Hotel Reviews: Who Do You Trust?

By Robert McGarvey

New research via hotel CRM company Revinate makes multiple points about us and hotel reviews and the big takeaway is that there’s a new sheriff in town and you probably can guess who.

First, however, know that Revinate says there’s evidence our mania for filing reviews is diminishing. Noted Revinate: “The number of reviews published on review sites and OTAs continues to grow year-over-year, but there is some indication that the popularity of writing reviews may be waning. In 2018, travelers wrote nearly 95 million hotel reviews. While this number is staggering, the number of new reviews only grew by 8% in 2018, compared to 27% in 2017.”

The growth in the numbers of reviews may be slowing but the numbers remain staggering.

Revinate continued: “While the average number of reviews per month per hotel increased 6% in 2018, from 53 to 56, growth has slowed significantly. In 2017, we noted a 34% increase in reviews per month per hotel. This suggests that review growth is slowing across the industry.”

I choked on that. The average number of reviews per hotel per month now is 56!

Where the data get really interesting is in the counting up of where reviews appear. Big changes are afoot.

Regular readers will recall that I long was a fan of Tripadvisor – until I stopped in 2017 amid a flurry of accusations that Tripadvisor had deleted reviews claiming rapes and other major crimes and problems at hotels.  

Tripadvisor also has had issues with fake reviews.

And the service still has problems with reviews claiming rapes.

Frankly I did not have a suitable replacement for Tripadvisor. But now there is one: Google.

Google, by Revinate’s accounting, is now the 900 pound gorilla, garnering an industry leading 30.1 million reviews in 2018.

In second place is Booking.com with 28.3 million.

Tripadvisor is in third with 11.3 million.

Noted Revinate: “In 2017, the top 4 sites contributed 74% of the review volume Revinate analyzed. This year, a greater percentage came from just the top 3 sites. In other words, a few aggregators at the top are contributing the lion’s share of reviews—and those reviews are continuing to concentrate in fewer places.”

With review sites there’s an inevitability about the big getting bigger because the volume of reviews increases utility and validity.

But the story is Google which, out of nowhere, has vaulted into a leadership position. It makes sense. Many of us use Google multiple times every day. The last time I looked at Booking.com is, well, I don’t remember because I rarely use it.

Ditto Tripadvisor nowadays.

To get to either service I have to make a special trip.

Whereas Google is in the fabric of my every day.

I’m looking up San Francisco hotels where do I start the search anyway? Google of course. Up pops the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin, a personal favorite neighborhood and an appealing price ($209).

Then there are the reviews which Google gathers up from multiple services and calculates an average score. The Phoenix is 4.3 out of a possible five.

Even better I don’t actually have to read any reviews because Google has read them for me.

If I want to read them, however, they are a click away on Google.

Meantime, Google also is winning over more of us who want to book rooms on Google – and why not? We’re on the site researching the hotels so why not make it one stop shopping and book there too?

As for Google and reviews, Revinate numbers show it is on a tear. In 2017 its reviews increased by 207%. In 2018 that dropped to 75%. Booking.com saw just a 10% bump up in 2018.

The bottom fell out at Facebook, incidentally. Per Revinate, “Facebook, which was #4 in 2017 and contributed 8.3% of reviews, dropped to the 6th spot and saw a 51% decrease in reviews.”

My bet: Google will solidify its lead in reviews in 2019. And it just may become our go to place for booking rooms too.

Is that good? Bad? What I can say is that it definitely is convenient and that is why Google is winning. It’s hard to see who can come along and offer more convenience. That’s why I say Google is undisputed champ. With no contenders in view.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 11 Mike Reuter on Credit Unions

From the Ukraine to Ireland and Dominica, this podcast travels the globe with Mike Reuter, executive director of the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, as he shares stories of the challenges faced by credit unions and also the generous willingness of other credit unions executives to help. Exhibit one may be the rebuilding of the Dominica credit union sector after that island’s economy was flattened in a 2017 hurricane.  Credit union execs want to help and they do.

You may think credit unions don’t know that they are in fact cooperatives. I know I think exactly that often and it is frustrating because the nation’s 5000 credit unions could do a lot to advance the whole cooperative movement.

