The Wisdom of ‘We’

My column in BtoB magazine this month. Original here.

The manager of the Mansion on Peachtree hotel in Atlanta has it pretty good these days. The Mansion is the top-rated hotel in the city on, with 163 reviews, nearly all of them five stars. The endorsement has enabled the Mansion to hold its premium prices and cut its acquisition costs. It’s also got the staff hopping to maintain the coveted top position.

“Social media is vital to our business today,” said Micarl Hill, the Mansion’s managing director. “But it also keeps us on our toes. People can tell everybody about a bad stay with the push of a button. What they say isn’t always fair, but we take it seriously.”

Recommendation engines like TripAdvisor, TravelPod, Google Places and Yelp are transforming the hospitality industry, and they’re coming to your town.

Mark Snider, owner of the Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., personally contacts every single customer who posts a complaint about his hotel on an online review site. Fortunately, it’s not a big job. Winnetu’s No. 1 rating on TripAdvisor drives so much business that Snider slashed his marketing budget this year.

If you think this trend is confined to consumer markets and small electronics, think again. Consider Spiceworks, a thriving community for IT professionals, where members have posted thousands of reviews of everything from computer servers to computer consultants. “When I’m looking at a vendor, I don’t Google it; I Spiceworks it,” wrote one forum member.

At, employees rate the companies they work for, review executive performances and swap salary information. How do you think the recruiting business will be changed by this?

And we’re still in the very early going. It’s only a matter of time before review sites pop up in every category of business, including B2B. Facebook and LinkedIn already make polling easy, and Quora is awash with questions about recommended vendors.

This is going to change the rules of marketing. People stopped listening to pitches some time ago, but they didn’t stop listening to each other. What you say about yourself now matters a lot less than what others say about you.

Marketers need to be tuned into these conversations 24/7, spot detractors and quickly try to turn them around. They also need to provide incentives for people to tell others about their positive experiences.

Start by discarding the “see no evil” mindset. Customers will share their opinions whether you want them to or not. You might as well be open about it. Southwest Airlines and Dell Computer encourage customers to lodge complaints on their company Facebook pages and address nearly every one. That’s called responsiveness, and it’s always been a good business practice. Today’s it’s life or death.

Gettysburg Tours Are a History Bargain

About six years ago I stopped by Gettysburg, PA with my son for a half day while on a trip to nearby Baltimore. I’ve wanted to go back ever since. Gettysburg is like no other historical attraction I’ve ever visited. The National Park Service has maintained the site and battlefields in a condition that mirrors almost perfectly their state on July 1, 1863, when the pivotal battle of the Civil War began.

This week I got a chance to go back with the luxury of some time for exploration. A full day at Gettysburg still doesn’t do the place justice, but I discovered the history bargain of a lifetime: the private guides provided by the Park Service.

For just $55, you can hire an expert to accompany you in your car for a two-hour tour of the battlefield. After that, you can return at your own pace, armed with the wisdom your guide has imparted. With group bus tours running $26/person, this service pays for itself quickly. Our guide was Mike (left, explaining cannon ballistics for my kids), one of about 150 contractors who work in this capacity, and his knowledge was voluminous. There was barely a question we could throw at him that he didn’t answer.

The great thing about tour guides is that they’re unique. You can take the same tour with two different guides and learn entirely different things. The last time I toured Gettysburg, we had a group tour guide who was an expert at describing the scene on the battlefield. Mike was great at defining military strategy, and we couldn’t have had a better setting for his expertise.

Standing in a wooded area, looking across an open field, we could almost see the Confederate troops advancing on Cemetery Ridge for the fateful Pickett’s Charge, the tactic that nearly turned the war in the south’s favor but ultimately forced Lee into retreat. The great thing about Gettysburg is that the entire six-mile battlefield is spread before you. You can survey the scene almost exactly as the generals did before the battle.

Mike told us how authorized tour guides have to leap tall buildings to gain NPS approval. He said he had to finish in the top 10 of roughly 200 people who took a written exam, then submit to an oral test and finally a tour of the battlefield with experts who fired all sorts of trivia and trick questions at him. All this so he could earn $25/hour giving tours (I tipped him a well-deserved $20). That is dedication. And the Park Service has no shortage of applicants for these jobs.

I also recommend the Eisenhower house tour. My knowledge of our 34th President was minuscule, and the self-guided 90-minute tour of his final home in Gettysburg gave me new respect and admiration for him. The Park Service guides punctuated the visit with bits of wisdom and skillfully answered all questions without being intrusive.

TripIt Travel Management Service is a Winner

For the past couple of months I’ve been using a travel management service that has some nice features to make life easier for the frequent traveler. It’s called TripIt, and if you travel a lot, I recommend you give it a look.

TripIt aggregates all information about your travel in a single place and allows you to share itineraries with anyone you choose. It uses that most prosaic form of communication – e-mail – to update information. When you make a flight, hotel or car rental reservation, you forward the confirmation e-mail to TripIt, which automatically adds the information to your itinerary. The service is very good at parsing e-mail confirmations from most major airlines and hotel chains.

It doesn’t get everything right – it couldn’t figure out a message from JetBlue in my case – but the service is new and developers are constantly updating it. In nearly every case I encountered, TripIt was able to seamlessly integrate messages from a variety of travel providers into a single itinerary. It’s then easy to share that information with anyone via e-mail. You can also integrate your itinerary into popular calendar programs and have updates sent to you via SMS.

TripIt adds information you don’t request but which is nevertheless useful. For example, if you’re flying into SFO and staying at the Hotel Palomar, it will include Google Maps directions to your destination. It also has nice touches like weather forecasts that are built right into the itinerary.

TripIt is trying to build social networking features into the service, though I’m not sure that’s a winning strategy. I don’t see much value in sharing my travel plans with people who don’t care about them, but if the service can figure out how to integrate recommendations via third-party services like Yelp, it could have a winner. In short, there are a lot of promising directions the company could follow if it builds a critical mass of users. I, for one, am sold. I expect I’ll be using TripIt for a long time to come. The service adds real value and efficiency to my busy schedule.