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Chris Jones

World Wide Web: Survey Finds Hotel Sites Lag

3 May 2004

Set your own online house in order.

That's the short-but-sweet advice one Seattle-area technology watchdog has for some of the nation's largest lodging providers, including several Las Vegas hotel-casino operators, that have recently expressed concerns over consumers' increased use of third-party Internet travel reservation firms such as Orbitz, Hotwire or Expedia.

The Customer Respect Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based company, routinely studies how many of the world's largest businesses treat their consumers online. On April 26, the group released its spring 2004 Online Consumer Respect Study focusing on tourism-related companies and their Web sites.

Its findings showed that most hotel company-operated Web sites still have room to improve before consumers consider them equal to their third-party competitors.

Customer Respect Group's semiannual report on the tourism sector profiled and graded the online presence of 36 large airline, travel and leisure companies from around the globe, including several Las Vegas-based hotel-casino operators and other companies with strong local connections, such as Southwest Airlines, the busiest carrier at McCarran International Airport, and Orbitz, which features Las Vegas extensively in its current marketing campaign.

Businesses' Web sites were ranked on a zero to 10 scale, with 10 being the best possible score. Scores were determined by Customer Respect Group analysts, who compared each site using a grading system developed after a sampling of frequent Internet users cited the approximately 90 factors they believe are key to a consumer-friendly Web site.

Common criteria included a site's ease of navigation, responsiveness to inquiries and customer privacy.

The survey did not factor which sites offered the best deals or cheapest prices.

Representatives of several Las Vegas-area hotel companies have recently said third-party reservation sites have hurt hotel operators' profits by selling rooms at hyperdiscounted rates. To combat that trend, many hotel companies have recently intensified their online sales efforts.

Among the dozen hotel Web sites profiled, Caesars Entertainment led the local pack with a 6 score -- better than its category's 5.3 average but still below the scores of four other major hotel companies, including top-ranked Marriott International's 7.8.

Spokesman Robert Stewart said Caesars' best score among gaming-linked hotel companies reflects its aggressive push to attract more online sales.

"We've redesigned and redeveloped our sites in the past year to hopefully deliver a high level of personal service when someone goes to make a reservation online," Stewart said. "We think this (score) reflects the progress we've made so far."

Caesars was graded for its company-operated Web sites, not the site it jointly operates with Mandalay Resort Group and Stephens Media Group, the Review-Journal's parent company, Stewart said.

Harrah's Entertainment ranked sixth overall among hotels with a 5.6 score, followed by local rivals Hilton Hotels (seventh place overall with a 5 score); MGM Mirage (ninth place, 4.2 score); Mandalay Resort Group (10th place, 4.1) and Boyd Gaming Corp. (11th place, 3.9).

By contrast, the nine online travel firms surveyed combined to average a 6.8 score -- better than all but two of the individual hotel companies' scores. And Orbitz and Hotwire (both 8.3), Expedia (8.2) and Priceline (8.1) each scored better than any hotel company, according to the group's research.

A spokeswoman from MGM Mirage declined comment on the survey's findings because her company was unfamiliar with CRG's research methods. Still, she added use of MGM Mirage's company Web sites has improved by an unspecified amount over the past few years. Roger Fairchild, president of the 3-year-old Customer Respect Group, said companies that don't appeal to online users are leaving millions of potential sales dollars on the table.

"Last year, 10.6 percent of all transactions in the United States were initiated with a Web site visit," Fairchild said, factoring everything from a consumer's initial research of a product to orders actually placed online.

He added that the group's research shows as much as 20 percent of Web site visitors will quickly abandon sites that they don't consider user-friendly. That means, for example, a company that averages $1 billion in annual sales could add more than $20 million per year to its bottom line simply by improving its Web site, Customer Respect Group research shows.