Rating Steamboat: Local businesses adapt to world in which everyone is a reviewer | SteamboatToday.com

Rating Steamboat: Local businesses adapt to world in which everyone is a reviewer

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It used to be easier, Rex Brice said, thinking back to his early days in restaurants.

A reviewer — maybe from a nearby newspaper or maybe from a far-off magazine — would come in for dinner, and the staff would strive to be at its best, delivering no-holds-barred flawless service and the best versions of the menu options possible.

"When it was one person there writing a story about your restaurant, you paid attention to that person," Brice said.

Print reviews don't carry the same weight they once did. Instead, Brice and his six Steamboat Springs restaurants are now reviewed daily, their service constantly up for judgment and their food always being rated.

Those reviews pop up on Facebook and Google and, even more so on websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, and they can make or break a new business.

"Now, every customer is a food critic, someone who is potentially going to write something positive or negative about your operation." Brice said.

It's a far different world than Brice came up in, but it's one he and other restaurateurs and business people in Steamboat Springs don't ignore. How could they when a few words and a handful of low ratings from dissatisfied customers can mean big problems.

Every opinion matters

Reviewing reviews is a daily task for many, and Scott Marr, who owns and operates the Holiday Inn in Steamboat Springs, reads every review that comes in about his hotel. They come from TripAdvisor and, to a lesser extent in the hotel industry, Yelp, but also the many travel booking sites, such as hotels.com, Priceline and booking.com, which have become the way so many book hotel rooms.

"Every day," he said.

The reviews are a part of every managers meeting, too.

"Usually, they're good, but we don't really pay that much attention to the good ones," he said. "Maybe one out of 20 is something we pull out of the stack and really take a look at, and it could be a complaint about anything, from a bad experience at (the attached restaurant) Rex's to the toilet not flushing properly to someone at the front desk not treating them how they felt they should be treated."

An online complaint about a lumpy mattress can lead to a thorough testing of that mattress and, if need be, a replacement. Notes about checking in can lead to a review of procedure. Persistent comments about the lack of light in the hotel's kitchenette suites led to the installation of more lights in every room.

It's about customer service, Marr said. Happy guests, and unhappy guests who feel they've been listened to, are good for many reasons, and one reason is their online reviews.

Holiday Inn ranks on TripAdvisor as the No. 4 hotel in Steamboat Springs, with 405 reviews offering an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What would happen if the property suddenly lost a star, slipping to 3.5?

"It would be significant, for sure," Marr said.

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Those online ratings have changed how he does business. He spent about 10 percent of gross revenues on advertising a decade ago, reaching out to travel agents around the country and placing ads in national travel magazines.

Now, the only money he spends that way is the 2.5 percent that goes to the national Holiday Inn brand as a part of the franchise agreement.

"People don't look at national advertising any more and make a decision on where to go," he said. "They decide where they want to go, get online and do the research."

When they're looking for a hotel in Steamboat, it's imperative to his business that Holiday Inn is near the top.

"It's huge," he said.

Taking good with bad

Pleasing customers can be important, but some people are hard to please.

It only takes a quick look at reviews for some of Steamboat's well-known attractions to realize that much.

Fish Creek Falls is a reliable go-to for all kinds of tourists, and it ranks at the top of TripAdvisor's "Things to do in Steamboat" list.

Few would argue with that rank, but there certainly are a few who do.

"Those fish don't have to fall very far," one reviewer wrote in 2016, offering three stars. "The view, while pretty, is not very special."

Others agreed.

"Do not expect a splendid waterfall. As the name indicates, this fall is part of a 'creek,' warned a Paris-based reviewer with a healthy 121 reviews submitted. "There are two overlook areas but, truthfully, there is not much to look at."

Just a grump? Not necessarily.

The Cottonwood Grill restaurant and Emerald Moon Massage, both now closed, earned five-star reviews from the same writer. Strawberry Park Hot Springs earned four.

Don't worry. The hot springs had plenty of dissatisfied visitors, as well.

"The only thing more slimy than the rocks are the people there," one Texan wrote last summer. "Imagine a bath with 50 toothless strangers …"

The Yampa River Core Trail, featured on TripAdvisor with a beautiful fall photo, absorbs similar abuse.

"If you were drawn to this by the photo someone added of the trees hanging over and shading the trail, then enjoy the photo," a Front Range reviewer wrote.

All three attractions rank highly on the "things to do list." The core trail draws 4.5 stars and is No. 6 on the list of 63 activity suggestions. The hot springs weighs in at No. 4, also with 4.5 stars and 853 five-star reviews.

Dealing with a few angry reviews is part of the game. It's easy to laugh at Fish Creek Falls hate. It's more difficult for local business owners to laugh when they find a review ridiculous or false.

