TripAdvisor turned 15 last week – a milestone marked in the press by a slew of articles discussing the influence of review sites. One such piece in The Independent claimed that TripAdvisor’s greatest impact was to help small hotels that provide a high quality product to build a reputation that allows them to compete successfully against the marketing budgets of larger rivals.

To check out this idea, got in touch with Mark, the Australian owner of Villa Nozawa – a small hotel which has attracted great reviews on TripAdvisor and become very successful. Villa Nozawa is a 14 room hotel in the ski resort of Nozawa Onsen, Nagano, Japan. It is ranked No.1 in the area by TripAdvisor, while budget sister property, Lodge Nagano, comes in second.

Most of Mark’s guests are independent travelers, many from Australia, who want a convenient base for their skiing holiday. The hotel website therefore provides lots of details about the ski resort, snow conditions and the village and surrounding area too, which is a great idea because people searching for information about the ski resort are highly likely to find themselves directed to the hotel’s own site.

The site also emphasizes friendly service. All the staff are introduced with a photo and biography, so you quickly feel that you’ll be well looked after. As Mark explains, “we have a great team working with us and that makes the difference – guys who’ve been with us for years and know Nozawa very well – they can sort out anything you need pretty quick.”

Also displayed on the site is a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, along with the invitation to “check us out on TripAdvisor.” This is the chance for potential guests to see if the independent reviews back up the first impressions – to see if the hotel can actually ‘walk the talk’. Reviews only go back to 2008, but since then there have been 84. Of these, 78 are ‘Excellent’ and 6 are ‘Very Good’. Persuasive evidence indeed, but how is it achieved?

The first step is to know your customers inside out, so you can meet their needs and solve their problems. Villa Nozawa has a big advantage here, because most of the guests are Mark’s fellow Australians, who also want a taste of Japanese culture. That’s a market with a high degree of homogeneity, so Mark has a very good idea what they want and how to keep them satisfied. The friendly service then generates a personal affinity that inspires these contented customers to post great reviews.

Setting clear expectations is also vital. For example, Villa Nozawa is consistently rated ‘Excellent’ while relying on the provision of shared bathrooms. That’s not 5-star excellent – but if customers know exactly what to expect, and the shared bathroom turns out to be clean and spacious with all the amenities, it won’t draw negative comments.

Another feature of TripAdvisor is that owners have the right of reply to all reviews, and Mark makes a point of thanking every reviewer for their comments, while also adding one or two of his own words about what makes the hotel, its staff, and Nozawa special. In this regard, TripAdvisor is a perfect platform to reinforce the brand, or, if you prefer, to interact with guests in a human fashion. This is something that’s hard for bigger hotels to get right. As Mark points out, “many of our customers have stayed with us five or more times, so they become good friends and great guests.” This is evident in Mark’s replies. In contrast, the big hotel chains struggle to achieve that level of personalization, often copying and pasting a stilted, standard response that just doesn’t quite work.

Villa Nozawa is testament to the fact that TripAdvisor can give small hotels a competitive advantage. Mark acknowledges as much, saying that while word-of-mouth is his biggest source of bookings, TripAdvisor isn’t far behind. “TripAdvisor definitely helped our business, especially in the early years,” he said. “I think people trust what others say about a place, so we’re very grateful to everyone who left such positive feedback and encouraged us to grow the business.”.