The numbers surrounding TripAdvisor are mind-boggling: the world’s largest travel website is visited by 350 million unique users every month, with travellers having contributed more than 290 million reviews and opinions in total, covering 5.3 million hotels, restaurants and attractions. It’s little wonder that guest houses, bed and breakfasts and cafes proudly boast of their TripAdvisor ratings and display the ‘certificates of excellence’ issued by the website in their windows for passers-by to see.
Soon after it was founded in 2000 in a small office above a pizza shop in Needham, Massachusetts, the site began giving holidaymakers a voice. Instead of employing legions of inspectors to tour round the globe trying out hotels and testing tourist attractions, the website – which now operates in 47 countries – gives tourists the chance to post their own reviews of the places where they’ve stayed or visited during their trips.
For Justin Reid, head of destination management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at TripAdvisor, a natural extension of those user-generated reviews was to start providing visitors with more in-depth information about their prospective holiday destinations. Having previously served as head of digital and social media at tourism agency VisitBritain for 13 years, inspiring online readers to book a trip is a topic that’s very close to his heart.
“We get about 69 million unique users each year looking at Scottish content on TripAdvisor,” explains Reid. “That’s a huge number of people. The most popular destinations won’t come as a surprise – they’re Edinburgh, followed by Glasgow and then the Highlands and islands.”
During his time with VisitBritain and now at TripAdvisor, Reid has watched where users have been going to look for their content. Over the past five or six years, he’s seen a trend develop, with users moving away from national tourism board websites towards places where they can find independent opinions about places to travel. “They want a bit more in-depth content – something that you wouldn’t get from a travel agent,” Reid explains.
About a year ago, Reid and his colleagues began developing new features for their website that would give tourism agencies and other destination management organisations (DMOs) the opportunity to put their content in front of visitors to TripAdvisor. “It’s a cliché, but we’re letting tourist boards fish where the fish are,” smiles Reid. “They can take their best content and put it in front of people who are actively looking to book their next trip.”
Last summer, the website ran a global conference for a hand-picked group of DMOs to tell them more about the project. “Since joining TripAdvisor, and also while I was at VisitBritain, I’ve always been very impressed with the content produced by VisitScotland,” Reid says. “Tourism is very important to Scotland, so VisitScotland was one of the DMOs that we invited to the summit. We were very impressed by how Charlie Smith, its marketing director, was looking at what people are doing now rather than what people were doing ten years ago. VisitScotland isn’t just willing but it’s also keen to do digital in a different way.
“VisitScotland was the first European partner for our global launch. We launched the activity back in October as part of our beta testing. It’s all about letting TripAdvisor users know what the best-of-the-best is about Scotland. If you go onto our website then it’s easy to see what the best hotels are or what the best restaurants are, both in Scotland and in specific areas within Scotland.
“But there’s not a natural filter for ‘the ten best whisky trails’ or the ‘ten best walks in the Highlands’, for example. We’d have those reviews on the website, but what VisitScotland now has is the opportunity to put together collections based on its marketing themes and then combine them with the user-generated content – the actual reviews by actual people who have visited these places. Together, they create an overall message that says ‘These are what VisitScotland thinks are the best things about Scotland and then these are the reviews of those things by travellers like you’.”
The content that VisitScotland posts on the website comes under three headings: events, allowing it to promote activities such as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and link through to operators’ booking sites; collections, which feature lists of places to visit; and articles, which offer in-depth looks at specific topics.
Collections already posted on the website include ‘Literary Scotland’, a selection of ten writing-related sites to visit, such as Abbotsford House near Melrose, JM Barrie’s birthplace in Kirriemuir, and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. The ‘Unesco World Heritage Site’ collection profiles all six locations in Scotland, including the Forth Bridge, New Lanark and St Kilda, while the ‘Castles’ collection goes beyond the obvious suggestions of Edinburgh and Stirling to feature ten lesser-known sites, such as Cawdor Castle near Nairn, Drumlanrig Castle near Thornhill, and Floors Castle near Kelso, Scotland’s largest inhabited mansion.
Articles written by VisitScotland include: a profile of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard; a travelogue featuring the newly-reopened Borders railway; and a look at film and television locations north of the Border, ranging from Harry Potter and Skyfall through to Katie Morag and Outlander. New behind-the-scenes features added to the website in February mean that VisitScotland can now take control of updating its content, so that last-minute events like an unexpected comet or good visibility of the Aurora Borealis or northern lights can be flagged up to potential visitors. The agency can also see live data on which articles, collections and events are proving most popular with which audiences, including which content is appealing to potential visitors from which countries.
“For example, it could be that the whisky trails are proving the most popular content with users from other parts of the UK, while the German users are more interested in the wider food and drink offering or the Unesco sites are going down well with the French,” explains Reid. “VisitScotland is then able to tailor content for those specific audiences or produce more content for themes that are proving to be really popular.
“We know that if we can get those 69 million users to this content hub then we can turn their interest into inspiration through this in-depth content without driving them off the website. We want to take that initial interest that someone might have in Scotland and turn it into inspiration when they see all the things that they can see and do in Scotland. We can then take them further so that they will hopefully book.
“It’s early days yet, but already we’ve seen that users are consuming more Scottish content from these pages than ever before,” adds Reid. “Collections seem to be the items that are of most interest to people so far.”
Reid is a familiar face north of the Border, having spoken at several Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) events about Scotland’s place within the global tourism industry and what interest there is in Scotland from TripAdvisor users. “While Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands and islands are the most popular areas within Scotland for our users, what this new content will do is allow that interest to be dispersed more widely,” Reid explains.
“A visitor might be planning to go to Edinburgh for the weekend, but hopefully they’ll be inspired to book a longer stay and look at what they could do if they went on a tour of the areas surrounding Edinburgh, like out into East Lothian, down into the Borders or across the firth into Fife. That won’t detract from Edinburgh, but it will give visitors more options.”
During his time at VisitBritain, Reid was responsible for the development of the tourism agency’s website – increasing commercial click-through referrals by more than 150% – and the deployment of its social media strategy, which led to plaudits for the tourist board’s interactions with Facebook and Twitter. He also introduced the agency’s online shop and oversaw its North American customer service department while based in New York.
While ‘digital’ is very clearly in his blood, Reid is adamant that tourism businesses in Scotland need to take full advantage of all of the opportunities that the internet presents to them. “It’s not enough just to have a website anymore – customers need to be able to book through your website and they need to be able to interact with you,” he explains. “I’m biased because I’m a digital guy, but it’s absolutely crucial. People are researching online, but they’re looking to book online as well and do their price comparison there-and-then.
“It’s fundamentally important that you’re not just online, but you’re bookable online and you’re responsive to reviews online. A bad review – and I don’t mean an inaccurate review – isn’t wrong, it’s free customer research. So if you’re a hotel on TripAdvisor and you’ve got great reviews all the way down, but there’s a consistent complaint that you’ve got poor wifi, then that’s customer research telling you that perhaps you need to look at upgrading your internet connection.”