TripAdvisor: A love story, with glitter and rainbows
If you adore TripAdvisor and think it’s the most innovative company in travel, you’ll enjoy today’s 2,300-word feature on the Massachusetts-based giant in The Washington Post.
The writer describes the company this way:
“Without question, TripAdvisor has become a monster. Not a mean ogre that eats all of your Girl Scout cookies but a friendly, helpful beast that accompanies countless travelers on their vacations.”
Like Shrek, perhaps.
The writer visits the humble birthplace of the company — above a pizza joint, back in 2000. She then contrasts that humble start with how the site now has “250 million unvarnished user reviews and opinions”
They’re all “unvarnished”?
“(Originally, the founders had envisioned a compilation of links to professional reviews.)”
If true, that should be the final word on the matter. There is no shame in pivoting. TripAdvisor pulled off one of the most momentous pivots among travel startups, in that case.
But is the statement true? That’s not how I remember seeing the early TripAdvisor, where user reviews were present along with Fodor’s, etc. And Kaufer told the Times of Israel that user-generated reviews was the key idea he and his late wife had from the start.
UPDATE 1:30pm ET: Dennis Schaal points to his November 2000 report in Travel Weekly:
“The company’s 12 editors read and classify content from newspapers, magazines, guidebooks, personal homepages, travelogues and user reviews.”
So it was a mix of both professional and non-professional sources at first, and then it broke heavily for user reviews. Says Schaal now:
“CEO said in past they were surprised about the traction of the user reviews and went in that direction.”
Praising the company’s new HQ
The Washington Post writer then reviews TripAdvisor’s new headquarters. She does everything except formally give it a five out of five bubbles rating. She waxes rhapsodic about the lobby:
“It is a playful space with vintage luggage used as shelving, a tower of Rubik’s cubes and a world map made of travel photos…. The atrium rose like Machu Picchu.”
She oohs-and-ahhs over the game room, which has “Atari, ping-pong, craft brew taps and a wall-size mural of superheroes.”
She gives props to the canteen, where the cooks serve a global-cuisine-of-the-day. In fact, “every floor [of the building] is named after a continent (Europe) or region (the Americas)….”
“The furnishings, artwork and even the decorative plants all capture the flavor of the destination. In the “South Pacific,” for example, an arrow points to the “dunny,” Australian slang for toilet.”
She praises the gym. She notes:
“In the background, a TV touted the company’s benefits: happy hours, free lunches, summer-casual Fridays. (I visited on a Wednesday, which felt like a Friday, so the end of the week must be as liberating as the Fourth of July.)”
Oh my. Is this the same company with the motto “Speed wins”?
Descriptions like that make it seem like no one actually does any work at TripAdvisor, except for a sentence about people at their cubicles being very quiet. Most of the statements are like this:
“Two guys in floppy shorts played Frisbee near a Roman-style amphitheater that hosts bands.”
Wait: There’s no actual football or soccer field? Disappointing.
The writer fails to suggest that the point of all these amenities might — just might — be to discourage anyone from having to leave the campus during the workday. (Or at least, anyone who doesn’t have young children in day care.)
The writer does have a nice touch in noting site’s most prolific volunteer worker, I mean, user: Brad Reynolds.
“He has earned more than 2.1 million points and 106 badges in such categories as Hotel Expert, Helpful Reviewer and Top Contributor.”
(The Washington Post couldn’t be bothered to link to the user’s profile so here it is: BradJill.)
The writer says: “He seems like a trustworthy guy.”
Okay, but why? A skeptic might raise the question if it’s possible that the only way someone could be that prolific would be by taking shortcuts here and there?
Is he really one person in Hong Kong? Something about bradjill’s reviews might strike some skeptics as seemingly like they are written by more than one person.
But our Washington Post journalist never calls to find out, apparently.
UPDATE: Brad and Jill, husband and wife, were interviewed in detail at Travel2Next.
The writer notes the company’s line that “fraud appears in only a tiny fraction of reviews” and that “the [hotel] owners know it doesn’t pay, and the scale and community deters it.”
These claims aren’t balanced by anything external. There’s no quote from an outside source, like maybe business school professors who have studied the issue or maybe an online reputation management company, regarding the likely percentage of biased reviews that are on TripAdvisor.
Might it have been noted that the British Advertising Standards Authority, a government-backed watchdog, ruled that TripAdvisor can no longer use phrases such as “trusted advice from real travelers” in ads, and that in the US and the UK it now uses the phrase “reviews and advice” and “world’s largest travel site” instead?
Oh, I forgot. The writer said that all 250 million of the reviews are “unvarnished.”
Instead we learn:
“All reviewers start their TripAdvisor careers as readers.”
Well who knew?!
The 2,500-word story doesn’t mention anything about TripAdvisor’s foray into metasearch and instant booking via its sites and mobile apps — arguably the most important sea change in the company in the past five years and something with immediate impact on how consumers plan their trip.
The article also doesn’t get into the CEO’s compelling personal history. Or the contrast between his compensation and his humble style of not flying private jets or spending lavishly.
Or how the company donates 2% of its profits to charitable causes, something other travel companies don’t.
No, all that caught the writer’s notice is wild-eyed wonder at ping-pong tables and plate-glass windows. It’s like this article was written about a dot-com startup in 1999. The World Bank, in Washington, D.C., has had continent-by-continent themed food for more than a decade now in its canteen.
In short this article leads to some dreary conclusions. The darkest one is this: Maybe paid journalists, myself included, are getting replaced by user-generated content platforms because too many of us are not doing our jobs as well as we should. (Some journalistic stand out exceptions are listed here, including an honorable mention of the writer of this Washington Post article — showing she knows better.)
The Washington Post would never have let one of its news writers turn in such one-sided copy had the story been a visit to, say, North Korea. Not that TripAdvisor is a work camp where millions of people toil for no pay, of course.
Or, well, um — you know what I mean. Any company will spin, and TripAdvisor is doing nothing unusual in that regard. (Though its control-freakery-assertiveness with the media is well-above average for any US company, in my opinion.)
My point is, instead, that a journalist is supposed to be skeptical.
Let’s hope that quality publishing thrives as part of the buffet on offer (one for every continent!) in an age of user-generated platforms.
In the meantime, read the full article to judge if I’m being unfair:
How TripAdvisor altered your vacation-planning universe