By Michelle Wohl - VP of Marketing at Revinate

The rise of user-generated content is one of the most disruptive forces in hospitality since hotels moved their marketing materials and booking engines to the Web. Why? User-generated content is the great equalizer of marketing. It allows consumers, not brands or properties, to own the reputation of a hotel. It allows boutique hotels with small marketing budgets to compete against large chain hotels. It allows great service and quality to drive marketing through consumer reviews.

Despite some grumblings to the contrary, there is no way to really game the review system and win. TripAdvisor actively monitors for fraud and many review sites require a booking before a review can be written. As a result, many hotels have realized that to get a leg up they must actively manage their reputation and monitor their reviews. And in the process, they have realized that they can derive both operational and monetary benefits, in addition to market share.

To find out how hotels are ‘winning’ on OTAs and review sites, I interviewed multiple hoteliers who stood out in one way or another on review sites to find actionable tips that any hotel can use.

First, I wanted to find out what it takes to be the #1 hotel on TripAdvisor in the United States. I spoke with Ed Schwitzky, SVP of Sales and Marketing at Coastal Hotel Group. Their property, Cedarbrook Lodge, is ranked number one in Seattle, as well as the United States.

Provide the ‘delightfully unexpected’
Ed, a hospitality veteran who spent more than twenty years at Westin, has never been more passionate about his career because of the opportunities that social media presents. He embraces the new channels of conversation as a ‘wonderful way to do business.’ After speaking with Ed, it became very clear that Cedarbrook Lodge is so successful on review sites because it provides the delightfully unexpected, which gives people something to write about in reviews. The 104-room lodge sits on eighteen acres near the Sea-Tac airport. Before you think, ‘so what?,’ here’s what the hotel offers: Free parking, free shuttle service to the airport, amtrak or link rail system, 24-hour snacks, complimentary breakfast. free wi-fi, free access to the 24/7 fitness center, and free newspapers. Essentially, the hotel has taken everything that people complain about in reviews and made it free. Add great service and a well-maintained property and it’s easy to get great reviews from thankful guests.

Engage to surprise and delight
While offering complimentary amenities might not be possible at your property, think about how you can surprise and delight guests so they have an experience they will remember and want to write about. Jennifer Kedinger is the social media marketing manager at Hyatt Regency Chicago. Using Revinate, a reputation management dashboard, she actively monitors check-ins and tweets for people coming on site. She defines social media as an art of relationships through welcoming guests, providing service online, addressing any issues that arise in real-time and answer any questions. Giving this level of service creates a unique experience that bonds the hotel and guest to create an unforgettable stay. She says, “Guests are always really impressed that we’re listening, and since so few hotels are doing it, they’re often surprised.” The hotel gets nearly 30% more reviews than the next hotel in its comp set. It has also gone up a dozen points on TripAdvisor’s Popularity Index since last year.

Show you’re listening
How can hotels show that they want to participate in the conversation? Bring social content to the front of corporate Web sites and Facebook pages. Coastal Hotel Group, for example, displays a row of social media icons at the top of all property web sites. These icons send the message that the hotels are accessible via multiple channels. Other hotels such as L’Auberge Del Mar and Four Points by Sheraton Chicago Magnificent Mile show they take reviews seriously by using Social Buzz, Revinate’s review widget, to publicly share their favorite reviews on their corporate web sites and Facebook pages. Finally, many hotels today are waking up to the importance of responding to online reviews to show guests and prospects that they care enough about the guest experience to monitor and respond to reviews. And guests are taking notice, even writing in their reviews that they chose to book at the hotel because of the management responses.

Two years ago, no one was paying attention to online reviews. Today, if reputation management isn’t on your radar, you will struggle to make it. Statistic after statistic shows that reviews do drive bookings. Those in the lead, the hotels with employees dedicated to social media and reputation management, are easy to find. Follow them on Twitter. Like their Facebook Pages. Check out their review responses. It’s all publicly available and you can learn a lot from their examples.

Michelle Wohl is VP of Marketing and Client Services at revinate, a provider of social media and online reputation management solutions for hotels. http://www.revinate.com