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Use and Impact of Online Travel Reviews

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Consumer-generated content (CGC) is growing in importance. Especially online travel reviews written by consumers are ever more available and used to inform travel-related decisions. A Web-based survey of users of the most prominent travel review site, TripAdvisor, was conducted to investigate how other travellers’ reviews inform the trip planning process. Since current CGC statistics show generational and gender differences, the study also aimed at examining whether those carry over into the realm of travel review use. The results show that reviews are used mostly to inform accommodation decisions and are currently not used much for en route travel planning. Gender differences were found for perceived impacts of reviews, with females reaping greater benefits from using reviews, especially in terms of enjoyment and idea generation. Age differences occurred across a variety of perceptions and use behaviours. Implications for travel marketing and travel information systems design are provided.
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Use and Impact of Online Travel Reviews
Ulrike Gretzel
Kyung Hyan Yoo
Laboratory for Intelligent Systems in Tourism
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences
Texas A&M University, USA
(ugretzel; toinettel@tamu.edu
Abstract
Consumer-generated content (CGC) is growing in importance. Especially online travel reviews
written by consumers are ever more available and used to inform travel-related decisions. A
Web-based survey of users of the most prominent travel review site, TripAdvisor, was
conducted to investigate how other travellers' reviews inform the trip planning process. Since
current CGC statistics show generational and gender differences, the study also aimed at
examining whether those carry over into the realm of travel review use. The results show that
reviews are used mostly to inform accommodation decisions and are currently not used much
for en route travel planning. Gender differences were found for perceived impacts of reviews,
with females reaping greater benefits from using reviews, especially in terms of enjoyment and
idea generation. Age differences occurred across a variety of perceptions and use behaviours.
Implications for travel marketing and travel information systems design are provided.
Keywords: online travel reviews; consumer generated content; trip planning; age differences;
gender differences.
1 Introduction
Through the Internet, individuals can make their thoughts and opinions easily
available to a global community of Internet users (Dellarocas, 2003), and a growing
number of users actively takes advantage of this opportunity. A total of 35 percent of
US Internet users publish their thoughts or otherwise create content online (Pew
Internet & American Life Project, 2006a). Even more Internet users use consumer-
generated content (CGC). According to eMarketer (2007a), about 75.2 million online
users use CGC today in the US, and this number is expected to grow to 101 million by
2011.
Searching for travel-related information is one of the most popular online activities
(Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006b) and travellers are expected to
increasingly take advantage of such content. Indeed, a growing use of online travel
referrals for the purpose of planning travel has been reported by several travel-related
studies (Bonn, Furr & Susskind, 1999; MacKay, McVetty & Vogt, 2005). Further,
such electronic word of mouth (eWOM) can even have a significant influence on
travel-related decisions after they have been made. eMarketer (2007b) reports that
among travellers who use peer reviews for their hotel booking, 25% of infrequent
36
leisure travellers and 33% of frequent travellers report having changed a hotel stay
based on reviews by other consumers.
However, little is known about the specific relevance of eWOM in different stages of
travel planning and for specific types of travel-related decisions. Consequently, a
study was conducted to investigate how eWOM sources, specifically online reviews
provided by other travellers, are used for the various facets of travel planning.
2 Background
2.1 Use of Word of Mouth in Travel Planning
Word of mouth (WOM) communication refers to interpersonal communication among
consumers concerning their personal experiences with a firm or a product (Richins,
1983).
Previous studies illustrate the significance of WOM for consumers' purchase
decisions (Bone, 1995; Brown & Reingen, 1987; Engel, Blackwell & Kegerreis,
1969;
Amdt, 1967), especially within a service context (Murray, 1991; Murray &
Schlacter, 1990). Because service products are intangible and cannot be easily
described, consumers tend to rely on word of mouth from an experienced source to
lower perceived risk and uncertainty (Bansal & Voyer, 2000; Murray, 1991;
Olshavsky & Granbois, 1979).