It turns out however that, per Reuter, credit unions in fact do a lot of cooperating. He tells that story in this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 10 Chuck Conner NCFC on Farmers and Cooperatives

No country produces the agricultural bounty that the US does. We eat better, at lower costs, than anywhere else – and most of that food is produced through farmer owned cooperatives. That’s why you want to meet Chuck Conner, CEO of NCFC, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Ask Conner what the number one issue facing his members is and the answer is blunt: immigration. The estimate is that the nation’s farms are worked on by over one million workers lacking proper documentation to work legally in the United States. Take them away and, poof, there goes the agricultural bounty because those workers comprise over half of the workforce on farms.

“Congress can’t seem to grapple with this,” said Conner and he chose his words carefully. But also honestly.

Conner also tells in this podcast why a generation ago it was not common to proudly wave the flag of a farmers cooperative – and today that fact is proudly pronounced as more consumers want to know what where their food comes from.

Want to know how to keep eating right? Listen to this podcast as Conner takes us on a tour of agri-business for the past century.

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 31 Mike Reuter Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions

From the Ukraine to Ireland and Dominica, this podcast travels the globe with Mike Reuter, executive director of the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, as he shares stories of the challenges faced by credit unions and also the generous willingness of other credit unions executives to help. Exhibit one may be the rebuilding of the Dominica credit union sector after that island’s economy was flattened in a 2017 hurricane.  Credit union execs want to help and they do. It’s an inspiring podcast that shines a light on what’s special about credit unions. 

Stay tuned. In a week or two a second podcast will post with another WOCCU executive as we travel around the world to see the challenges internationally and how the US fits in.


Listening to “CU2.0 Podcast Episode 31 Mike Reuter Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions” at https://www.buzzsprout.com/268738/1032952-cu2-0-podcast-episode-31-mike-reuter-worldwide-foundation-for-credit-unions

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Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto

How to Cross Borders with Cannabis, Maybe


By Robert McGarvey

The sign smacked me in the face in Montreal’s airport: Crossing international borders with cannabis is illegal.

You won’t miss that sign. It’s big and there are many for instances.  I also saw similar in the Halifax cruise port.

Pot is legal in Canada but what you buy there you smoke there.

And as for cruising and pot, it’s a line by line thing but the country’s biggest, Carnival, has issued a definitive ban:

What happens if a guest gets caught smoking marijuana?

Any illegal substances will be confiscated and the guest will be reported to the appropriate authorities.  Additionally, the guest may be subject to a $500 charge, risks being disembarked from the ship and may not be allowed to sail with Carnival in the future.”

Welcome to the smoke gets in your eyes weirdness of today’s laws and rules where it may seem this all has become a Cheech and Chong movie.  In my other role as a credit union commentator I have created a two part podcast on Cannabis Banking where the problem is that in some states – California, Vermont, Maine and a number of others – marijuana is legal for adult use, no questions asked.  In most other states it is legal for medical uses and generally that requires a prescription from a physician. A state by state map is here.  

But and it’s a huge but cannabis is illegal under federal law and assets can be seized from those engaged in cannabis businesses.  Ouch. Yes, there are indications that the law won’t be enforced but this is a fickle Washington DC where things can and do change.  So the biggest financial services players are holding back from pot accounts.

Those uncertainties don’t directly apply to consumers – you and me – but they highlight exactly how confusing the legal realities around cannabis are.

For instance: question – is it legal to transport marijuana across state lines?  Say you legally score in Blythe CA  and you drive onto I-10 and head into Arizona.  The purchase was legal but Arizona allows only medical marijuana, so are you ok? In a word, no.  Here’s the legal reasoning.

Cautious experts even advise against crossing from one all legal state – California, say – into another – Nevada, say.

It’s not just leaf that’s involved. The Canadian government for instance warns against transporting cannabis oil cross border.  

At least some experts insist it is legal to fly in the US with cannabis oil however.

But the TSA says nope, don’t fly with pot or with CBD oil.  

Matters get murkier when international travel is involved.  The CDC has a useful sheet about travel with prescription medicine and, really, the same issues arise with Oxycontin, Vicodin, methedrine, and a bunch of sleeping pills as with marijuana and related products.  Just because you have a US prescription does not mean the drug is legal in your destination country.

Notes the CDC: “Medicines that are commonly prescribed or available over the counter in the United States could be considered unlicensed or controlled substances in other countries. For example, in Japan, some inhalers and certain allergy and sinus medications are illegal.”

