Is TripAdvisor Selling Out With Their Marriott Deal?

Depending on how you look at it, the news today that TripAdvisor would now be offering direct bookings to Marriott properties is big news or no news at all.

But, I have to wonder if this is TripAdvisor selling out.  Given, I’m not a huge user of TripAdvisor, mostly because it’s hard to authenticate their reviews.  I use them on a general basis a handful of times a year, mostly when I’m going somewhere very far off the beaten path.

TripAdvisor started as a website that was meant to provide expert and casual reviews of all things travel.  Hotels, restaurants, B&Bs, tourist attractions, you name it.  The content was crowd-sourced, so the theory was the masses would tell you if it was a good experience or not.

The business has morphed a bit over the years, and the insertion of Marriott into the “Instant Booking” channel is an interesting one.  You can see the current list of Instant Booking partners here.  If you’re a normal traveler, you’ll notice the list is a who’s who of…..well, almost nobody you’ve ever heard of.  Marriott is by far the biggest name on that page.

If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find the obvious.  Here’s a description of the Instant Booking product, as well as a snapshot of “how it works”:

TripAdvisor

Nothing nefarious here.  They make money when you book a room through TripAdvisor’s relationship with these partners.  Expedia, Orbitz and all the other OTAs get a commission as well.  It’s all in the name of making it easier for the customer, right?  They want to book where they look, not navigate somewhere else after they’ve done their research.

Except, TripAdvisor has held itself out as an objective, 3rd party who just provides the reviews, not rank the properties.  Does having a direct connection to a chain like Marriott make it more likely they’ll send bookings that way?

Here’s a screenshot when I did a random search for Chicago hotels:

TripAdvisor

Plenty of marketing going on before I even start searching for hotels.  The map is sponsored by Comfort hotels, and there’s special offers from 3 different hotels.  And, I’m sure all of them are paying TripAdvisor for that privilege.

Again, I don’t have any problem with companies making money.  But, I do like to know where companies make their money.  I don’t think TripAdvisor sold out with this Marriott relationship, I think they broke that barrier some time ago.  Maybe it’s just me, but seeing this much overt branding on the hotel page of TripAdvisor is unappealing to me.  I don’t specifically think this means they’re tweaking the ratings in favor of sponsors, but it really does seem a bit too much over the top for my taste.

What does Marriott get out of this relationship?  They get another booking channel, though it’s not clear how much commission they’ll be paying on these bookings.  But, in theory, these are “native” bookings, where Marriott gets control of the booking in their own system as opposed to OTA bookings.  The benefit for customers may be that if they are native bookings, customers would receive elite benefits and other perks.

The thing that I’m really curious about (that will be hard to confirm) is what the commission structure of this deal looks like.  The big hotel chains desperately hate paying commissions to the OTAs and almost equally dislike the lack of control over those bookings.  They want to own their customers and reward them with loyalty.  While the OTAs have, at times, been necessary evils, they’re not for the big boys right now.  Occupancy levels are the highest we’ve seen in quite some time, and rates are up as well.  So, why discount your inventory and give up control of your customer.

If Marriott did strike a better deal with TripAdvisor, you can be sure they’ll be using those numbers to pressure the OTAs into lower commissions in the future.  The hotel chains have firewalled the OTAs away from the elite benefits of their loyalty programs as the last line of defense to keep business travelers from booking through those channels and costing them money on stays they already expected to get.  The lower the commissions go, the more agnostic a chain like Marriott is about where the booking comes from.

Is Marriott the only one heading down this rabbit hole, or will Hilton, Hyatt, IHG and Starwood strike similar deals with TripAdvisor in the near future?


The post Is TripAdvisor Selling Out With Their Marriott Deal? was published first on Pizza In Motion.

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11 Comments

  1. TripAdvisor is a commercial enterprise that is making money, so hardly think offering direct links is selling out to Marriott, or any other chain. TA is already in the Expedia family, even ‘tho it operates independently, and both sites have popup links & ads. Honestly, a “direct” link isn’t much concern to me as rarely book off TA anyway. I use TA reviews & post my own because it is a good source of information on various hotels & destination sights. That said, one ought to take all reviews with less than 3 posts with a “maybe not real” attitude, & hopefully base final choices on more than just TA reviews, pro or con. It’s no different than bloggers who have credit card, airline or hotel sponsors or links to travel products. After all, most things have a price & I put these in the small-change-price bracket that I willingly pay for insightful travel info. Now if TA starts offering preferred ratings for these direct-link sponsors, or always listing their properties first-up in searches, minus the “AD” marker, then that would be a game-changer!

    1. Maureen, I agree that the simple act of direct bookings to Marriott isn’t them selling out. However, I do think the amount of branding/advertising in the hotel section is over the top. I, like you, choose to use my own methods to book a hotel room even if I might use TripAdvisor for research. But, a normal customer searching for info on hotels should, in my opinion, see the reviews of the hotels before they see advertisements, sponsors and “special deals”. If a link to book is placed in the listing where I can find reviews, I can live with it. But, the experience right now doesn’t strike me as one that’s focused on showing the review.
      To some degree, I think the relationships bloggers have with products is different here, in that most (not all) disclose the affiliation and most (not all) don’t have a big advertisement for their sponsor before the content/advice I want to consume. There’s generally a referral link in the content which I can choose to click on to support the blogger if I found the information accurate and valuable.
      I don’t see a black and white issue here, plenty of gray. But, TA is just a wee too bit commercialized for my tastes.

      1. The other question is whether or not Marriott will have more “sway” in objecting to reviews. How does this impact (for better or worse) the reviewing verification and complaint procedure. Does this change in general because of this deal, or does Marriott have some alternate or accelerated process? That would be good to know. I suspect that would happen since there are quite a few issues (from hotelier perspective, and owner perspective) regarding TripAdvisor reviews.

        1. John, good question on the appeal process for reviews. I’m sure we won’t get a concrete answer, but I would suspect Marriott is pushing to have preferential treatment.

  2. “You can see the current list of Instant Booking partners here. If you’re a normal traveler, you’ll notice the list is a who’s who of…..well, almost nobody you’ve ever heard of…” That’s because these partners are the booking engines- connectivity partners that many, many hotels use. In fact, if you look, “Marriott is by far the biggest name on that page” doesn’t make much sense, because it isn’t anywhere on that page.

    1. Jason, the Marriott on that page comment was a figurative comment, considering I would expect TripAdvisor to add the Marriott logo as an Instant Booking partner (per the announcement). Having a relationship with Marriott to book directly instead of splitting a commission with a booking engine is pretty darn significant, and much more beneficial for TripAdvisor than I would suspect many of these relationships are.

  3. After talking with a number of hoteliers, I can confirm that a general belief, which is logical, and has historical precedent, is that Marriott is using this as a stalking horse for its upcoming negotiations with Expedia. This will put significant downward pressure on Expedia. And contrast this to the fact that Expedia’s CEO has been asking the hotel chains when they will start giving Expedia better deals than everyone else (e.g. Priceline/Booking or TripAdvisor). So Expedia’s CEO wanted even more, and now Marriott will be pushing back to give them even less. This will be a bloody negotiation.

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