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The Pitfalls of Holiday Planning and Internet Review Sites

Climping Beach, West Sussex photographed by Robin Dalton ~ October 2010

The winter of my discontent is still upon me, with the sun coming dangerously close to being a figment of my imagination. A holiday! I need a holiday! Now that the winter holidays are definitely over, less dreaming and more action, I tell myself. Where to go? Where to stay?

What started as a simple online exploration into possible accommodation review sites unearthed a scandal, or at any rate, a controversy.  Regardless of whether or not you are a proprietor or a customer, there appears to be a problem with TripAdvisor. A cursory stroll through Google’s search engine throws up a number of articles. In truth, that may not be all that surprising. Were you to Google almost any subject, I am sure a number of articles would crop up.

Paul Garrity says it well in “TripAdvisor Backlash and Online Reputation Management” :

…we now live in changed times thanks to the internet. Internet media have created a ‘digitally transparent’ world and recent advances in social media including blogs, consumer review sites and video sharing sites have ushered in a new era of consumer power online.

Unsatisfied and angry customers don’t just leave an establishment vowing ‘never to stay there again’; they now go online and write a review telling the world about their experiences.”


However, the Scottish “Dragon”, entrepreneur, philanthropist and best selling author raised concerns recently in
Duncan Bannatyne Speaks Out Over TripAdvisor Negative Review Threats saying “People are coming to our hotels and threatening to write bad reviews in order to get money off their bills.” Nor is he the only one speaking up.

As many as 700 owners of guesthouses, B&Bs and hotels are joining forces over the increasingly unfair reports. KwikChex, a company specialising in protecting online reputations, has been collecting examples of comments that it believes overstep the mark. The threatened defamation action comes amid claims by KwikChex that elements within the TripAdvisor business model are “seriously flawed”.

In response to Bannatyne, the TripAdvisor Support Team said in an email to his company: “If an attempt is made to subvert our system, TripAdvisor may take one or more of the following actions on your property listing: drop it by several pages in the TripAdvisor popularity index, post a large red penalty notice explaining that the reviews are suspicious, exclude it from TripAdvisor’s Travellers Choice awards, Top 10 lists, press releases, etc.”

Bannatyne said: “How can it be right that TripAdvisor will penalise us by saying that we are subverting their system by standing up for the truth? By telling me not to threaten legal action to someone who has told lies, TripAdvisor are behaving in a threatening manner.”

So, all a bit incendiary you say, as indeed I said to myself. Perhaps a quick look at their Wikipedia site is in order. Unfortunately, even Wikipedia doesn’t appear to be all that happy with them.

At the top of the page, before the actual article itself, you will see the following:

The above is the caveat that Wikipedia feels is required in front of its article, a piece that is supposed to convey a sense of neutrality. Following on from that, therefore, and given the chance, what does TripAdvisor say about itself?

TripAdvisor® is the world’s largest travel site, enabling travellers to plan and have the perfect trip. TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real (italics in bold are mine) travellers and a wide variety of travel choices and planning features (including Flights search, TripAdvisor Mobile and TripAdvisor Trip Friends) with seamless links to booking tools.

TripAdvisor® Media Group, operated by TripAdvisor LLC, attracts more than 50 million unique monthly visitors* across 17 popular travel brands: www.tripadvisor.com, www.airfarewatchdog.com, www.bookingbuddy.com, www.cruisecritic.com, www.familyvacationcritic.com, www.flipkey.com, www.holidaylettings.co.uk, www.holidaywatchdog.com, www.independenttraveler.com, www.onetime.com, www.seatguru.com, www.sniqueaway.com, www.smartertravel.com, www.travel-library.com, www.travelpod.com, www.virtualtourist.com and www.kuxun.cn. TripAdvisor-branded sites alone make up the largest travel community in the world, with more than 40 million unique monthly visitors*, 20 million members, and over 40 million reviews and opinions. The sites operate in 27 countries worldwide, including China under daodao.com (http://www.daodao.com). TripAdvisor also operates TripAdvisor for Business, a dedicated division that provides the tourism industry access to TripAdvisor’s millions of monthly visitors. The division includes Business Listings, which allows hoteliers to connect directly to millions of researching travellers, and Vacation Rentals, which helps property managers and individual home owners list their properties and showcase hotel alternatives.

TripAdvisor and the sites comprising the TripAdvisor Media Group are operating companies of Expedia, Inc. (NASDAQ: EXPE).

TripAdvisor and the TripAdvisor logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of TripAdvisor LLC in the U.S. and/or other countries. Other logos or product and company names mentioned herein may be the property of their respective owners.

