There’s a lot of great information about how to encourage and respond to guest reviews. That includes statistics about social proof, the different types of reviewers, and the role of reviews in high-consideration purchases.
But ever since the days of the humble suggestion box, there’s been a disconnect between reviewer and reviewee. How many times has a thoughtful suggestion, or thousands of them, really precipitated a change? Businesses have always been eager to receive feedback from customers, but acting on the data is another matter. A personal apology or thank-you might prove you’re listening, but how do you know what comments to act on? What’s valid and what’s just plain nitpicky?
Guest reviews are more than just a chance to build relationships and trust. The insights they provide can help move you off a traditional service mindset and into the realm of experiential marketing.
What is Experiential Marketing?
The best way to explain experiential marketing is through a classic real-world example: Disney. Every aspect of a Disney-branded experience is calibrated to align with a customer’s expectations, yet leave them surprised and delighted. The alignment of the experience is created by thoughtful attention to every touch point, from booking to transportation around the resort. Great care is taken to preserve that fragile ember of excitement and magic.
This is the essence of experiential marketing: A single-minded focus on the end-to-end experience, during which a guest never leaves the loving embrace of your brand. You aren’t Disney, but what are vacation rentals if not a group of related experiences?
Each “experience” comprises a group of what some call “micro experiences.” Every touch point, from the wording and photos in your listing to the check-in process and follow-ups, is an opportunity to reinforce your brand and provide value to the guest.
Many of these touch points are out of your control, especially if OTAs are driving a majority of your bookings. For example, you can’t really influence how a Booking.com confirmation email looks. But if you’re looking to get a leg up in the marketplace, experiential marketing is on the cutting edge. To identify and design the micro experiences that reinforce your value, reviews are a great place to start.
The Link Between Emotion, Experience, and Value
Guest reviews, good and bad, are often an emotional response to an emotional investment. The person “in charge” of the vacation must contend their personal expectations, the expectations of the people traveling with them, and whatever constraints they’re under. It may be a quick getaway or they might have banked a year’s worth of vacation. Their personal stake may be quite high.
There’s an imbalance here. You take pride in your work and the condition of your properties. You work hard to earn good reviews. You respond thoughtfully and professionally while guarding your reputation with the fierceness of a pit bull. Even so, your emotional investment in the experience will never be as strong as your guests’.
Use this fact. Your guests’ investment makes them better equipped to notice things that might otherwise seem trivial. The more finicky they are, the better you are probably doing overall. But if your sole focus is getting the broad strokes of a vacation rental right, you’re missing out on the opportunities of an experiential mindset.
Imagine that guest value is a bucket of water on a scale. On the other side of the scale is everything they’ve invested in their stay — money, time, expectations, etc. Any time the scales are tipped in favor of the bucket, your guest is probably quite happy.When you think you’re getting more value than you bargained for, you tell the world.
But each micro-experience that fails to deliver on your value proposition pokes a tiny hole in the bucket. Alone it won’t have much effect, but too many will tip the scales. Reviews are often your guests’ way of pointing out these leaks, whether they realize it or not.
Your vacation rental, be it a condo or a house, probably isn’t the centerpiece of your guests’ trip. It’s more likely to be a base for other activities and sightseeing, partying, or just relaxing. Even so, your guests will probably spend more total hours in and around the property than any place else.
Among vacationers there is usually a “manager” — someone who booked the trip and is basically in charge. The more empathy you have for this person, the better you’ll understand what they need from the experience.
Let’s say Brenda, the oldest daughter of a couple nearing their 50th anniversary, is planning a party over a long weekend at the lake. You have the perfect place — a sprawling 6br/5ba with a pool and a huge yard that runs right into the lake. Your listing even notes it’s perfect for large family reunions and get-togethers, and it’s in her price range, so she books.
Brenda and her husband don’t want their guests, especially Mom and Dad, to worry about anything. She shows up promptly at her 2 p.m. check-in time, enters the code in the lockbox, and checks the place out. It’s spotless and looks exactly like the photos. Relieved, she and her husband start carrying in armfuls of supplies to the kitchen.
A few things happen next:
You get the idea. Soon, her guests don’t know what to do with empty cans, or how to change the temperature on the hot tub. The back of the TV is inaccessible so they can’t connect their Roku stick and stream movies. There don’t seem to be extra blankets for Aunt Mildred or a firm pillow for Uncle Stan. And on and on.
In this scenario, you didn’t misrepresent anything about the property. Not a single detail about the view, the area, or the property itself is missing or wrong. But Brenda’s overall experience will still be the sum of her micro-experiences, and that’s where this vacation went wrong. She may be satisfied in the end if everyone has a great time, but all these little misses add up. In fact, in experiential marketing, they matter just as much as the broad strokes.
Look to reviews for the experiential ‘fails’
Reviews offer insights into the guest psyche. Some of the best ones to read are the narrative sort. They often begin with phrases like, “It all started when ...” or “First of all ...” Some of them are eye-rolling, but a narrative structure often includes those micro-experiences. A confusing check-in process or a lack of clarity about how to use the hot tub or sauna will often be part of the saga.
Also be on the lookout for angry, hyperbolic language like “WORST. CONDO. EVER.” or “Total waste of money.” Read between the lines. Are they really mad that the disposal didn’t work, or was it because they didn’t realize it until the sink was full of potato peels? Are they upset that the WiFi was slow, or that their plan to watch a movie together fell through? Some things you can fix, some you can’t. The key is to connect comments back to specific experiences where you can.
No one likes having their time taken from them, especially on vacation. Comments about delays or inefficient processes might expose opportunities to streamline or simplify. We’ve seen comments about a property being hard to find, only to learn that a tree branch was covering the house number or that entering the address in Google Maps only got you to the end of a private drive. Little problems like this can get an otherwise great vacation off to a rocky start.
In experiential marketing, the little things matter
Remember, you’re not just providing a place to stay. You’re the architect of an experience that is literally the sum of its parts. Use reviews to identify the experiences you can control and really dig into the experience failures behind them. Once you do, you’ll be well on your way to plugging the leaks that rob guests of value — and you of raving fans.