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Another call for improved RS Tour "Reviews"

The recent topic of "No new tour reviews" morphed into a conversation about people's dissatisfaction with the RS Tour Reviews section. I know this was previously discussed in a prior forum thread, but I'd like to bring up the topic again to see if the input of enough forum participants can nudge RS and staff to revise the Reviews section. I know that in the past discussion of this topic, I believe it was either Laura or Kate who stated that you folks can just post your reviews under "Trip Reports" or "RS Tours." The problem with that is that it is difficult to go back and find the trip report without scanning pages and pages of topics. For example, I know that Pam (Troy, ID) had posted a review of Best of Europe in 21 days under either Trip Reports or RS Tours, but, for the life of me, I could not find it. RS and staff, how about at least adding another section to your tour review that says something like, "Helpful Hints" or "I Wish I would have known...?"

After I complete my Heart of Portugal Trip in September 2015, it originally was my intention not to bother completing the RS questionnaire that will be used in the reviews because of my dissatisfaction with the revised review section; I instead planned to post under Trip Reports or RS Tours. I now decided I will fill out the RS questionnaire after the tour and just put in my helpful hints, impressions in the "Rating" and "Wow" section as it will be easier for other folks to find. I will, however, be limited by word count.

Again, RS and staff, please consider giving the people what they want!

Posted by
6697 posts

I'm in full agreement. Bring the old reviews back please! This current version is a shell of the original. In addition to search issues under "Trip Reports" and "RS Tours", reviews should follow a standard format in order to be usable for comparison purposes - within a single tour encompassing a single time-frame and that same tour across different time-frames. While open-ended reviews are often richer and more thorough, the sample sizes are way too small and you can't really compare them against one another because people report on different (self-selected and limited) aspects of their trip. Reviews need to be apples to apples, and efforts should be made to improve the response rate.

Posted by
377 posts

I submitted my review of our St. Petersburg trip (5-15) immediately after receiving it from RS. It has not been posted yet. The most recent review under that tour is from 9-14. I think it is particularly important for tours like this one to have reviews posted becaused there is not nearly as much information on the forums about this tour as opposed to say an Italy tour. ( Ironically, some of the Italy tours already have member reviews posted from 5-15. )
In the same vein, I really appreciate when people post the names of the hotels they stayed at. I realize locations may change, but it is very helpful to gather as much information prior to booking as you can. From what others have posted I infer that RS probably makes the group reservations for hotels many months in advance. If that is true, then it would be useful to have those hotel locations listed in the tour description. (I notice that other tour companies do list the hotels.)

Posted by
2525 posts

It's odd given Rick's clear and often blunt opinions about travel that the prior informative evaluations of tours format was ditched. I don't read the reviews now as they lack value. What caused the change?

Posted by
556 posts

Bruce,

I think it was a few things. One, the sheer numbers of posts/webpages was becoming unwieldy and also I know that several tour guides objected to having what is essentially a job review posted for all to see. Oddly, one reason stated last year when this was brought up was that the questions changed and there were fewer of them (which there aren't; there's actually more, so that argument doesn't hold water, imo).

I know I wouldn't want my yearly job evaluation posted online, so I can understand that coming from the guides/drivers perspective, not wanting to have the questions about them posted. However, as I have stated on numerous occasions, I found the other questions helpful. For example, there used to be "other comments" section where people would remark on, for instance, what they did in the days prior to the tour starting. I think there could be some compromise regarding not posting info about specific people (guides, drivers, etc.) but maybe still posting other answers. The star rating systems also doesn't make any sense. For example, on the occasional rating that may have 3-4 stars rather than 5 the only written answer provided is about the 'wow' moments, so you never get to see WHY the person didn't give 5 stars, which I think is relevant information. For example, did it not live up to the other RS tours they have been on? Or, maybe something happened that dropped it down? Or, was it a RS tour newbie who was expecting a different kind of tour altogether, because they didn't read the brochure fully.

Oh well, we can debate this as much as we want, but the company has made their decision.

