By John Bray, PhoCusWright

Initially, travel providers summarily dismissed user-generated content, seemingly more worried about the occasional 'bad review' than any potential upside.

Perhaps sensing that finger-in-the-dike approaches are no longer satisfactory, savvy marketers at several providers are beginning to leverage user-generated content to actually stimulate travel demand, as well as to tear down their "walled gardens" in order to simplify the laborious, painstaking task of content management.

User-generated content and community are certainly hot topics and cornerstones of Travel 2.0. So popular in fact, that Yahoo! Trip Planner is overhauling the search engine concept by asking users to answer each other's travel questions in addition to looking for answers online. TripAdvisor, the patriarch of the user-generated content movement, second-most visited Web domain in the travel category and member of the Expedia family, boasts 23,000 featured destinations (each with several thousand reviews).

At the same time, with property descriptions such as "Recently renovated," "At the beach," "With its innovative enhancements and stylish new décor," "Minutes away from all of the city's major attractions," and "Located in the heart of the city," and picturesque thumbnail images of bed linens, jubilant lobby floral arrangements and glass-shiny pools, it's clear something is missing. Let's face it, hotel marketers have struggled to merchandise their products in order to escape commoditization and expand beyond the room.

On the heels of a major re-branding campaign that has also resulted in the search-engine inspired home page for FourPoints.com, and expert travel "blogger" site TheLobby.com, with the moniker of "Belong," the recently redesigned Sheraton.com breaks from the traditional mega-chain ranks by putting user travel stories, not tucked away, but at the center of the home page. And so far posted reviews seem biased to those that go way beyond just the room. For instance, one guest story, for a property well to the east of Chicago, tells of a nearly missed dinner cruise. By allowing guests to post their own travel stories, instead of merely reviews, Sheraton has truly embraced oft-ignored facets of the "Content is King" moniker to cover the complete travel experience within the context of a guest's desire (whether to achieve their mission or escape the ordinary).

Swiss premium hotel chain, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, undaunted by potential negative feedback, has included a link to TripAdvisor for reviews about their property. A query to their Central Park Roma location yielded 16 English reviews, not all of them were positive, and a popularity index of 210 out of 988 hotels in Rome. Intercontinental hotels is also considering adding its own peer review section to the IHG Web site.

It's not only suppliers that are getting in on the act. Expedia asks customers to rate their purchased rooms in four categories including service, condition, cleanliness and comfort, along with their reviews. Perhaps the infamous black-clad review guys of sister company Hotels.com can finally get new jobs. We just wonder why Expedia chose their own review site, with TripAdvisor in the fold?

In the initial race to grow online travel distribution, most Web sites were looking to become self-contained publishers and providers. Unfortunately, for too many in the travel industry, maintaining this walled garden has turned into a never-ending task (perhaps that's why the Travelocity Gnome crashes into stadium lights in the TV ad). Though it lacks a precise definition, Travel 2.0 generally refers to Web services that let people collaborate and share information online. A wave of dynamic travel sites have emerged that take full advantage of new models of collaboration for trip planning. Undaunted by the startups, these providers have embraced, without wielding control over user-generated content, a sense of belonging at the same time they attempt diminish their own content-management challenge.
With 100 million downloads a day on YouTube.com demonstrating the popularity of rich media, look for these sites to move beyond pictures and reviews to the user-generated video shortly.

Related Link: PhoCusWright Inc.