As part of Forrester’s ongoing initiative to provide annual industry benchmarks of online customer experiences, we recently evaluated the Brand Experience of four hotel brands’ Web sites (Crowne Plaza, Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton). Using our Web Site Brand Experience Review methodology, we set out to test 1) how well the sites supported their key brand attributes in a manner consistent with other channels (Brand Image), and 2) how well the site supported user goals (Brand Action).  

The results were disappointing. None of the sites passed our Brand Action Review. Actually, that's not terribly surprising since our data show just how challenging the online booking experience is for travelers. Our review found that most sites suffered from common problems that plague sites across all industries, such as missing or misplaced content and illegible text. Again, not surprising. But what was surprising was that only one site, Sheraton, passed our Brand Image Review.  After all, hotels (at least those on the nicer end of the spectrum like those we reviewed) take great pains to keep their lobbies clean, their grounds manicured, and their rooms inviting. But the underperforming sites suffered from poor quality in their visual designs, bland imagery, and just-the-facts content that failed to hit on key brand attributes. In contrast, Sheraton stood out for its high-quality visual design and messaging that's consistent with how the brand is presented in other channels.

The news wasn't all bad for the firms that failed in both dimensions of the experience. There were pockets of best practices, and each firm exhibited practices that others can learn from and apply to their own sites, though we recommend they apply them in ways that accurately reflect the differentiating qualities of their brands. But the brand that really wants to excel will have to do it by providing something that no site does well today: well-written contextual details and high-quality photos of property features and amenities in context.

For full analysis and details on how we chose the companies, goals, and attributes evaluated, please see the full report, "Web Site Brand Experience Review 2010: Hotels."