Word-of-mouth information search is greater in circumstances when a consumer is
unfamiliar with a service provider (Chatterjee, 2001), which is often the case for
travel-related decisions. WOM has long been recognized as one of the important
external information sources for travel planning (Crotts, 1999; Murphy, Moscardo &
Benckendorff, 2007; Hwang et al., 2006; Kotler, Bowen & Makens, 2006; Snepenger
& Snepenger, 1993; Fodness & Murray, 1997). Hanlan and Kelly (2005) found that
word of mouth and independent information sources are the key media through which
respondents formed their image of an iconic Australian tourist destination. As the use
of the Internet for travel planning becomes ever more prevalent, travel decision-
making processes are expected to become increasingly influenced by eWOM. Online
word-of-mouth differs significantly from its offline form in that it includes many-to-
many communication between communicators who do not necessarily share any
social ties and that it is much more voluminous (Chatterjee, 2001). Consumer
opinion-platforms have established themselves as important venues for eWOM
(Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004).
2.2 Consumer Reviews
Consumer-generated content encompasses a variety of media forms and types of Web
sites (Gretzel, 2006). One form in which content is created online is as consumer
reviews and ratings. Consumer reviews and ratings are the most accessible and
prevalent form of eWOM (Chatterjee, 2001). Over 30 percent of Internet users have
rated products online (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006a). Forrester
37
(2006a) reports that about 70 percent of
adults
currently use consumer product ratings
and reviews. Consumer reviews serve two distinct roles: 1) they provide information
about products and services; and, 2) they serve as recommendations (Park, Lee &
Han, 2007). Consumer reviews are perceived as particularly influential because they
are written from a consumer's perspective and, thus, provide an opportunity for
indirect experience (Bickart & Schindler, 2001). They are also perceived as more
credible than information provided by marketers (Smith, Menon & Sivakumar, 2005).
Online consumer reviews appear to play an increasing role in consumer decision-
making processes. More than 80% of web shoppers said they use other consumers'
reviews when making purchasing decisions (Forrester, 2006b). eMarketer (2007c)
reports that nearly six out of ten consumers prefer Web sites with peer-written
reviews, and that Web sites with reviews experience greater conversion rates. A study
conducted by Bazaarvoice (2007) indicates that for about 75% of US shoppers it is
extremely or very important to read customer reviews before making a purchase. The
sample also shows a clear preference for peer reviews over expert reviews. Smith, et
al.
(2005) also found that recommendations provided by online peers are preferred
over editorial recommendations.
Consumers tend to rely more on consumer reviews when purchasing high
involvement products (Park, Kim & Han, 2007); since travel is a high involvement
product, one can expect extensive use of reviews for travel-related decisions. Indeed,
Compete, Inc (2006) found that nearly 50% of travel purchasers visited a message
board, forum, or online community for their online travel purchasing and one in three
of these buyers said that consumer reviews helped with their purchase decision.
Importantly, almost half of those whose purchasing decision was influenced by
consumer reviews said that consumers' opinions actually caused them to change their
mind about what they purchased. Moreover, among those buyers, 25%) said they also
posted a review on a consumer review site after making their
purchase.
Clearly, online
consumer-generated information is taking on an important role in online travelers'
decision making.
2.3 Travel Planning and Decision Making
Planning a trip involves a "temporal, dynamic, successive, and multistage contingent
decision process" (Jeng & Fesenmaier, 2002:15). Information needs and information
search strategies can be assumed to vary for different stages in the travel decision-
making process (Gretzel, Fesenmaier & O'Leary, 2006). Also, travel planning
involves a multitude of facets for which decisions need to be made. Extent of planning
and timing of
the
decision differs for these various facets (Fesenmaier & Jeng, 2000).
While past research has extensively looked at factors influencing information source
use (Gursoy & McCleary, 2004), little is known about the role of specific sources in
particular planning stages and with respect to particular sub-decisions. Consequently,
it was the goal of this study to investigate the importance of consumer reviews in
different stages of planning and for different trip facets to be planned.
