I’ve just returned from two months in Africa, my 40th year of guiding there. I took consumers into five different countries in sub-Saharan Africa, toured three of its big cities and 14 of its most famous big game areas.
We stayed in hotels, lodges and tented camps from mid-market to super luxurious. Sometimes we used our own vehicles driving from place to place, and at other times we flew from place to place and used the property’s vehicles.
Tomorrow I’ll compare it all for you.
But before I do I want to explain why I think this is so important. We travel professionals are being marginalized by the internet, and consumers should know better.
Internet travel reviews like those found in TripAdvisor are often if not usually grossly inaccurate. This is because single event analyses are rarely fair. You wouldn’t want a real estate agent brokering your purchase of a home, or a doctor operating on your gall bladder for their very first time.
Yet this is exactly what most travel reviews are: first-time consumer impressions. Strong reviews – good or bad – might be reflections of random events like unusual weather or public events or machinery breakdowns, or unusual personal interactions with an unrepresentative employee. None of these things might be recognized by the consumer as being unusual.
Moreover, most consumer reviews contain no measuring sticks of experience. They don’t know what it’s like next door or down the street, or at a different season. It’s a one-off experience that’s highly unlikely to be representative of the normal consumer experience.
And because many consumer reviews are from people who used consumer reviews before they planned their own vacation, mistake compounds mistake. Expectations might be way too high or way too low to begin with.
But of all the many reasons that consumer travel reviews are generally so wrong the single most obvious is consumers’ overwhelming demand for a low price. Especially among Americans price is the single-most driving factor in travel purchase.
Price should be an important consideration, but so many travelers believe they are due more than what they paid for. When price becomes this important it tends to erode performance and quality for a presumed gained “value.” This is the reason we’ve gone through such a horrible era of airline inconveniences.
What I want is a person sufficiently experienced in the area of travel I’m considering. Indeed there are consumers just as good as travel professionals. When I find one of those it’s a bonanza, because that person isn’t saddled with the constraints of making a living out of her reviews and recommendations. But either way, a professional agent or a sufficiently experienced traveler is what will render a meaningful recommendation.
What constitutes sufficient experience? In my opinion there are four critical prerequisites for rendering a meaningful travel review:
✓ Multiple visits to the same place or property: More than two or three, the more the better, enough visits that both an array of seasonal weather and economic cycles are experienced, and enough visits that an anomalous situation can be recognized.
✓ Competitive selection. By this I mean experiencing a range of hotels, or beaches, or yachts, or trains in the same area so that the judgment rendered is contextual. You can’t apply the same standards to an Amazon jungle lodge that you would apply to the Peninsula in Hong Kong, or a kids’ family vacation to Disneyland to a week at the opera in Milan.
✓ Consistent purchasing. The “Honeymoon Weekend” purchased on LastMinute.Com won’t give you the same quality of rooms or package that buying it directly from the Niagra Falls Hotel will. It gets even more complicated: the same hotel room purchased directly from the Niagra Falls Hotel could render different qualities, frills and service depending upon how and when you made the purchase and what you actually paid for it.
✓ Minimize expectations. This is the hardest thing for a consumer to do, and understandably so. You don’t buy a vacation without expecting certain things from it. But the more this is the case, the less likely you will be able to render a meaningful review.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t heed the good advice of trusted friends and family. They’re like you: They know probably better than a random professional what you might enjoy best.
But at the same time you better give that travel professional equal if not greater weight for all the reasons I’ve explained above.
Tomorrow I’ll try to do that for safaris in sub-Saharan Africa at this time of the year. Please come back!