakes they should avoid, how to find luxury consumers on social media, or how to correctly use Twitter and Facebook (to name a few).

 Q You’re something of an expert in social media – how did you get into this field?

Interest, luck, and little bit of brains 🙂 Seriously, when I got my Business degree, I was thinking about a field that I would enjoy and where the competition was limited (I can’t deny my practical side). I’ve always enjoyed marketing, but traditional marketing is known to be a field full of people with tens of years of experience. Social media marketing, on the other hand, was just evolving, so there were very few people who could call themselves “experienced”. I applied on-line for the position of social media coordinator and got it. Ever since, I’ve been breathing social media night and day.

 Q Which tools do you currently use for both work and personally?

 That would be a really long list, but my favourite ones are definitely Hootsuite and Tweetdeck for overall management, link tracking, and scheduling; Listorious, Twellow, and WeFollow for finding important Twitter users; Revinate & Twitalyzer for analytics; Editgrid and BaseCamp for online collaboration. 

 Q Social media has been a hot topic in hotel marketing for the last few years.  Some hotels are using Twitter, Facebook, blogging etc very well – others have started but failed very quickly.  What would you say the key principles are to succeed in using social media effectively?
#1: Socialize. Engage. Interact. Respond.  Many hotels use social media as a one-way marketing channel, pushing their special offers and copying their websites and marketing materials. However, social media is not a one-way street; it is about having a conversation, engaging. Do polls, ask questions, run contests, respond.
 
#2: Provide value. When people think you provide value, they are more likely to trust you, be loyal to you, and engage with you. In social media world, it means that you publish the content that the consumers find interesting and/or helpful (the local events, exclusive deals & events, behind-the-scenes pictures and videos to name a few).
 
#3: Have a professional in charge. Many hotels do not realize the importance and power of social media marketing, so they consequently devote little budget and effort to it. It is common for hotels to put interns with little or no experience in charge or make social media marketing 100th task on the priority list for current marketing personnel who many times don’t know anything about social media. However, it is important to realize 2 things. First, your social media accounts represent your brand in a same way your website does. Most consumers today will look at your Facebook, Twitter etc. to form an opinion about your company. Second, people are spending more time on Facebook than they do on Google or your website by that matter.  For these and many more reasons, it is extremely important for a brand to create a professional presence on social media, which cannot be done without a social media professional on board. 
  
Q Would you encourage hotels to start using social media if they are considering it?  What should their first steps be?
 
100% yes. Benefits of social media marketing are numerous, but let’s at least touch on the most important ones. Unlike other marketing channels, social media can help you connect with your existing and potential customers first hand, which is a huge opportunity no company (not only hotels) should miss out on. Other very important benefits include significant increase in sales, website traffic, and customer loyalty. Recent study showed that two-thirds (67%) of consumers who follow brands on Twitter are more likely to buy those brands after becoming a follower, and 51% of Facebook fans are more likely to buy after becoming a fan (http://bit.ly/btKJEO). Social media is all about word-of-mouth marketing, which is one of the most effective and cheapest ways of marketing.
 
First step is definitely devising a social media strategy. Realize what market segment you want to target over social media and what you’re trying to achieve. Then think about the ways of reaching the goal. As mentioned in the previous question, hire an experienced social media marketer to oversee your social media efforts. If your budget is restricted, think about hiring a consultant or contractor instead of a full-time employee or marketing agency.
  
Q Twitter has become a very interesting tool for hotels – they can publicise their property, receive feedback and communicate with customers in a very new way.  How  do you recommend them to use this tool? 
 
Twitter is slightly harder to learn than Facebook, so many marketers get discouraged and unfortunately use Twitter way less than Facebook. I say unfortunately, because Twitter has some very distinctive, important advantages that Facebook doesn’t (you can find more on this topic in my article: http://bit.ly/9d7doN). 
 
