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Placing Faith in Virtual Strangers

Sarah Tanford’s research through simulated online review sites demonstrates the impact consumer opinion can have on the service industry.

Research  |  Sep 27, 2017  |  By Angela Ramsey
travel review website
Editor's Note: 

This piece is a sneak preview of the 2017 issue of Innovation, UNLV's research magazine. To get your copy and celebrate the many research, scholarly, and creative activities taking place on our campus, join us for UNLV's third annual Research Week Oct. 9-13.


“I’ve heard good things,” a friend says after learning of your tentative vacation plans at a certain beachside resort. You smile, but you’re still gripped with doubt. After all, this is your one big trip this year, and it needs to be postcard-perfect.

Refusing to leave your booking decision to chance, you take to your laptop to consult a more reliable friend: your favorite travel review site. Here, you scrutinize amenities and weigh the opinions of a mostly anonymous lot whose experiences may very well become the blueprint for your vacation.

But while we consumers are empowered by online travel reviews, the service industry continues to struggle with trying to figure out just what, exactly, we want.

That’s where UNLV Harrah Hospitality College professor Sarah Tanford comes in. A well-known expert in the area of hospitality consumer behavior, Tanford’s research has been featured in several journals, at conferences, and in news outlets such as the New York Times. Over the past five years, she’s been plumbing the depths of online travel review sites, examining a number of elements to evaluate how various options might influence customer decisions. By constructing mock review sites that allow customers to provide feedback on fictional hotels and restaurants, Tanford is able to test how prospective travelers react when choosing where to stay and what to eat.

“Simulating the online travel review space means that I can control the variables, which cannot be done using real sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp,” Tanford said. In the virtual world she’s created, Tanford can control the way photos appear; test the effectiveness of different styles of rating systems; and experiment with the way sustainability, reputation, location, price, and more are communicated and promoted.

Having previously worked as a manager in the casino industry and a senior analyst in travel distribution marketing, Tanford knows the stakes are particularly high in the self-conscious world of hospitality.

“There’s a thing called the negativity bias,” said Tanford, whose work is heavily rooted in social psychology theory. “Even a single negative review in a series of positive reviews can cause someone to choose a different hotel or restaurant.”

Positive reviews, on the other hand, have a measurable effect when it comes to price: “People are actually willing pay more for a resort with positive reviews while remaining hesitant to book a negatively reviewed resort, even at a steep discount,” she said.

But why, in light of your friend’s glowing endorsement of the beachside resort, would you feel the need to seek the opinions of strangers in the first place?

It’s our affinity for word-of-mouth interaction, one of the most persuasive forms of communication, according to research she and others have conducted. “Even though these reviewers are strangers, we think of them as just regular people like you and me. Their word-of-mouth advice is viewed as more objective than advertisers or professional travel experts. Like you, these travelers have invested time and money selecting an experience that matches their expectations. Their perspectives feel like free advice, a glimpse behind the curtain.”

That being said, Tanford’s research shows that the online review is just one of many tools in a consumer’s decision-making arsenal — though she does admit that sometimes customers fall into the trap of blindly following the pack.

“The bottom line is, consumers should consider their specific needs when making travel choices,” Tanford said. “Online reviews are just one piece of the puzzle.” After all, that trip — however terrific or terrible — will be yours, not theirs.