38
2.4 Age and Gender Differences
Gender differences have been found for Web usage in general (Sanchez-Franco,
2006) and online travel information search in particular (Kim, Lehto & Morrison,
2007).
Research also suggests that women are more likely to engage in WOM
behavior, and female Internet users have been found to be more likely influenced by
recommendations received from friends than marketer-based information (eMarketer,
2007d). Further, differences exist for different age groups. Young consumers
(millennials or Generation Y) are more likely to be influenced by WOM, with 85
percent of them indicating that they primarily learned about new products through
WOM (eMarketer, 2007e). In general, WOM conversations are more likely to happen
online for Generation Y consumers (eMarketer, 2007f). Differences in the use of
information sources driven by age have also been reported in the tourism literature.
For instance, Fodness & Murray (1997) as well as Fall & Knutson (2001) and
Patterson (2007) report that WOM is particularly important for older travellers. Thus,
it appears that use of consumer reviews for travel planning and the impact of such
reviews on travel-related decisions might differ for travellers based on their gender
and age.
3 Methodology
Currently, a number of travel-related CGC sites are available such as
TripAdvisor.com, Virtualtourist.com, Wayn.com and Igougo.com. Among those CGC
sites,
TripAdvisor is the most prominent online travel review platform in terms of
use
and content available. As of September 1, 2007, it featured over 10 million travel
reviews and over 750,000 photos posted by travelers (TripAdvisor.com, 2007). It
attracts over 24 million visitors a month and has over
5
million registered
users.
Thus,
a Web-based survey in collaboration with TripAdvisor.com was administered during a
4 week period between January 5 and January
31,
2007. The sample was drawn from
the TripAdvisor traveller panel. This panel is maintained by TripAdvisor.com and
includes TripAdvisor users mostly from the US but also Canada, the UK and
Australia. Consumers who work in or live with someone who works in market
research, advertising, marketing, media/news, or public relations are excluded from
participation in the panel. Also, the sample used for the study included only
consumers who had taken pleasure trips in the previous year and/or anticipated taking
pleasure trips the following year. A drawing for one of two $100 Amazon.com gift
certificates was used as an incentive. A total of 7000 randomly selected panellists
received an email invitation to complete the Web-based survey and 1480 actually
participated, resulting in a
21.1
percent response rate.
Since the goal of the study presented in this paper was to investigate when and how
other travellers' reviews are used in the trip planning process and what the perceived
benefits of those reviews are, the survey included 29 questions regarding trip
planning, use and impact of online travel reviews and general Internet use behaviour
questions as well as questions regarding demographic characteristics. All questions
39
regarding reviews referred to travel reviews written by consumers rather than travel
experts. The results presented in the paper were obtained using descriptive analyses of
the data, while age and gender differences were analyzed using Chi-Square statistics.
4 Results
4.1 Profile of Sample
More females (64%) than males (36%) completed the survey. Most respondents
(79%) reported being married or living with a partner. A majority of respondents
(78.5%) reported having children under 17 living in their household. The largest age
group was comprised of those who are between 50 and 64 years old (42.8%)). Only
2.2 percent are between 18 and 25 years old, 14.4 percent between 26 and 34 years,
34.1 percent between 35 and 49 years and 6.5 percent 65 years or older. Over 69
percent have a college or post graduate degree. The majority (52.2%) has an annual
household income of $90,000 or greater. These results were compared to the
characteristics of the overall panel membership and no differences were found.
About 26 percent report having taken 1-2 pleasure trips and 38 percent report having
taken 3-4 pleasure trips in the 12 months prior to the survey, while 36 percent took 5
trips or more. Almost 45 percent of the survey respondents typically begin their trip
planning four or more months in advance. Nearly 30 percent plan 2-4 months in
advance, about 20 percent plan 3-8 weeks in advance. About 4 percent plan 1-3
weeks in advance, just over 1 percent plan 1-6 days in advance, and only 0.4 percent
plan during their trips.