The CDC advice is to contact the embassy of the countries you plan to visit and specifically inquire into bringing prescription drugs in.  Be persistent and specific. Some countries are more helpful than others.

Also consult the country by country reporting of the International Narcotics Control Board.  

Might it be simpler to travel with no drugs and to get a prescription from a local doctor on arrival (a hotel doc for instance)? Maybe yes.  But before counting on this ask your hotel about availability of a local physician and also find out if the drug you want is in fact sold in China, Russia, or wherever.  And bring a note from your physician that explains why you need the medicine.

All this also applies to CBD oil where matters get murkier still because some oil has essentially zero THC content (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) and other samples have measurable THC which could make the oil illegal. The zero THC oils *should* be legal just about everywhere but, remember, this is all the stuff of Cheech and Chong weirdness where nothing is really certain.

And the stakes get higher when international borders are crossed.

In much of the world marijuana and related products are illegal – or at the very least not legal.  

About now you need a big toke because all this vagary is driving you off the edge? Understandable.

Question: you want to use CBD oil when you are in county X – should you bring it with you or buy it there?  Consistent advice is don’t bring it with you. It very likely is legal where you are heading – here’s a list.  Everything from China to Ireland and Slovenia makes the list.  

But crossing the international border makes this a different, iffier matter.

Again, ask at the embassy – be persistent. And don’t be shy about asking for help at the hotel where you will be registered.

And if you say you remain confused, join the club.  It is confusing. But by asking lots of questions you very probably will stay on the safe side of the law.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 9 Stuart Reid Food Co-Op Initiative

Want to control what you eat? Of course you do. Join a food co-op and become a member-owner.

Across the country there are maybe 350 to 400 food co-ops and, said Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative, many more are attempting to form. That’s his turf. The organization has helped some 140 food co-ops form in the past 11 years. Reid knows what a co-op needs to do to actually open and he tells how in this podcast.

A lot has to do with money but Reid tells how many would-be food co-ops are finding support from governments at various levels. That’s encouraging.

He also tells why food co-ops matter. It comes down to really serving the community and that’s what food co-ops do.

This podcast is everything you always wanted to know about grocery co-ops but didn’t know whom to ask. Ask Stuart Reid – that’s what I did and he gives the details.

In spots the audio quality is scratchy. It’s audible but it may sound like an old vinyl record on a wobbly turntable. Sorry. Just the vagaries of Voip.

Try and you’ll hear it all fine.

Listen up.

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 30 Brett King on Banking Tomorrow

You don’t want to listen to this podcast.

But you need to.

What banking futurist Brett King paints is a dystopian picture of financial services tomorrow where, increasingly, consumers want frictionless money transactions, they don’t give a hoot about banks vs. non banks, and they have no interest in a relationship with a one stop financial services provider.

Credit unions still think they are special. Think again, warns King.

What matters today is digital. Period. Sure, King, as the founder of digital bank Moven, has a bias.

But he very probably is right.

Financial institutions are getting left behind as the biggest banks get bigger – lots bigger – and fintechs gobble up profitable slices of the financial services pie.

Along the way in this provocative conversation, King talks about the new Apple credit card, why Apple Pay has stalled, and the inevitability of real time banking.

It’s a look into tomorrow.

And, yes, it may sound like a horror film.

But at least when you know what’s ahead you can start preparing for it.

Listen here.

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Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto.

Travel Companies Are Hacker Targets Because You Are


By Robert McGarvey

Probably your principal travel providers – airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, and the like – know a lot of information about you, very sensitive information, perhaps including passport number, driver’s license details, credit card information, and loyalty program details.

The bad news is that, increasingly, travel companies are hacker favorites, ranking second or third among the chief targets.

You already know that hotel restaurants, bars, and gift shops are under relentless assault – so much so that my loud advice is to never use a debit card in them, really try hard not to use a credit card, and pay cash to maintain safety.

And then there have been the many attacks on hotel loyalty programs.  

But what IBM is talking about is something different.  Sophisticated nation state players are suspected of hacking into travel company databases in a  search for information about travelers.

“I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. If you’re a nation state, you’re building large scale databases of people because the more you understand about people, the more you can manipulate and extort,” said Caleb Barlow, an IBM vice president, at a recent Amadeus event in Madrid.  