Regarding the use, the most important principle is again to ”socialize”. Talk to others, comment on other people’s tweets, retweet, respond, FOLLOW others. Add value. Don’t spam others by sending promotional direct messages or tagging irrelevant users. One more note on following others. It is VERY important to follow new people, because it lets people know that you exist on Twitter. However, be wary that Twitter is not fond of mass following, so only follow maximum of about 100 people per day so that you do not get your account blocked.  
  
Q How do you see social media evolving in marketing terms for companies in the future?

I would say the next step for the companies in terms of social media marketing would be making their websites more “social”. The websites have so far not been very interactive in nature but this is rapidly changing as social plug-ins and new applications gain in popularity. Certainly new social media platforms will appear and the existing ones will change their features. I think we will also see much more of location-based marketing in the future, as long as the privacy concerns are addressed.

Thanks to Lucie for sharing her thoughts with us, I am sure you’ll agree there are some great ideas here.  Do check out her blog by clicking here.  Today, Lucie posted a fantastic piece “5 things all hoteliers should know about social media“.  Well worth a read.

Exclusive interview with TVtrip

After receiving a huge amount of interest in my recent post on TVtrip (click here to re-visit) I contacted Annika Lucien from TVtrip to find out a little more.  Our interview is right here.  Look forward to your comments and questions.

Q  Annika, please introduce yourself to Hotel Insight and explain your role at TVtrip.

Hi there, my name is Annika, and I am VP Europe at TVtrip.com. I’ve worked at TVtrip since it launched back in 2007. I’m in charge of the European sales strategy and business development for those different markets.

Q  What is TVtrip?

TVtrip is the leading online hotel video production and distribution. We help increase the visibility of our hotel partners on the net thanks to our professionally filmed video content.

We have filmed over 6000 worldwide hotels and distribute the content to leading OTAs, tour operators, review sites, search engines and social networks. We partner with global chains such as Accor, Starwood, Hilton and Marriot and with local chains and independent hotels as well.

We also offer to our hotel and OTA partner a wide range of technical solutions to display the videos on their websites and increasingly on mobile devices.

Q  Your business revolves around the use of video so sell your properties, something that is more and more in demand by consumers. Over the last few years, how have you seen this popularity change?

Today the purchase of travel arrangements on the Internet is simple and accessible to everyone. But often lacks the right information at the right moment which makes it challenging for the end user to choose the right property. TVtrip was created to help consumers get a true, unbiased idea of a hotel or destination before they actually book their trip. We like to describe TVtrip as the video Tripadvisor for hotels in key cities.

We were convinced that video would quickly become a prerequisite to sell online. It was only 2 or 3 years ago that video was a “nice to have” on a travel site. Today 97% of internet users agree that travel sites should contain more video.

Q  How are all the videos collated? By hotels themselves or by a TVtrip team?

All videos are produced by TVtrip. We recruit professional cameramen in each city. The editing is centralized in order to guarantee a unique format and a quality of the videos.

Q  How has business been over the last 12 months?

Business evolved very positively over the past 12 months. We managed to broaden our position in the European markets and had a very positive development in the US thanks to partnerships with major chains like Marriott, Wyndham and Best Western. In Asia there has been an important growth in markets like China, Korea and Japan.

Also the traffic on our websites is increasing steadily. Today we reach over 2.5 Mio Unique Users per month. Our booking partners do over 14000 monthly transactions thanks to our traffic.

Q  What’s your target audience, business or leisure?

TVtrip focuses both on business and leisure travelers. Videos are definitely an added value for both groups. A recent Google study shows that videos are used throughout the whole travel planning process, both from business and leisure customers.

Q  TVtrip is a unique hotel booking website – who are your closest competitors?

In theory we compete with video production companies. But our technical solutions and video distribution model are quite unique.  

Q  What’s still to come from TVtrip and what can we expect from 2011?

Today we do not only film hotels but also restaurants, point of interests etc. TVtrip will evolve toward being a complete video travel guide, helping Internet users plan their trip thanks to our videos – and  very soon our customers and hoteliers will be able to upload their own videos onto TVtrip giving a more, comprehensive view of the destination.  

