The Quest for an Adequate Business Travel Experience

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This story appears in the September 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

"After stepping off the elevator, I could smell a nasty odor."

I'd been cruising along on TripAdvisor, ready to book a room at what seemed to be a serviceable chain hotel in Auburn Hills, Mich., when that comment made me pause.

Then another review stopped me cold: "When I checked in this morning, I found a urine-stained mattress …"

Needless to say, the warnings rendered the four- and five-star praise I'd previously read totally irrelevant. Perhaps the property is every bit as good as its fans claim, the suites spacious and the bathrooms immaculate--but I can't afford to take the chance.

Business travel is a form of triage, a never-ending quest for the least objectionable. Rarely do those of us who travel for our companies need to find the best hotel in an area, or a meal that will change our lives. That's what vacations are for. Touching down in city after city, our primary goal is to escape unscathed.

I'm not complaining. I love traveling around the country (and beyond) to make a living. Everywhere I visit has something gloriously unique to recommend it. But because I'm there for a purpose, I'll gladly sacrifice a potential upside in order to decrease my chances of suffering through inedible food, paper-thin walls or a four-hour delay on the tarmac. My time and productivity are just too important to me.

That's why I scour websites that harness the power of crowds to render opinions. Such methodology tends to push scores toward the middle, rewarding fundamental competence rather than innovation or style. But that's fine. I'm not looking for the Taj Mahal.

I haven't booked a hotel room in the past five years without scanning Trip-Advisor reviews first. (That's even true for hotels I stay at often. If recent guests have had issues, I want to know about them.) I also eat few meals on the road without at least a quick check of the Yelp ratings for the area. That's me sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall, punching up the app on my iPhone before deciding whether to go inside.

Critics complain that many of the reviews on these sites are fraudulent. They're probably right. If I ran a hotel or restaurant, I'd be begging my customers--not to mention friends and family--to rhapsodize about their experience on as many consumer-input forums as possible.

Fortunately, the scripted feedback is usually easy to spot. Vague gushing ("Fantastic!!! Amazing!!!"), especially when fortified by a forest of exclamation points, makes me wonder what was so incredible about your stay at that Holiday Inn Express. Some reviews are genuine but are posted by lunatics. A telltale sign is a one-star rating coupled with a hysterical rant about an issue nobody else could possibly get so worked up about. ("On the third call, they finally came and removed the room-service tray from the hallway. I'll never stay here again!")

And though any particular posting is open to question, the aggregation provides actionable advice. If pretty much everyone loves a restaurant, it's unlikely to be awful. And if even a few comments question a hotel's sanitation, I know I'm better off with another option, even if the views aren't as panoramic or the closets are small.

I learned long ago not to fret about the exotic meals or luxurious inns I pass over in favor of one B-plus dinner and hotel stay after another. TripAdvisor and Yelp aren't perfect, but they're useful tools to get those of us who travel frequently where we want to go, which is--ultimately--back home after a productive trip.

That's a modest goal. But for business travelers, perfectly good is usually good enough.

Survey says...

Need more feedback? Here are four more crowdsourced review sites worth noting.

1. In addition to reservations, OpenTable offers chronicles of restaurant experiences from a relativelysophisticated user base.
2. Find airlines, airports and lounges rated with precision by a critical mass of travelers at Skytrax. Good for those rare trips when you have the luxury of choosing flights or a destination based on criteria other than price, convenience and departure times.
3. Venere is a Europe-centric bookingservice with consumer reviews. Hotels are rated in five categories, allowing users to get a reading on the attributes they value most. Many comments are in languages other than English, but the numerical ratings are easily scanned.
4. The wine database Cellartracker--free, unlike those from Wine Spectator or Robert M. Parker Jr.--lets you access multiple opinions while you consider a restaurant wine list. The level of wine knowledge ranges from authoritative to novice, but taken together the postings give a credible sense of what a given bottle tastes like at the moment. --B.S.
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