Since the sample consists of TripAdvisor users, the respondents are clearly more
inclined to use the Internet than a general population of travellers. Over 84 percent
report that they are very skilled at using the Internet. Almost all (96.4%)) use the
Internet when planning pleasure trips. They are also frequent users of the Internet for
travel planning. Over 82 percent use the Internet always and 13.5 percent use it often
to plan at least some aspects of a pleasure trip. Of those who use the Internet to plan
pleasure trips, 90 percent look at materials posted by consumers when planning
pleasure trips, 64.2 percent read travel-related blogs, 27.7 percent watch videos online
and only 6.6 percent listen to travel-related audio files/podcasts in the travel planning
process.
4.2 Perceptions and Use of Online Travel Reviews
Not surprisingly, given the characteristics of the sample, 97.7 percent of the
respondents who use the Internet for travel planning say they have read other
travellers' reviews in the process of planning a pleasure trip. Of those who read other
travellers' reviews, 57.8 percent do so every time they plan a pleasure trip while 26.1
40
percent read them very often. Over 10 percent read reviews frequently, 5.3 percent
regularly, and only 0.2 percent rarely.
Most online review readers look for other travellers' reviews on virtual community
sites (92.3%), followed by travel guidebook sites (60.6%), online travel
agency/auction sites (58.1%) and search engines or portals (51.5%). Not so many
(44.6%) look for reviews on local destination Web sites and state tourism Web sites
(29.7%).
Only 27.9 percent look for reviews on company sites and 13.4 percent on
meta-travel search engines.
Online travel review readers use reviews to inform different stages of their pleasure
trip planning. Most (64.7%) use other travellers' reviews in the middle of the
planning process, to narrow down choices. But many also use reviews to get inspired
at the beginning of their pleasure trip planning process (63.7%). Other travellers'
online reviews are also important in later stages to confirm decisions. Almost 41
percent of travel review readers use them in this stage. Interestingly, for almost a
third (29.5%) of the travel review readers, reviews are also important in the post-
consumption phase to compare notes with others and share experiences. Only 8.7
percent use reviews to inform decisions during a trip.
Figure 1. Importance of Travel Reviews for Travel-Related Decisions
Travel review readers perceive reviews posted by other consumers as having several
advantages over information from travel service providers. Almost two thirds
(65.3%) of the review readers think other travellers' reviews are more likely to
contain up-to-date information, enjoyable information (61.2%) and reliable
information (61.1%). Over half of the respondents perceive them also as more likely
to contain detailed information (57.4%) and relevant information (53.6%).
41
Most Trip Advisor users (77.9%) who actively read other travellers' reviews in their
pleasure trip planning process think that reviews are extremely or very important to
decide where to stay. About a third think that reviews are important for restaurant
decisions (33.6%) and activity decisions (32.5%)). Not so many review readers
consider reviews to be important for destination-related decisions (27.0%) or the
timing of trips (26.6%)) (see Figure 1).
4.3 Influence of Online Travel Reviews
Survey respondents were further asked to indicate in what ways the reviews posted by
other travellers influenced their travel planning. The results are presented in Table 1.
Almost all review readers think that reviews are a good way to learn about travel
destinations and products (94.6%)), help with the evaluation of alternatives (91.9%o),
help them avoid places/services they would not enjoy (91.8%)) and provide them with
ideas (90.3%).
A clear majority of the review readers also thinks that reviews increase confidence
and help reduce risk by making it easier to imagine what a place will be like.
Reviews are also perceived as helping with making the decision process more
efficient in that they make decisions easier because they reduce the likelihood of later
regretting a decision. Although less prominent than the other areas of influence,
reading travel reviews also makes the planning process more enjoyable. However,
not so many respondents think that reading reviews saves them time.
