Chocolate Pillow | Hotel placebo’s and forgotten guests…
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Hotel placebo’s and forgotten guests…

03 Oct Hotel placebo’s and forgotten guests…

Something was mentioned today that made me wonder, and took me on an interesting thought process – does the placebo effect apply to hotels?


Most people may be familiar with the placebo effect, but for those that are not:


[quote]The placebo effect is the psychological term used to describe where someone is conditioned in to believing something will be effective, even though it is not – most notably proven through research with patients who’s conditions improved because they believed the treatment would work, but the medical aspect had no effect – they were given a placebo (inactive or ineffective drug) but still exhibited the same improvements as this who had not been given it. This is the placebo effect – where something that has no effect, is believed to have an effect and therefore an effect is created.[/quote]
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The most commonly applied placebo effect experiment is that in patients with new medications.  If a doctor gives you a tablet and tells you that the tablet will stop that headache, or get rid of that rash, then generally it will – because you trust doctors – are you with me so far on this?  Anyway, the doctor is someone of authority who you are conditioned to believe – everything in society and life constructs you to elevate people in society and doctors hold trust because they can hold your life in their hands, quite literally!  Now imagine that doctor gave you a tablet that had nothing more in it than some sugar and a bit of colouring. Neither of which would be effective on a headache or strange rash.


But the rash cleared up and the headache went. Why?  Well this dear readers is the placebo effect.  Now this has so far only really been applied to a medical scenario, but I believe it can also apply to hotels, and the day and age of social media, online activity and a variety of review sources will only pander to serve this even more.  I am not calling this the placebo effect, as it is in fact selective perception.


Opposite the placebo effect, is something known as the ‘nocebo effect’ – basically the reverse of the placebo effect; where the placebo effect says that something acts positively because you believe it can, the nocebo effect says that something acts negatively because you think it will; for example, you give 50 volunteers a sugar cube.  For 25 of them (Group Placebo) you say it will make them feel happier, brighter and more energetic for the day.  For the other 25 (Group Nocebo) you say it will make them feel ill and probably slightly depressed for the day.  Group Placebo will probably mainly all report that they did feel happier, brighter and more energetic and Group Nocebo will probably report depressed symptoms and mild illness.  Yet they all had a sugar cube made of exactly the same composition and administer it in a certain way – so for it to be most effective, someone administering would have to be dressed at least like a doctor, and they could not see each others groups having the sugar cube given – our brains are continually assessing everything in our environment, whether you realise it or not and seeing someone being given something exactly the same as you, but being told something different, would make you reluctant to believe it, and the whole placebo/nocebo effect relies on belief.  Physically – there is nothing to explain why this happens, but people just know that it does.

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But even this nocebo effect is covered by selective perception.


Now to my point (sorry for those who were bored to tears!) – There is an effect that is created by online reviews, social media and a variety of other sources.  Look at what you commonly get with placebo and nocebo effects in order to induce the effect itself:

[ul] [li] A person, or persons, in authority[/li] [li] Information provide by an authoritative voice [/li] [li] External stimulus or provision of a stimulus to ‘start’ the process [/li] [/ul]


So lets look at everything we have here, a person in authority providing information and an external stimulus to ‘start’ the process – in the case of placebo/nocebo this is a doctor telling you a pill will do something, then you taking the pill.  Now lets look at the world of hotels and what happens with reviews online….

[ul] [li] A person in authority – well what is more authoritative than another guest who is either at the hotel, or has been there recently?[/li] [li] Information – well, the reviews they write surely are the information you need[/li] [li] External stimulus – an event that either falls in line with, matches or contradicts information the guest has read online – i.e. something good or bad happens that is similar to someone else’s experience[/li]


This is all something that falls under the umbrella of ‘selective perception’ as that is when ‘We will tend to perceive things according to our beliefs more than as they really are, and react accordingly.’   This selective perception is what causes us to love or hate somewhere, before we have even been there!



Let me clarify – a guest reads 100 ‘excellent’ reviews on tripadvisor.  They then stay at the hotel and have an excellent time.  They experience an issue with service being slow in the restaurant, but put that down to being busy as a lot of reviews online stated that the restaurant did get busy and everything was cooked fresh.  You anticipate therefore that the food will be excellent – and because you think it will be good, it inevitably is! You then write another excellent review on tripadvisor.  Lets say now that a guest reads all the ‘terrible’ reviews, and they say that service is slow and the food is average; what do you think will be the resultant review on tripadvisor?  Now sometimes you do have the situation where influence is not given to a person by what they read – the perception is unaltered by the external stimulus prior to experiencing the hotel itself, but these probably account for less than 50% of the people who stay at your hotel.


The demonstration I am making here is that social media management is important and controlling and responding to what goes on tripadvisor is probably more important than ever!  Service recovery is undergoing a big change (blog about that soon!) but the fact is that what people read online will form part of their imagery.  Selective perception dictates that people will be influenced over how they feel about an experience, by the experiences of others who have been through that experience before – a bit like transferring the experiences of 100 other people on to your stay!


Le’s have a look at the scenario – someone books the hotel online and the hotel website can only provide certain information – there will be gaps in the virtual jigsaw in a customers mind – the biggest question being ‘what will my room be like’ – it is okay to see the pictures etc, but it is all about knowing whether or not you will actually have a room like that one in the pictures or not, and where are the local shops, or what is the food like – these are all questions people find answers to in online reviews.  The fact is that online reviews etc create an image of expectation – small details that cannot be given in a hotel website.  To be fair, most people have an automatic bias against a hotel’s website (yet another post), and it is important to remember this, not just when marketing, but also when dealing with guests.


With the prevalence of social media and accessibility of online reviews, it is important to look at where you control the reviews – for example, TripAdvisor has little credibility to some, but massive credibility to others.  There have been claims of fake reviews (I have seen some highly suspicious ones) and also claims of victimisation – well after all, the system i all unverified, and fake reviews do exist as I know of people who have been asked to write fake reviews for places on tripadvisor, using multiple email accounts etc in order to do so!  Serious allegation I know, but please note that this was not tripadvisor asking for the reviews, it was the hotels/restaurants/etc that were asking for them.  Some sites such as late rooms only allow reviews from people who have actually booked and stayed at the hotel, but then again, the reviews that get written are just subjective, and the people who read them will read whatever they want from them.


I suppose the question of actually ‘controlling’ social media is paradoxical – you cannot control it, but you need to control what is input in to it – but you cannot control an opinion or perception, and social media is full of perceptions and attitudes and opinions.


So, does hospitality have a placebo effect of kinds – not in itself, but the actual social media surrounding it can make a placebo/nocebo effect (selective perception) exist.  Herein lies the problem with social media etc; you need to control the perception of your hotel prior to arrival to avoid people anticipating the same experience as another previous guest, as because regardless of whether it is the same as someone else’s experience or not, you can guarantee the guest will liken the experiences to each other!


I began this post by asking whether a hotel has placebo effect or not and ended up with more blog posts to write and more questions to ask – but just ask whether your hotel does enough to control the perception of your hotel for those guests who have booked but not yet arrived – is the industry missing a trick here as they are the forgotten guests, are they not?

Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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