Posted by
654 posts

I know I wouldn't want my yearly job evaluation posted online

Do you use yelp or Angies List or the BBB to check out a contractor or a business before agreeing to a deal? Same thing, really. And apparently some object to being publicly identified in these as well.

My personal choice after the new review format came out was to decline to participate anymore. Others see it differently.

Posted by
19 posts

I would just like to add that one of main reasons I chose Rick Steves over other tour groups was the complete reviews that were published up to sometime in 2014. Not only were the reviews useful in helping me plan the trip, but because I saw both positive and negative comments, I believed them much more than the partial comments that are now used. I also wish the office would reconsider and go back to the old format.
Also, if you call the Rick Steves' office and ask about hotels, they will e-mail you a list of the hotels that were used on the previous year's tour. On our tour of the Adriatic last year, the hotels were repeated exactly so there were no surprises when I received the final list before leaving.

Peggy

Posted by
6697 posts

I am a bit puzzled about the sensitivities of reviewing the tour guide and driver (especially if last names are not used) as part of the evaluation. First off, the guides are one of the most significant components or inputs to a successful tour so they should be reviewed (otherwise, why even bother with a guided tour if the quality of the guide is not that important?). Second, RS goes through a lot of trouble to promote its guides on this website and in annual in-person "test drive the Guide" (or something like that) events. The guides likely have nothing to fear as they get excellent marks anyway, so any comments would just end up elevating them (what's better than free PR?). And lastly, it's foolhardy to try to stymie customer opinions with the advent of the internet - there is nothing stopping anyone from posting their reviews on the Trip Reports on this site or on other, unrelated sites regarding their experiences, including the performance of the guide. It's advantageous for RS to encourage folks to write thorough reviews directly on its site, even if some small percentage ends up not to be stellar. Any actions that improve transparency and breadth of info tend to increase trust and, I would argue, make RS tours more attractive to people trying to decide which tour company to use.

Posted by
672 posts

Agnes, I'm in complete agreement with you. We just returned from yet-another tour and, again, I won't be filling out the evaluation.

Posted by
6697 posts

At some point, I think RS should convene some kind of focus group (including some experts in survey design) to come up with a compromise. The reviews have swung in such an opposite direction (from thorough, comprehensive reviews to Twitter-like "wow" blurbs) that I'm sure there must be a way to make the reviews more content-rich and usable and still respect the sensitivities of RS in publishing certain aspects of the evaluation. This is not a technology issue, it's a policy issue. The advent of free and inexpensive survey software like Survey Monkey has made implementation substantially easier and the labor costs almost negligible (provided the survey design is sound to begin with). Of course, Survey Monkey works much better with Likert scale type of responses (1 to 5) vs. open-ended because it can automatically generate numerical reports. I can appreciate that you can get more frank responses when the respondent is assured anonymity, so there is some trade-off in the findings being made public.

Posted by
524 posts

There are guide names used in current tour reviews. Plus, under the topic about new tours, an English guide is mentioned in several postings. With the interwebs there is really no privacy any longer. Yes, the topic of reviews has been previously discussed, but it still seems to be an issue with some forum users, myself included.

Posted by
14267 posts

As I wrote on another thread on this topic, I won't be filling out the online review because it is pretty obvious from the format that RS is not looking for feedback, but rather "soundbites" to promote the tours.

Posted by
55 posts

Wow, I can't believe this subject has come up again! We spent a lot of time last year addressing these concerns, so we'll answer them again here, since it seems that our communications on this last year have failed.

1) "We are not looking for actual feedback, just soundbites for the website." This is false. The tour evaluations are, and have always been, first and foremost one of the most valuable internal tools we use for improving our tours. The fact that we revealed them on our site in the first place was because we wanted to be transparent. But revealing them on the site has nothing to do with how we actually use the evals. The purpose of them has not changed.

2) "We are editing and/or hiding and/or not revealing negative reviews." This is false. The only time we edit evaluations is if a tour member curses or names another tour member. Reviews are only hidden from the public when the tour member who fills them out checks a box that says, "Do not publish." You see so many positive reviews because our tours are good, not because we're cherry-picking or editing.

