September 3, 2015

Are Things Getting Ugly? Dissecting the Dialogue Between Managers & TripAdvisor

You have seen the LinkedIn chatter for over a year now about “gaining control of your own business.” While booking sites like Homeaway and FlipKey provide ease and extra revenue, homeowners and managers alike resent their dependence on them. With recent discontent and TripAdvisor’s public problems with its product launch, conditions are ripe for a vocal response. Combine that with a lack of acknowledgement from TripAdvisor, and things start to get ugly.

TripAdvisor and FlipKey have always been trusted and valued names in the vacation rental industry. FlipKey’s system for independent third party reviews is recognized as one of the best in the industry, and quality, repeat guests frequent the booking platform. At industry forums (e.g., VRMA), experts from FlipKey are respected as primary authorities regarding independent reviews, and while guests using Google typically find and access homes through HomeAway, those using TripAdvisor generate bookings, revenue, and loyalty through FlipKey. The additive nature of TripAdvisor’s FlipKey renders it one of the world’s leading travel websites, and the site has always been valued by both homeowners and property managers as a business-generating and trusted partner.

Recent changes to TripAdvisor/FlipKey’s vacation rental technology platform, however, have left hundreds of professional managers representing more than 15,000 properties frustrated, fed-up, and in search for alternatives, and these complaints are very much real.

With the API feeds failing to function, expired and deactivated listings showing up, and guest reviews failing to appear, FlipKey’s new platform has been severely underperforming and slowing business for management companies of all sizes. For example, one property management company, despite being one of the largest in the industry, reported that its listings were inaccurately located in Afghanistan—making it difficult, as you can imagine, to get bookings.

Despite the technical issues, however, growing distrust for the company and its policies has even further tainted TripAdvisor’s once revered brand. Significant staff turnover has created communication issues and heavy delays, and TripAdvisor’s philosophy has been inconsistent with its policies for vacation rental listings.

While the complaints may have started with technical issues, what really ignited the current protest is that the complaints—that the property managers’ voices—are not being heard. Managers cite a prevalent “culture of denial and ‘take it or leave it’” at TripAdvisor, and despite TripAdvisor’s lack of sincere acknowledgement and ownership for these issues, perhaps the company’s best bet is to simply say, “I’m sorry.”

FlipKey’s general manager, Tracey Zhen, recently published a response to the managers’ complaints; however, the general consensus is that the letter is too little and too late. Zhen briefly acknowledges that the migration to FlipKey’s new platform has been “rocky;” however, the majority of the letter defends the company’s actions, citing its prioritization of independent homeowners and disregarding the needs of its other customers. To conclude the letter, Zhen cites FlipKey’s “positive and fruitful relationships” with the industry and again dismisses the complaints as “isolated incidents” from “a small proportion of our client base.”

FlipKey’s response not only indicates a lack of ownership and humility; it fails to acknowledge the voice of its clientele. Mike Harrington, a member of the VRMA Board of Directors, responded to the dismissive tone of the letter, stating, “Not sure this was much of a ‘response,’” further indicating that the issue is as much about ignored feedback as it is about the problems themselves.

FlipKey’s migration may really be an honest attempt to deliver a better and more integrated product; however, this is still a path fraught with danger and without any promise of success—especially with the company’s current alienating response and the perceived “culture of denial.” Whether FlipKey should follow in the path of Coca Cola and these companies after the biggest “product flops” of all time, it is still too early to tell.

Although FlipKey has already issued a statement in response to managers’ grievances, it is clear that tensions still run high. The managers’ request for open dialogue and further feedback remains largely ignored, and many still await a response.

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