4.4 Gender Differences
Despite the gender differences reported in general CGC use, the analyses did not
show any significant differences in terms of use except for the use of online travel
agency sites to find reviews and for the perception of reviews in terms of providing
detailed information. More females (60.8%) than males (53.5%) look for travel
reviews on online travel agency sites (x'^=7.15; p<0.01). Slightly more females
(59.1%) than males (54.3%) think other travellers* reviews are more likely to contain
detailed information (x^=6.53; p<0.05).
However, gender differences were found for the impact of travel reviews on different
aspects of decision-making. Females (83.4%) are more likely than males (77.9%o) to
agree or strongly agree that other travellers' reviews make it easier to reach decisions
(X^=18.10; p<0.01). They are also slightly more likely to think that reviews help them
save time (69.6% compared to 65.2%; x^=14.65; p<0.01). Females (83.3%)) are
slightly more likely than males (80.7%) to agree or strongly agree that reviews reduce
risk/uncertainty (x^=
15.39;
p<0.01). Females are also more likely to perceive hedonic
value; 81.9 percent (compared to 67.5%o males) think reviews make them feel more
excited about travelling (x^=56.75; p<0.01) and 80 percent (compared to 70.3%) for
males) think they add fun to the travel planning process (%^=31.58; p<0.01).
42
Table 1. Influence of Other Travellers' Reviews
% of Travel Review
Other Travellers' Reviews... Readers Who Strongly
Agree or Agree
Are a good way to learn about a travel destination, product or
service 94.6
Help me evaluate alternatives 91.9
Help me avoid places/services I would not enjoy 91.8
Provide me with ideas 90.3
Increase my confidence in the decisions I make 86.6
Make it easier to imagine what a place will be like 85.3
Reduce the risk/uncertainty involved in making travel decisions 82.4
Make it easier to reach decisions 81.3
Help me plan my trips more efficiently 80.2
Reduce the likelihood that I will later regret a decision 77.6
Make travel planning more enjoyable 77.4
Make me feel excited about travelling 76.8
Add fiin to the travel planning process 76.5
Help me save time in the travel planning process 68.0
Help me imagine my trips more vividly 67.4
Differences occur also for impacts regarding imagination and inspiration. Females
(71.7%) are clearly more likely than males (57.6%) to think that reviews help them
imagine trips more vividly (x^=34.85; p<0.01). More females (86.5%) than males
(83.2%) indicate that reviews make it easier to imagine what a place will be like
(X'^=30.21;
p<0.01). Small differences were also found for idea generation and
learning; 91.1 percent of females and 88.8 percent of males see reviews as providing
travel ideas (x^=15.17; p<0.01) and 95.1 percent of females compared to 93.7 percent
of males think reviews are a good way to learn about a place (x^=30.18; p<0.01).
4.5 Age Differences
Several interesting differences regarding use and perceptions of reviews were found
for different age groups. For instance, those 65 years or older are less likely to have
read other travellers' reviews
(x^=28.21;
p<0.01). Older respondents are also less
likely to use reviews every time they plan a pleasure trip (32.2% compared to 63.3%
for those between 18 and 34 years of age; x^=45.06; p<0.01). Younger travel review
readers are more likely to use reviews in the middle of the trip planning process to
narrow dovm alternatives (80% of 18-25 year olds compared to 55.2% of those 65 or
over;
x^=15.51;
p<0.01). Very young travellers (18-25 years) are also clearly more
likely to use reviews during their trips
(23.3%
compared to 8% of those 65 or over;
X^=11.16;p<0.05).
43
Older travel review readers are more likely to look for reviews on company sites
(39.1%
compared to 23.3% of those between 18 and 25; x^=15.92; p<0.01). The 65
years and older group is also the most likely to use search engines to look for travel
reviews (58.6% compared to 47.2% of those between 35 and 49; x^=10.13; p<0.05).
In addition, older travel review readers are more likely to look for reviews on state
tourism sites (41.4% compared to 13.3% of those between 18 and 25; x^=
18.61;
p<0.01). The same pattern can be seen for local destination Web sites
(57.5%
of
those 65 and older vs. 40% of those between 18 and 25 years old; x^=12.79; p<0.01).