3) "We are trying to 'stymie customer opinions.'" This is false. If we were trying to "stymie customer opinions," we would not ask tour members to fill out evaluations at all, much less reveal any part of them on our website. In addition, we would not have a Travel Forum at all, much less a brand new (as of a year ago) Rick Steves Tour forum. Our tour program uses customer opinions specifically to help make our tours better, and (clearly) encourages free dialogue about our tours or any other part of our business on our Tour Forum.

4) "Why did we change the questions on the tour reviews?" Because our old tour reviews were crafted for when we had around 5,000 - 10,000 tour members. As the number of tour members increased drastically over a relatively short period of time, our tiny staff was having an increasingly difficult time reading through evaluations with no character limit, repetitive questions, that was almost 100% text fields. We needed to make them a lot more specific and focused. More multiple choices with limited-character text fields, so that our staff could keep up with the now 21,000 tour members we have, many of whom fill out evaluations. This is an internal tool to help us improve our tours, and it needs to be crafted in such a way that our internal staff can use them in the most effective way possible.

5) "Why did we change the questions we reveal on the website?" The way our old evals appeared on the site were not user friendly. They were cumbersome, long, and the questions repetitive. After research into how reviews are presented on websites, we decided to reveal the two most general fields and a star rating based on the bullet rating of the questions. They’re quick, get to the point, consistent, and scannable for the average user.

6) "Will we ever change the way we reveal the evals, are we listening, do we pay attention to these complaints, does RSE even care?" Maybe, yes, yes, yes. Many of the complaints about the evals are, honestly, purely a misunderstanding of their purpose and our business. But then there are some complaints, like of the star ratings. I know how they’re calculated, but you’re right: it’s tricky when you see a three star review but have no idea WHY it’s a three star review. Could we reveal one other general field and increase just that character count, so our reviews look a little more like the excellent presentation of the OAT reviews? Yes, probably. That’s not up to me or the web department, but I have passed along these recommendations.

This has been an epic reply, but I hope it finally puts to rest conspiracy theories, mistrust, and frustration about why we have evals, how we’re using them on the website, and what we’re looking at going forward. I will repeat: we are a small company. We are not a faceless corporation. We take your comments seriously and we’re watching/listening.

Posted by
256 posts

I hope you stay a small company! I can't imagine why people would think you had to "hide" anything!!!! You either like the RS style or you go some place else!

Posted by
14267 posts

Kate, maybe the questionnaire is different for different tours. Here's my experience, which led me to the conclusion that feedback is not sought. I was on a My Way Alpine tour - 6 towns, 6 hotels, 5 countries, 13 days.

Question: Tell us about your overall tour experience. The answer is limited to 500 characters, roughly 5 sentences, and the question is vague. How does that provide feedback? It's clear how it provides quotes for RS promotion.

Question: What was your favorite "wow" moment from your tour? There's no feedback value here, but it's a good quote for posting to a website or use in other promotional materials.

Question (after 4 lines of rating the tour escort's skills) : Provide any additional comments about your escort This is a legitimate request for feedback

Next is a one-line rate your hotel on a scale of 1-5. Seriously? How can I rate 6 hotels as one?

Question: Provide any additional comments about your hotels The answer, like the others, is limited to 500 characters. That's barely enough to comment about 1 or 2 hotels.

The last question: Do you have any more comments about your tour? (also limited to 500 characters). Not nearly enough space to permit real feedback . . . Did I like the route? Were the towns convenient to the surrounding sights? Were the hotels conveniently located? Were the time allocations appropriate?

Overall, I had a great tour experience. I was not overly pleased with some of the tour stops or hotels, but there was no way to input what I didn't like about them - or anything else, which to my mind, would be of interest to a tour operator who was interested in improving.

I've taken tours with other companies who sincerely solicited feedback.