My thanks to Annika for talking to Hotel Insight.  TVtrip are certainly an innovative company and with big plans for the future.  Check out their website here.

Company Focus – Funnelscope

Today I wanted to tell you about Funnelscope, a relatively new company that combines social media, hotel reviews, and hotel booking technology.  I like to bring to you new and interesting companies and start-ups in the world of hospitality, and the concept behind this company is certainly intriguing.

To get more of an insight into Funnelscope, Hotel Insight spoke to Kul Singh, the founder of Funnelscope.

Q  Kul, please introduce yourself to the followers of Hotel Insight and your background. 

Hi Simon, thanks for the opportunity to talk about Funnelscope. I’m the founder of Funnelscope and a serial entrepreneur that has built several companies. In 2007 I took a sabbatical to travel around the world for 9 months. Travel has always been one of my passions.  When I came back I had an itch to build a new company and wanted to focus on one of  my passions: travel. In 2008, the idea for Funnelscope dawned on me as I was searching for a hotel and became frustrated with the amount of time it took for me to search. I would read the online reviews but since they were written by people I didn’t know, I spent hours that led to days trying to figure if these people were like me and shared the same tastes. That’s when I had the “aha” moment that hotel reviews need to be social and personalized. We all trust recommendations from people we know. It makes helps us make a faster decision when a friend recommends it– it alleviates the pressure of making an important decision. Fact is when we book a hotel, especially for a vacation, the decision is like purchasing a mobile phone or car. It can even be tougher because you can’t “return” or test drive a hotel if you don’t like it. Once you are there, you are effectively stuck with that decision. So we all invest that extra time beforehand to get it right given vacation travel can be expensive and we all value our time off. We want to make sure it’s the right decision for us and our families. Making hotel search social allows us to spend less time researching that perfect hotel because of that friend recommendation.

 Q  Funnelscope is relatively new brand concept.  Please explain the purpose of your business and who it’s aimed at. 

Funnelscope is the first hotel search engine built on top of social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and new location applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Since we didn’t have a legacy product to deal with, we were able to build this inherently as a social product. This allows us to create a new experience around hotel search. Who is it aimed at? Anyone that travels and stays in a hotel. If you use review sites today, I would suggest using Funnelscope because the reviews are all linked to a real person on Facebook or Twitter. You don’t have to worry about fake reviews from a competitor of a hotel or the hotel itself. These are real people like us. It should be noted that you do not have to be on a social network to get value from Funnelscope. But if you are, then you will receive the greatest value because you can see personal recommendations from people you actually know.

Q  There are some key review websites already in the market place, predominantly TripAdvisor.  You can even now connect via Facebook, prioritising reviews most suited to your network.  How does this differ from your website? 

Let me start by saying I have deep respect for Steve Kaufer ‘s vision in starting Trip Advisor. He created a valuable product that made finding a hotel easier. But Trip Advisor has the problem that any established company has- it can’t start from scratch to account for how different the world is today. I would bet that if Trip Advisor was founded today, it would not look like Trip Advisor but more like Funnelscope. 

As I said above, we have designed Funnelscope intertwined within social networks. It’s not just a separate website that has a social feature– all we are is social. For example, users never have to visit funnelscope.com to provide a review or search. They can tweet a review to us at @funnelscope and we will index it to their twitter account. They can checkin to a hotel on an application like Foursquare and get the option to review. So the checkin prompts the review. Or a user can write a hotel review on their own blog and then tweet or direct message us a link to the review with the name and location of the hotel. We will then index that link and blog review to their social network such that when their Twitter network is looking for a hotel they would see the review. As a note, if a reviewer logs in using Twitter on our website, we also provide the option to log in with their Facebook account. This couples their Twitter and Facebook accounts so a review shared on Twitter is accessible by their Facebook friends when they search and vice versa. Most of the experience on Funnelscope can occur where you already are…on social networks. You don’t have to visit another website in order to review a hotel. We intertwine the experience into what you already do each day. Trip Advisor would have a hard time doing this as they would have to move away from the mentality of being a website to a web service. Funnelscope is looking to build the ultimate hotel review and search web service, which we believe makes reviewing and searching easier for users. And we are attracting reviewers that don’t typically have time or may forget to review on a site like Trip Advisor. Again, this is because we are intertwined in their every day social experience.

