The hotel booking process treads a fine line between pleasure and pain. By the time they start to research hotels, travellers have chosen their destination and are looking forward to exploring, touring, adventuring or relaxing. The pleasure is in the anticipation; the pain comes with the logistics.

Booking a hotel is a series of high-risk decisions. Do you use Google or a booking site? What key terms do you choose? What’s the trade-off between price, location and rating? What’s the difference in value and quality between brands? After spending time treading water in a sea of competing offers, the choice is made and a deposit is paid. It is no more informed or calculated than a throw on a roulette wheel. A large sum is at stake and there is no option to ‘try before you buy’.

It is little wonder that travellers will turn to online reviews before making a decision. A traveller is often torn between two hotels, with both being in the right place at the right price. If one has a line of positive reviews and the other a line of complaints, there is only one viable option. What a hotel says about itself is no longer enough; the views, descriptions and perceptions of other guests will define its success in selection. Richard Branson summed it up neatly when he remarked, “Your brand name is only as good as your reputation.” I am a big fan of Branson. I think he truly gets branding with a purpose.

In this environment, reputation (and recommendation) is won or lost on whether the hotel experience matches the anticipation. This is where hotel operations and communications must work in delicate balance. The brand proposition needs to be inspiring and engaging, while the hotel must be bold and aspirational in its guest promise. But this all has to be communicated in a way that fairly represents the services and facilities. Mismatched expectation is the blight of reputation.

Another level

Many communications professionals approach the digital space as a channel – another interface through which to engage travellers and tourists. At a purely functional level, it is a fair assessment of what the technology can offer. However, I believe that this description does not do justice to the scale and complexity of the online space, and the opportunity it can provide to business.

Rather than understand it as a virtual platform, I believe it is best viewed in the same way as a physical city. The digital space is a vast, sprawling, densely populated metropolis, with all the complexity, challenge and charisma that accompanies a living, breathing population. It brings together the eclectic variety of a Parisian department store, the labyrinthine complexity of London’s back streets, and all of the heat and hazard of Harlem.

It is host to the hustle and bustle of crowded streets, people chatting in coffee shops and bars, sharing stories – some amusing, some heart-warming, some funny, some scandalous – all of them drawn from experience. This is what is happening in the ratings and recommendations of the online booking forums.

If I overheard a negative comment in the street about one of our hotels, I would never challenge a person’s experience or their right to share it. The same applies in the online space. We have diminished control over our brand reputation, but this is no cause for fear if our service offering matches our brand proposition. We must welcome the democracy and meritocracy that the online space provides, and we must live up to our promise if we are to survive and thrive in that fair (but unforgiving) domain.

Wired editor Chris Anderson once commented, “Your brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what Google says it is.” This is a fair but simplistic view. It does not do justice to how reputation may be gained, maintained and protected. Understanding the dynamic complexity of the online space is the first step towards navigating it successfully.

Reputation means business

Managing online reputation is critical for every brand; 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Even more telling is the fact that nearly two-thirds of consumers trust what they see and read in search engine results more than any other source.

These proportions become yet more difficult to ignore when they are related to hotels. Destinations and locations cannot be tried and tested like clothes; in the same way, travellers must take a leap of faith as they hit the booking confirmation button. This can only be supported by what other travellers have told them. It is little wonder that 97% of travel operators say that reputation management is important to their business.

Turning specifically to the hotel industry, a recent study showed how properties that raise their review scores increase their revenues as well. An increase of one review point online leads to a 0.89% rise in average daily rate (ADR), a 0.54% increase in occupancy, and a 1.42% increase in RevPAR. The numbers make a clear and compelling case; reputation and business success are two sides of the same coin.

Take centre stage

As a resident in the ‘social city’, we approach online reputation with the same perspective as a physical hotel. Its online profile must match the property. This is the first and most obvious step to maintaining and protecting reputation.

At Radisson Hotel Group, we have worked hard to ensure that each of the hotel brands within our portfolio provide flexibility to respond to their space and situation. Our focus on design and innovation has enabled us to create brand value and capture share-of-market. However, the core value proposition of each brand must remain clear and consistent if it is to form a recognisable offer that will drive guest loyalty. We have also invested the same efforts into building the personal brands of our leadership team. Our leaders across corporate, areas and hotel levels live and breathe our brand values, and we help them build their reputation as individual thought leaders and brand ambassadors. This distinctive identity has allowed us to gain early-mover advantage as we expand our portfolio into new markets.

Online reputation management becomes more subtle and complex in the communication of the corporate brand. As a corporate citizen in the social city, there is a balance to be achieved between what a company does and what it says. If I were to put money into a donation box, I would not walk up to a stranger and tell them about my generosity. The online space is no different; any level of social savvy should tell us that corporate contribution should never be a platform for communication. We can be proud of our work in this area without the need for self-promotion.

Instead, there are other opportunities to talk about our business. In recent years, the communications industry has talked in hushed tones about the mystical art of storytelling. Let me take a moment to explain the enigma. Whether it is a fact, a statistic, an anecdote or an unabridged novel, a story is simply something that sticks. It captures the imagination, is easy to recall and trips lightly off the tongue. It is designed to be shared freely and easily between people, in the physical and social spaces.

I would suggest that the true art of communication is not in telling the story, but in finding it. Maybe it is better described as a science than an art form, as it sometimes requires all the skills of a forensic investigator to find, assemble, polish and post a story that is worth sharing. We have worked to achieve this by reframing the remit of communications.

At Radisson Hotel Group, communications is not a function within the business, it is a function across the business. Internally, all our business functions expect to contribute to communications, as well as receiving benefit back. We work with business development to promote new contracts and openings, and we work with the finance team to develop investor content. Critically, we work to inform, engage and align our employees, while optimising the profile of our leaders to deliver reputational value.

To succeed as a brand and business, we understand that the communications function must reflect the breadth and depth of our business. It must also be sensitive and agile to the dynamics of the social environment that defines our reputation and supports our commercial success.

In the social city, our audiences debate and discuss our reputation, while the people within our business define and protect it. Our social reputation sits at the fragile interface between those two communities, and maintaining it requires a combination of subtle intuition and dogged determination.

We may best sum it up by going back to the great philosophers of Ancient Greece. It was Socrates who said, "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear." I think this is the best social strategy I ever heard.