Posted by
97 posts

Kate, I think a point that was made by so many folks who added to this thread and a previous thread which discussed reviews is that the reviews in the old format were meaningful and very helpful in making tour decisions and in travel planning. As I mentioned when I originally started this discussion, I really would like to be able to go on this forum and easily read all the details about a RS tour that I am considering for future travel. Right now, to be honest, it's a jumbled mess. If you look under "Rick Steves Tours" you will find people asking people about luggage size on RS tours, people providing reviews of RS tours, people asking about minimum tour sizes, etc. If you look under "Trip Reports," you find reports of all sorts - some RS trip reports and some independent travel reports. There dos not appear to be any way to filter and readily find the information one is seeking. How many people have the time and inclination to spend hours trying to find the more detailed information they seek in this forum format?

If the "Reviews" section can't be amended in some way, how about having RS Tour category in the Travel Forum with a drop down box that then lists the individual Tours, e.g., Best of Italy Tour Reviews, Best of Paris Tour Reviews, etc. You get the idea. Folks could then write their in-depth reviews and the reviews could be easily accessed by the reader. It would also be helpful when sending your questionnaire to folks who completed a RS tour if they could be alerted to the fact that there is a section on the Travel Forum where they could post a comprehensive review for their fellow travelers.

And just keep in mind, if folks didn't give a hoot about RS and his tours, they wouldn't even bother posting any type of "criticism." I think most people know RS offers a very good tour experience and has a good product. We just want to make it better. Now go and tell Mr. Steves to put your web designer to work !

Posted by
865 posts

What Terri said: "It would also be helpful when sending your questionnaire to folks who completed a RS tour if they could be alerted to the fact that there is a section on the Travel Forum where they could post a comprehensive review for their fellow travelers."

It's a rare thing to find a fellow tour member who doesn't look at me blankly when I mention the Travel Forum. I think there should be something in the tour info packets to alert your clientele to this useful and helpful section of the website.

Posted by
39 posts

As a newbie to RS tours, I agree that the reviews aren't helpful. I was trying to decide what tour to choose for next summer and the tour reviews are of very little value. No substantial information to help in determining which tour would be best.

I ended up scouring the forums trying to find any posts that related to the tours I was considering. Fortunately, I came across some people who directed me to their detailed trip reports and that helped tremendously. I also stumbled onto the scrapbooks and those provided some very helpful information, including the types of hotels they were staying in. I ended up finding the information I was looking for, but it was time consuming and it would have been so helpful to be able to gather this information from recent trip reviews.

Posted by
4360 posts

The former tour eval questions about 'how could we (RSE) have better prepared you' or 'did you in any way feel mislead' were the good, critical questions. The 'wow' questions are fine (never mind everyone's 'wow' moment occurs in Switzerland - whether their tour went to Switzerland or not ;-) - and it's good to have a 'say whatever you want in 500 characters' box for people who want to say something, whether specific or general in nature. The fact is that RSE used to ask much better (useful ) questions. (Those questions in the post above are all of the questions being asked now?!? Really?!?)

Any review that mentioned a tour guide's name deleted the name. Same for a tour member's name if someone mentioned it. (So much for reading the instructions!)

If the reviews weren't ever meant for the public's use in evaluating a tour, then why were they ever available to read?

I vote for eliminating the tour evals from even being posted. What's the point? The 'fluff pieces' are being construed by many, many people as just that. And that's not a good thing.

Posted by
4360 posts

(I'm having trouble with the Edit function...)

FWIW, I was referring to Chani's post above about the current questionnaire.

Although truly negative replies were very rare, they did occur. I'd say easily about 90-95% of those were complaints about other tour mates, how strenuous the tour was, how many stairs one of their hotels had, the fact that their Switzerland hotel was 'in the middle of nowhere - no nightlife!', etc. All of these things are covered by reading the itinerary, tour info, etc. Not RSE's fault. So...frankly a little humorous to read ;-) The other 5-10% would complain but admit it was their own fault they hadn't gotten in shape, they hadn't read their tour guidebooks, they didn't realize the tour didn't go to the Eiffel Tower, they overpacked, etc. They freely admitted they hadn't read the itinerary, tour guidelines, didn't believe they needed to pack light, etc. I read many comments on this forum and other forums that people really appreciated the risk RSE took, exposing their warts and all. People get turned-off reading all 5-star, gushing reviews. A little peek behind the curtain was really freshing...and useful...even if they weren't ever meant to be useful to the public.

But they were. Were.