"We had a comment at Rex's from a guest who gave us a very poor review, 1 star," Brice said. "All their comments were very negative, about us gouging customers and raising prices on the hamburger. None of it was true. This was coming out of the recession, and I made a very purposeful choice to not raise the price on the hamburger. But, there’s nothing you can do about that review, even though it’s pure fantasy."

Judged from the start

Online reviews, of course, aren't the only thing that matters to restaurants.

Word of mouth is a factor, too, and both can be huge for a new establishment.

That hung on the mind of Brice when he opened his newest restaurant, Salt & Lime.

"People judge you more in your first month of being open than they will for years to come," he said. "It's more important that you nail it then than ever."

The only problem is that it's the most difficult time to "nail it."

"It's really tough, because you're new, and when you're new, you aren't perfect at anything," Brice said. "The service isn't perfect. The food isn't perfect. Nothing is what it will be a year into it."

Early issues don't have to ruin a restaurant, however.

Kerry Shea owns and manages McKnight's Irish Pub & Loft in Steamboat Springs. He took the management role over about a year after the restaurant and bar opened, and Shea said there was plenty of room for improvement, both in the restaurant and in its online reviews.

"Our first couple of reviews weren't great," he said.

Tweaks to the food, the venue and the business structure helped change that.

Now, McKnight's has 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor, though it's ranked 24th out of Steamboat's 118 restaurants reviewed on the site.

"It's the ultimate system of checks and balances," Shea said. "It's a very important business tool, and if you can take even the negative reviews to heart, they could assist you in a very positive way."

Sarah Piano, who runs Snow Buddy Dog Sled Tours in south Routt County with her husband, Dan Piano, didn't realize how important TripAdvisor reviews would be when they started their operation in 2012.

"Now, we get at least 80 percent of our business from it," she said.

The business rises and falls in TripAdvisor's rankings based on the season. Now, fully in winter, it's the No. 3-ranked "outdoor activity" on the site in Steamboat.

The Pianos don't ask people to fill out reviews, though if anyone asks what can be done to help their small business, it's the top suggestion.

Sarah Piano takes her dogs to Alaska to guide dog sled trips in the summer as a part of a much larger operation, often catering to tourists coming off cruise ships. That, she said, doesn't always do so well in reviews, because there are so many different people involved and so many chances for a bad interaction.

Back in Routt County in the winters it's a drastically smaller operation — a passion project with few employees. That's come across in reviews.

"The right people are finding us," she said. "We are getting the calls we need to get."

For local business owners, it all amounts to a far cry from life 20 years ago, when word of mouth still mattered, but when someone with a particularly good or bad experience didn't have a megaphone.

Now, they do, and that can cause some stress, worrying about rankings and reviews.

It can also offer previously unheard of insight into an operation.

Brice said he used to employ secret shoppers to get insight into how employees performed when the boss wasn't looking over their shoulders — to get fresh opinions on the food and some thoughts on the drink menu.

Those days are gone.

Now, every person who walks in the door can offer that same advice if they so choose, and they can tell the world, even before they leave the building.

The key, he said, is absorbing it.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time you can take something productive out of it," he said.

Behind a review

Online reviews are a big deal for those being reviewed. They’re often a big deal for those doing the reviewing, as well.

Some reviewers around the world have racked up more than 1,000 reviews on different sites — a major time commitment.

What drives such a passion to spread the word?

It’s a desire to give back, said one Routt County man, who’s filed nearly 100 reviews on Yelp and many more on other sites.

“A lot of the time, restaurant reviews are colored by who’s paying the bill,” said the man who, on Yelp, goes by the handle ‘Joe.b’. “I’m not going to five-star everything. Unless there are honest voices out there, it’s not a very useful tool.”

Joe said he’s been in Routt County for two decades and that he rarely eats out. When he does, his desire to review comes and goes. He does like to be the first to weigh in online about a new restaurant, however, and he loves to update his reviews, or offer new ones, as a restaurant grows and changes through the years.

He uses services such as Yelp and TripAdvisor regularly, himself. Learning how to read reviews takes time, he said.

Many only review their best

experiences and their worst, and even those reviews might only mean so much. Joe suggests not only focusing on a restaurant’s star rating, but also giving a quick look at why a place may have gotten bad ratings.

A one-star complaint about the lack of gluten-free options isn’t going to dissuade Joe from eating at a place. He’s just as likely to dismiss a five-star rave review filled with just-too-perfect praise from a rarely used account potentially bought and paid for or belonging to an employee.

“Reviews are only as good as the reviewers,” he said, relating a quote from a friend.

It’s the reviews that fall in the middle that he is more likely to trust, and those are the ones that encourage him to offer his own opinions.

“I want to support the people in places I’ve gone to who have written good reviews for me to read,” he said. “It’s very much a karmic thing for me. I really do like good food and like to spread the word about good places.”

He initially started by writing long, detailed reviews of restaurants but has since learned to tighten his copy and focus solely on his own experience.

“I want it to be reflective,” he said. “I’m just going to say what experience I had and not blow it out.”