Reputation Management: A Q&A with Larry Mogelonsky

Larry Mogelonsky, the founder of LMA Communications Inc., brings his rich history in marketing and hospitality to his work as a consultant for hospitality brands. He has been published approximately 2,000 times, including three books on hotel management: “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?”, “Llamas Rule”, and “Hotel Llama.” He sat down to talk to us about the role of reputation management in the hospitality industry.

Q: You have been an important voice in the hospitality industry these past few years. How has reputation management in hotels changed over the past 30 years? What was reputation management all about before the internet?

The whole issue of reputation management has absolutely nothing to do with the internet. What the internet has done is put a turbo-charger on the concept of reputation management.

Let’s rewind to before the internet. Thirty years ago, in 1986, I was working for Four Seasons hotels. What was the number one aspect of managing a Four Seasons hotel? It was the reputation of the hotel. What did reputation mean to Four Seasons back then? It’s the same as today. You want guests to come out of their experience feeling good about their decision to stay at a Four Seasons hotel. That was the mantra, and it was best expressed by Isadore Sharp, the founder, who created something called the Golden Rule: Treat your suppliers and your employees the same as you treat your guests.

Fast-forward to today, and guess what? The same rule applies to Four Seasons. There’s been no change.

But what has happened with the internet is that word-of-mouth has become word-of-mouse. In the old days, if the guest had somebody who was not performing to standard, or had a room with bad plumbing, getting that feedback to the general manager — the person who might be able to enact change — could take months.

Now it’s word-of-mouse, which is a term I coined. The manager will get a TripAdvisor review saying the plumbing doesn’t work or the water’s too cold. They get it instantly. They don’t have to wait. The internet has put a speed demon on reputation, which makes reputation even more critical, because people will hear about bad things very quickly.

Q: What would you say is the biggest reputation-related issue that hoteliers struggle with today?

I think the big issue is TripAdvisor, because they own this field. In the old days, hotels would get an inspection and rating by AAA and Mobil (now Forbes). I do recall an era where general managers could lose their jobs if they went down a star or a diamond. Similarly, managers could get promoted if they raised their product from a three to a four, or a four to a five. But that’s gone the way of the dodo bird. Nobody cares about that anymore.

It’s a new world. Now, hotels get an instant rating, and there are even studies that correlate that rating to how much hotels can increase their ADR. But is it fair? Is it right? I’m working with a client right now that is being unfairly criticized on TripAdvisor because there’s a condo going up across the street, and it’s noisy during the day, and there’s dust on the balcony. Well, is that their fault? And why should they lose a star because of that?

Let’s say a hotel has a 4.8 rating and the next one has 4.7. Does that mean the 4.8 hotel is better than the other one? There’s no difference between 4.8 and 4.7, according to statistics. Yet because it’s a single number and it’s so vital to hoteliers, all of a sudden people are looking at this number and saying, “That’s my whole thing.”

The most important thing is to not look at the ratings. Read what the review says. What are the issues? Here’s your quality control: Your actual guests who are telling you things you need to do to improve. If they’re telling you the hot water is bad, chances are the hot water’s bad. If they’re telling you the service around the pool is slow, you know what? Service around the pool is slow. Fix it. That’s what you use it for. Use it as a diagnostic tool. Don’t use it as a report card.

We’re struggling with how to use the data. There are products out there that not only provide you with the data for your property, but provide it for your competitive set as well. And the question is, when we’re inundated with too much data, what data is important and what data is superfluous? That’s the big issue, trying to sort your way through the data. 

Q: What can hotels do to prepare in the event that something goes very, very wrong, whether it’s a barrage of abusive comments received on a trip review website, or a major event causing financial loss or injury to guests?

Are the comments valid or not? If they’re valid, admit you made a mistake. Say, “Yes, we goofed, we’re sorry.” Don’t try to confuse or obfuscate the problem. Outline what steps you’re taking to fix it. The people who read the comments aren’t the ones who wrote the reviews—they’re the next people coming in. If they see you’re addressing the situation, they’re going to feel good about it. That’s the first step.

Second, if the comments are truly abusive, have nothing to do with what’s going on, and are truly discriminatory in any way, call TripAdvisor and get them removed. They will.

When it comes to force majeure, you can’t do anything about it. These things happen. Be honest. For something like that, a property must have a crisis communications policy. Not a crisis policy, because a crisis policy deals with managing the situation. A crisis communications policy deals with how you manage your reputation during an incident. It outlines the steps you’ll take to manage your communications process.

