The respondents were told the boss is fascinated with the amount of information available on the Internet -- and tired of paying for long-distance calls to Chicago -- so they must choose the hotel based solely on information provided on the hotels' respective Web sites.
To get started, all our respondents searched for the sites in one of two ways, either through a search engine or by guessing the URL based on the name of the hotel chain.
The people who used the latter method were more successful, except for those who had difficulty remembering how many "r's" and "t's" there are in "Marriott."
Even with the correct URL, several respondents were unable to access one or both sites. Some were successful only after repeated attempts.
The respondents who used search engines to find the sites said they were very frustrated. Yahoo, for example, when using the keywords "Chicago hotel downtown," produced only two results: A discount reservation service and a walking guide to Chicago. Infoseek, using the same keywords, claimed 470,819 results, but by the 10th page (the 100th link), neither hotel had appeared.
Another respondent using Yahoo, and the key words "Westin Chicago" and "Marriott Chicago," received links to the correct sites, but when clicked on, neither link was valid.
Another problem was finding the correct location (downtown), because both chains have multiple hotels in the Chicago area. There are three Westin hotels, none of which identified themselves as downtown. The respondents had to know that the Michigan Avenue hotel is in downtown Chicago, but the O'Hare and River North hotels are not.
As a result, several of the respondents who picked the Westin hotel selected the wrong location.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
For Marriott, meanwhile, there are seven hotels in the Chicago area, but only one is identified as downtown. Even then, some respondents selected a Marriott with the wrong location.
Finding on-site conference facilities was even more problematic. The Michigan Avenue Westin page mentioned its conference facilities, the downtown Marriott page did not.
More than half of the respondents chose the Westin, listing this as their primary reason. One of the non-downtown Marriott hotels listed very attractive conference facilities, and several respondents chose this hotel, not realizing the location was more than 40 miles away from the downtown area.
In evaluating the sites themselves, the majority liked the information found on the Westin site, but thought the Marriott site was more attractive. Interestingly, although almost every respondent mentioned something about the sites' format, ability to access pages, time to download pages, quality of graphics and ease of navigation, these things had very little to do with the selection of the hotel.
HEADING FOR MOTEL 6
We found from this simple exercise that although both hotels cater to business people, neither supplied enough information to prevent a phone call. And there were only four things our respondents needed to know: The hotel's location in the Chicago area, the number of available rooms on certain dates, the number of available conference rooms and the cost of all necessary accommodations.
As for the end result of this project, one respondent best expressed the frustrations of our panel. "Look, I'm tempted to tell the boss I rejected both hotels and made the reservations with Motel 6. Neither one of the reservation Web pages made it easy for me to get what I needed. I still would have had to call the hotels to get my boss what he asked for."
Lynda Frohman is director of online services for New York-based CLT Research Associates, which offers the WebScore service. She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.