 Just one more point to add here. Another thing that Funnelscope does is we aggregate reviews already being made on the social networks. We have special technology that recognizes which hotel the review is about and then indexes the review to the proper hotel and links it to a user’s social graph. Users are already providing detailed hotel reviews in Facebook status updates and on hotel fan pages. But those reviews are not aggregated in one place when people are searching. This creates a timing issue since users often share their reviews when friends aren’t looking. And when friends are looking that review is no longer available in their newsfeed. So this valuable information is lost. Funnelscope solves that timing problem. We save that review so users can find it when they are indeed looking for a hotel. Over the last 18 months we have captured millions of social ratings and reviews for hotels. There are instances where we have thousands of social ratings and reviews for a hotel where the other review sites have none.

 Q Where do you see Funnelscope this time next year? 

F rom my perspective hotel search has seen no innovation since Trip Advisor. That is over ten years ago! There are so many areas where hotel search can be improved and I am excited to see Funnelscope challenge the status quo. Our belief is that hotel search does not have to be tedious. It can a fun, social experience. So today we have innovated the actual review process but we are still early on our vision with the search experience. In the next few months that will change. Hotel search will be a more social, fun experience. Just like providing a review, it will be integrated with user’s everyday social experience. And we believe that we can not only add immense value to the people who search for and review hotels, but also to the hotels themselves. We believe we can give them a high return on investment by working with a company like us. Since we are a web service, we want to add value to their own websites and Facebook fan pages. How can we together drive up conversions and give people a better experience. They already know it’s critical to give people a great experience when they stay at their hotels. But the hotel experience begins with search. Making hotel search fun and social would reflect positively on the hotels themselves. So we are aligned and I hope and believe hotels will work with Funnelscope to push the envelope. From my conversations already, I believe they will. That’s exciting. This whole opportunity is exciting and my goal a year from now is to change the perception of hotel search. Instead of the frustration, I look forward to seeing smiles. I believe this can be achieved otherwise I wouldn’t have started Funnelscope.

 
 
Q Explain the process of using Funnelscope. 

Tweet @funnelscope a review. If it needs to be longer you can write a review on a blog and tweet us that link. Soon we will let you email us a review similar to how Posterous allows users to email blog posts. Or users can checkin to one of the location based applications. And of course, users can visit our website and provide a review.

Today for hotel search, you need to visit our website or you can tweet us a search request with the exact location and we will tweet you back our search results. On our search results we show real-time trending hotels based on checkins on location applications plus mentions in Twitter and Facebook. This shows you where the buzz is for any location. Below Trending Hotels we show Top Rated Hotels Across Social Networks. The results are ranked based on number of positive connections and recommendations a hotel has versus its rating. This is similar to how LinkedIn or Twitter work. It’s the number of connections that matter and reflect influence on social networks. We use the same approach. You can see reviews from real Facebook and Twitter users. If you login using Facebook or Twitter, then you will see reviews from people in your social networks. Logging in with both services gives you greater access to reviews from your network. We also make available reviews and ratings from friend of friends although you can filter that to just friends.  

Here is where I would request your readers to please send us reviews and tell your friends to send us reviews. The more social reviews aggregated in a single place, the better experience we will all have in searching for a hotel. This is one of those things we have seen where online social communities reflect real world communities. The more people contribute, the better it is for everyone and we all win.   

Thanks to Kul for sharing with us his brand concept.  I have to admit, when I first looked at this company I had my doubts, especially with TripAdvisor and Facebook’s link up, enabling you to log into TripAdvisor with your Facebook network credentials.  But Kul has taken this much further and it could be a real hit.  Currently, the website is in Beta mode and only works for US hotels, but take a look. Hotel Insight will keep a close eye on Funnelscope and bring you the latest developments in the story.