He added, according to Phocuswire reporting on the event,  “Not all attacks want to leverage the information straight away. Nation states might want to use it in 20 years.”

That has to scare you.  

Do you want a nation such as Saudi Arabia or Hungary or Russia to have your travel history and preferences at their disposal?

Do you want the US to have it?

A morsel of good news is that, recently, per IBM’s Barlow, many hackers have shifted from data exfiltration to cryptojacking, which is putting victim computers to use mining cryptocurrencies for money.  

Travel sites too appear to be victims of this. What impact might that have on travelers? Hard to say, since currency mining as such shouldn’t impact a consumer’s data. But when a hacker has control of the computers it stands to reason he/she would also pull out useful data to keep or to sell, simply to optimize the financial return of the hack.  So I don’t see cryptojacking as mutually exclusive with data exfiltration. Not hardly.

Exactly what can you do to protect yourself in an age where travel sites are getting hacked?

I play with the idea of registering under a false identity, using, say, a good quality but fake Irish driver’s license and a fake passport.  The problem of course is that fakes won’t pass scrutiny by government employees such as TSA.  At a hotel, sure, I believe fakes generally will work fine.  Note: I am not advocating scamming hotels, just creating false data trails that when stolen by a hacker will deadend.

But then there’s the problem of my data that already is in the system at multiple hotel groups, airlines, and assorted other travel vendors.  A new, fake identity won’t erase the past, accurate data.

So here’s what I am doing in response to the epidemic hacking at travel providers: going online, stripping out all data that isn’t needed and filling in false data where possible — challenge questions for instance. There is no need whatsoever to use your father’s real middle name in a challenge.  The only requirement is knowing what fake name you used.

My sense is that it is easier and safer to use substantial fake data with hotels.  Not so much with airlines.

And keep remembering that ever more travel company data is in the hands of hackers.  

Remember too that the hackers often appear to be highly skilled and that means the worse news is that very possibly there are plenty of hacks that so far have gone undetected. But our data may be leaking out.

That puts the burden on you.  Keep monitoring financial accounts and regularly – at least yearly – look at a credit report.  I also check my credit score monthly (free via various banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers).

But the sticky issue is if the thefts are by nation states with no intent to monetize the data via fraud it just may be impossible to divine what data has been copied.

That’s maddening.

But it also is reality.

CU 2.0 Podcast Episode 29: Freeborn on “Open Your Eyes to a Credit Union”

$100 million. That’s the projected three year budget for the CUNA “Open Your Eyes to a Credit Union” campaign.

Teresa Freeborn, CEO of Xceed Financial Credit Union, chairs the CUNA effort which she – make no mistake – sees as crucial in the longterm survival and prosperity of credit unions.

The campaigns blends research with marketing – much of it online – to reach out to a generation of consumers that simply may not even consider credit unions as a financial services option.

Ouch. It hurts to be ignored. But that is a credit union reality and that also is the why of the CUNA campaign.

A central mission of the campaign: raising consumer awareness of the benefits of credit unions as a different, better category of financial services providers. That’s ambitious. But it just may be critical in the industry’s survival.

In this podcast Freeborn tells the story of the campaign’s launch, it’s current status, and it’s hoped for future. She also blends in her perspective as the longtime CEO of a large credit union.

Listen up – your survival may depend on it.

Podcast here.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 8 Alex Stone CooperationWorks!

Alex Stone’s business is this: helping new cooperatives to start and helping existing ones to mature and do better. That’s the core mission of CooperationWorks! where she serves as executive director.

How is she doing? The podcast opens with a simple question: how many new co-ops form in a year?  Stone explains exactly why that question is a lot harder to answer than you might think.

For Stone cooperatives got into her being early, during her student days at UC Berkeley where she lived in co-op housing and was also involved in a food collective.

Cooperatives, she saw, just work better in many cases.

That’s why she relishes her role in helping all kinds of cooperatives and in this wide ranging podcast she discusses worker owned cooperatives, housing co-ops, grocery co-ops and a lot more.

A key CooperationWorks! function is providing training to would-be cooperators and also board members. We just aren’t born knowing how to prosper in a cooperative system – but we can learn how to do it.

Another role of the organization is gathering data about co-ops but, as Stone readily admits, data is slim in many cases.

Buckle up for a fast ride into cooperatives today and tomorrow.