50 shades of travellers, but a single rating dimension?

Vacations are the best. They’re a way to escape. A way to experience another world, another kind of life, by making a simple physical journey. It’s not like the journey of becoming a better person, there isn’t much hard work to do. It’s as simple as making flight bookings, hotel bookings, activity bookings and then letting the ‘mood’ and energy of the place take over.

The complex process that is vacation planning

It’s not so simple, is it? In busy lives, devoid of hobbies and limited vacation time, vacations take on huge significance.. it takes lots of effort to plan time off from work, which usually takes place side by side with figuring out vacation options during those periods. Which explains the amount of effort people invest in making sure they’ve chosen the right place to visit, at the right time of the year, are staying in and eating at the most optimal places, and are doing the most optimal activities.

I say optimal, because each person has a different need from a vacation. Mr. Stressed might look for rejuvenation, Ms. Bored might look to party, Family Well-knit might look for water sports activities, Couple Soul-seekers might want in a sojourn in the mountains… you catch my drift. When human emotions are so varied, when expectations are so vast, then how can we expect a simple 1–5 rating scale to adequately communicate what an entire vacation experience entails? That’s why we have words. But abundant words fall on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from a simplistic rating scale. Having to rely on words, means having to spend countless minutes to pore through hours of reviewing effort, after which, you still feel lost, wondering which of these 4 hotels do I/WE want to stay at?

What’s wrong with what we have today

There are a couple of reasons for the lingering uncertainty and inability to make a confident decision, even after reading scores of reviews:

  1. Words don’t cost anything. Internet denizens are used to a democratic world, where anyone can create a TripAdvisor account calling themselves ‘TravelJunkie’, and spill their heart out. Fortunately, or unfortunately, each traveller has a different expectation from the experience, and so the factors on which each traveller rates and reviews a hotel varies. While someone might value quiet and peace, someone else would probably love to stay in the midst of the most happening areas. While someone might value a big bed in a luxurious large room, someone else might not expect to spend much time at the room, and hence not care much about the actual room amenities.
  2. For the same amenities and services offered to two travellers by a hotel, or activity, what they experience while on vacation could vary depending on the state of mind of the travellers, and the events leading up to the specific experience. The good or bad memories they have could also get modified to become great or terrible, based on how much time it’s been since the experience. There’s no existing way to separate the wheat from the chaff, the objective from the sentiment, the quantitative from the qualitative, the reality from the bias.
  3. Currently, I search and sort reviews per their star rating. I first read through the 5 and 4 star reviews, and see how recent they are. I then read the 1 and 2 star reviews to know how bad this hotel can get, and how recent these bad experiences have been. I now have the unfortunate task of evaluating the sentiments of the opposing reviews (because let’s face it, EVERY hotel has reviews across the spectrum, never mind how great the property and the service), and trying to figure out if the positive is positive enough to cancel out the negative, and if I’m willing to risk it, in case things go just like that most negative review. This isn’t vacation planning anymore, this has turned into a project with goals, and timelines and objective functions to be optimized!
  4. We typically value opinions of friends, relatives and acquaintances who we know resemble us in style or characteristics. We don’t care about what unknown people online think. While TripAdvisor lets people fill out their profiles, including “tags” to indicate their travel style, I have no way to filter reviews by styles similar to mine. Not unless I am happy spending more time to look up each traveller’s profile, and factor that into my decision making process as well.

Rethinking travel reviews

Consider a potentially different way for travel reviews to work:

1. Tagged/phrased reviews instead of paragraphs:

As a traveller when you submit reviews, aside from the simplistic 5 star rating, you’re asked a set of questions, with responses expected to be a bunch of adjectives or phrases, just like how one is asked to add tags to medium posts. Potential questions could be, “What were you looking for from this trip?”, “What were your 3 top priorities?”, “How would you characterize this property/activity?”, “What did you enjoy the most about this property/activity?”, “What could have made your experience even better?”, and more. While there could still be a place to add text about specific situations that you want to highlight, or something that went terribly wrong, that’s an optional part of the review. Wouldn’t it be way simpler and easier if i had to pick tags, rather than spew out words? Not every reviewer is a wordsworth, not everyone can craft a well written account of their experience. Even if someone writes well, it’s still a bit of a pain to write a minimum of 200 characters, instead of picking between a bunch of adjectives or features that conveys my feelings at least as well as, if not better than an essay about the experience.

2. Search and sort reviews by traveller styles:

When I look for hotel reviews, I see an assortment of the phrases used by travellers to review a certain property. I then pick the travel styles closest to mine (also a bunch of adjectives and phrases collectively describing all the travellers to have reviewed this property), and I now have a smaller set of adjectives and phrases describing this property, perhaps also more relevant to what I’m personally looking for. I now also see an aggregate score, and while I can still chose to click to see each of the reviews in detail, there’s now lesser need for me to read each individual review before making my choice.

3. Sentiment score over time:

For all the hype around sentiment analysis, we haven’t seen much sentiment analysis making it’s way to reviews and ratings. A simple chart over time, showing a bad to great (5 step scale) varying over the last 12 months can tell me whether the property has been consistently good, or bad, instead of me having to take up this manual effort.

While the underlying data being looked at may be very similar in this new version, the different perspective, I reckon would greatly simplify the decision making process, and reduce time spent on the website, which in this case would be actually be a measure of success.

Reinstating the intrigue of visiting a new place!

The significant amounts of time spent in travel and vacation planning, the familiarity developed with the various options, opinions developed based on reviews, and expectations built up, eventually lead to an anti-climactic culmination when one actually reaches the destination: nothing seems new, novel or exciting any more. We’re constantly trying to check off items on the mental check-list based on what we read, and whether our decision was right, or would another option have served me better: “Is the pool as big as in the pictures?”, “Do they have a bathtub?”, “People online said that the rooms on the lower floor are noisy, where’s our room?”, “Reviews said it’s very accessible, but I haven’t seen a single vehicle for the last half a km!”. Wouldn’t it be way better if we spent less time on travel planning, focus it only on the most important aspects that really matter to us, and just immerse in the experience once we get to our destinations, and be allowed to be swept up in whatever the place has to offer, instead of obsessing over our long drawn decision making process?

Look forward to hearing feedback!


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