In contrast, younger readers are clearly more likely to look for reviews on virtual
community sites (96.7% of those between 18 and 25 in contrast to 86.2%) of those 65
or older;
;^=11.33;
p<0.05).
Younger travellers find reviews more important for deciding where to stay (90%
compared to 60.9%) for those 65 or older;
x^=44.13;
p<0.01). Older review readers are
more likely to find reviews unimportant for deciding when to go (47.1%) compared to
33.3%
for those between 18 and
25;
x^=29.73;
p<0.01). Also, those 65 years of
age
or
older are less likely to believe that reviews provide more up-to-date (x^=
19.25;
p<0.01), detailed
(x^=21.03;
p<0.01) and reUable (x^=29.09; p<0.01) information.
Reviews are more likely to increase confidence for younger review readers (86.7%
compared to 72.4%) of those 65 and older; x^=58.66; p<0.01). The same pattern was
found for risk reduction; while 86.6%) of those between 18 and 25 agreed or strongly
agreed that reviews reduced uncertainty, this was the case for only 74.7% of
those
65
years of age or older
(x^=46.01;
p<0.01). Younger review readers also experience
more excitement from reviews (86.7%) compared to 76.8%) for those 65 or older;
X'=38.87;p<0.01).
5 Conclusion
The survey results provide interesting insights regarding online travel review readers.
They are highly educated, have high incomes, travel rather frequently, use the Internet
extensively and plan in advance. Thus, travel review readers, and specifically
TripAdvisor users, appear to be a very important target market for travel marketers.
The study results also confirm that travel review readers perceive reviews posted by
other consumers as superior to marketer information, especially as far as being up-to-
date,
reliability and enjoyability are concerned. Importantly, those who read other
travellers' reviews do so frequently and mostly on virtual community and travel
guidebook sites. This indicates that partnerships with virtual community and travel
content providers are important for destination marketers.
The findings clearly show differences in the use of online reviews for different trip
planning stages and trip facets. Travel reviews are not only used in the decisive stages
of
trip
planning to narrow down choices but also for idea generation. However, they
are clearly underused for en route decision-making. Thus, making other travellers'
reviews more accessible through mobile applications seems to be an important goal.
Also,
most review readers currently perceive reviews as important for accommodation
44
decisions. This is not surprising as most reviews are encouraged for hotels and other
accommodation establishments. One can expect that the perceived usefulness for
other decisions would increase if more reviews were available for those aspects. It is
fairly easy to encourage accommodation reviews as most travellers have to provide an
email address when booking a room online. Hotels as well as online travel agencies
typically send an email to travellers after their stay, asking them to provide a review.
Different models to provide incentives for destination-, restaurant-, activities- and
timing-related reviews are needed.
The results further suggest that travel reviews play an important role in the trip
planning process for those who actively read them. They provide ideas, make
decisions easier, add fun to the planning process and increase confidence by reducing
risk and making it easier to imagine what places will be like. Especially female travel
planners seem to benefit greatly from the use of travel reviews. While gender
differences were almost exclusively found for impacts on the trip planning process,
generational differences occurred across a variety of perceptions and use behaviours.
These results confirm the importance of considering demographic variables when
modelling information search behaviour.
These conclusions are not only important for travel marketers and researchers but also
for system designers. Given the importance and many positive benefits of travel
reviews for travel planners, systems have to be designed in a way to not only make
travel reviews ubiquitously available but also to make it easy for travellers to provide
reviews. Also, rather than sitting on specialized sites, reviews should be seamlessly
integrated with other content such as maps and videos to make travel planning more
efficient.
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... With the ubiquitous of social media technologies, tourists are now able to share more information concerning their tourism experiences (Gensler et al., 2013;Rather, 2021b;Woyo and Nyamapanda, 2022). The information has potential to influence destination choice (Gretzel and Yoo, 2008) and several aspects of travel behaviour. Based on this, enhancing tourist-to-business relations for enhanced value co-creation and destination brand equity becomes key. ...
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