Q: You’ve written several books, one of them titled “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?”, in which you compare hoteliers who refuse to accept change to ostriches. Would you say there’s a problem with ostriches in the hospitality industry refusing to face the realities of reputation management? What can those ostriches do to become llamas when it comes to this particular issue?

Change is slow. There are a lot of hoteliers that are getting it, but getting it slowly. We have a major changing of the guard that’s taking place amongst guests. We’re moving from Baby Boomers to Millennials as being the individuals of importance within the guest matrix. And they want different things. They have different needs They might want more bandwidth, but are less crazy about having afternoon tea. They might want concepts such as a living room, where they can sit on some sofas and work on their computers together. It’s a different philosophy, and hotels have to adapt. Those hoteliers who don’t, I would classify as ostriches. Those who do, I would classify as llamas.

What can ostriches do to become llamas? Free bandwidth. The first thing you want to do is make Wi-Fi accessible to all. The second thing to do that would be really important is great coffee. At the same level, free water. Water should never be charged for in a room, ever. Slapping a price tag on a bottle of water is discriminatory practice. What does that say about how they think about guests? That they’re not valued, that they’re cash cows, that they’re stupid.

Now, here’s the solution: Place a card that says, “We thought you might be thirsty, so here’s a complimentary bottle of water.” What will that do for your reputation? It will completely change it. And what was the cost? One dollar.

Another issue is that Airbnb is killing them. Airbnb doesn’t pay taxes, Airbnb has a bunch of different advantages, Airbnb has a better website. Right now, Airbnb doesn’t represent a huge percentage of the market, but it’s growing. I think Airbnb is a big issue, and this is where reputation management can really help. If you have a stellar reputation and you go out of your way to help people, I think people will recognize that and give you a fighting chance.

Q: There are a lot of brands (both hospitality and otherwise) out there that don’t have a good handle on reputation management, as the occasional slip-up can attest. What are the potential consequences of not taking reputation management seriously? 

Occasional slip-ups happen. Let’s be realistic. The odd time somebody’s going to get the wrong drink at the pool, or they’re not going to get room service brought up within the half hour they were promised, or they’re going to wait 40 minutes for their car because somebody lost the keys. These things happen. What can you do about it? Nothing! You apologize and move on. You say, “We’re only human. These errors happen from time to time. We’re sorry.” At the end of the day, problems only appear to bother guests when they think they’ll be ignored.

Most hotels do the best they can with reputation management. It’s not that they’re avoiding it, but sometimes the budgets and the way they operate just cannot give them all they want. Imagine you have a hotel. Let’s say that hotel has 500 rooms. It’s operating in a very competitive marketplace and it needs millions and millions of dollars to renovate. What do they do if they don’t have the money? They try to make do as best they can, but their reputation starts to sully. They try their best. That’s all they can do. 

Q: How can hoteliers put together an effective reputation management strategy? What might be the key components of such a strategy?

One, identifying reputation management as being an important component of building their guest profile and soliciting more guests to their property.

Two, assigning it as a key priority within the property.

Three, providing adequate tools to management so they can understand where they sit on reputation management issues.

Four, creating a philosophy and a structure within the organization that allows for reputation management issues to be tackled at the line level — in other words, training and motivating staff so they can handle these things.

I checked into a hotel two days ago in Beverly Hills. This was a $600 per night property. I arrived at 3:30 p.m. — check-in time was 3 p.m. — and my room wasn’t ready. The front desk clerk said, “I’m sorry, sir, your room’s not ready. Leave your bags here and we’ll take them up to your room when it’s ready.” But the correct answer should have been, “I’m sorry, sir, your room’s not ready, but here are two complementary drinks in our bar, because we should be ready within the half hour. Why don’t I escort you to the bar and we’ll take care of your bags?” You’re supposed to turn a negative into a positive. That’s Reputation Management 101.

At the base level, where there’s contact with the guest, is where reputation management starts. You build your reputation out of good, solid, service-oriented items. Managing reputation begins with managing the product and the service, because if you have a bad product and bad service, you’re always going to be in damage control. The goal of reputation management is to have a positive reputation, not to be in continuous damage control.

Reputation management begins with operations. Get the operations right. But hoteliers can’t figure this out. Why? Bad management. Weak management. It also has to do with the simple fact that we’re not training anymore. I think we’ve lost a generation of trainers, and I think we’re more crazy about things that have nothing to do with anything. We’re running around worrying about our TripAdvisor score without spending time training the front desk.

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