©2011 TripAdvisor LLC. All rights reserved.

*Source: comScore Media Metrix, Worldwide, August 2010

Some may question the “real travellers” claim, as an underlying problem for TripAdvisor is that they are not a transactional business – or put more simply, you do your research on the website, but book elsewhere. This means it has no actual proof that reviewers have actually stayed in the hotels they are commenting on, unlike websites of leading booking agents.  Expedia, Hotels.com and LateRooms.com carry hundreds of thousands of warts-and-all hotel reviews. To be able to have a review posted up on one of these websites, you must have made a booking through the agent and stayed at the hotel in question.
We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language,” as remarked by Oscar Wilde. Spend any length of time on TripAdvisor and you will soon discover that he could have added taste in hotels, as well. What Europeans see as rustic charm, Americans see as dingy neglect; where we see a generous plate of food, they see unreasonable frugality. Of course, it works the other way as well; a lot of Europeans moan about the lack of a free breakfast in North American hotels.
Despite its success, few seem to feel affection for TripAdvisor; it’s too big, too open and just too American for many people. Anyone is free to register and say anything about practically any hotel in the world without fear of comeback. In fact, one B&B owner, John Holder, left a
TripAdvisor master-class held at the Park Plaza Hotel at Westminster Bridge comparing the US-based organisation – unfavourably – to the Catholic Church. “It extends itself globally looking for money to send to Rome – or rather America,” he said. “It treats owners as if it is far above them, in another world. I can’t help feeling its headquarters is just one massive computer.”
TripAdvisor claims it goes to great lengths to ensure its reviews are authentic. Sophisticated computer software and “quality assurance” staff are employed to detect fraudulent reviews; properties with suspicious-looking reviews are flagged up with red penalty notices. It can, of course, work both ways. Many hotels have been approached by PR companies offering to fabricate glowing reviews for them while many others make use of family and friends to create positive reviews. However, from another view, this openness also makes it possible for vindictive guests or unscrupulous competitors to abuse their position even, in some cases, resorting to extortion or blackmail. (“If you give me a discount, I’ll write a good review. If you don’t I’ll write a terrible one.”)

All of the above is just the tip of the iceberg, and a very big iceberg for the hospitality sector it is. These grave concerns cannot, by any means, all be laid at the door of TripAdvisor. This is, more importantly, an issue regarding online reputation management.  Many hoteliers are only now beginning to realise the scale and impact of “Internet Trolls.”  You’ve all met them.  You will find them on virtually every blog, every news article you read and very heavily represented on TripAdvisor. They are posters of unnecessarily nasty, malicious and manipulative comments. Their intent is to lure unsuspecting readers into an equally nasty response and they are then able to perpetuate their presence and, needless to say, ruin your surfing experience. They are typically highly vocal and very critical of, well, everything. They actually only make up 1% of online reviewers. It just feels like more. Regardless of their actual number, “Trolls” command a disproportionate voice on the Internet and especially TripAdvisor.

How does a business respond? Should a business respond? Some things a business should avoid are generic or stock responses to their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reviews submitted by internet users. Accommodation providers and Hoteliers may not like that their customer relations management has gone online, but the fact is that it has. Although the internet can bring a feeling of anonymity, it is false. The internet is like a web, connecting in several directions. Assume that everything you do on here, every button you click, every site you visit – is public. You are not anonymous. If you had a customer standing in front of you or you were talking to them on the telephone, what would you say to them?  Would you have an argument with them on the telephone or any other mode of mass communication? It’s a good idea, I believe, for a business to have a PR strategy in place for handling all internet communication.

What can those of us innocently trying to book a holiday do? Well, I have a few suggestions for those of you using internet review sites:

  • Discernment is vital. Be very suspicious of both the ‘excellent’ and the ‘terrible’ reviews. The ‘truth’ always lies somewhere in the middle.
  • Don’t rely on the reviews or ratings from the few. TripAdvisor is at its most dependable when there are dozens of interviews to help you choose. Especially when the reviewers continue to make similar claims.
  • Look for reviews with detail. They are less likely to be a work of fiction.
  • Does your review come with a photo attached? They tend to be more authentic.
  • Concentrate on reviews written by people like you, (will you be travelling alone, or as a family…).

And finally, slightly off topic, is a quote from Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer’s travel guide which I found on a Lonely Planet Travel Blog , “Find write-ups by professionals whose judgements you trust and rely on that… I would never rely on the judgement of amateurs.”

What are my plans now, so I hear you ask? Well, for me, it’s back to my Lonely Planet guides and local tourist websites….

Bon Voyage!


Commissioned by Aviemore Business Solutions and published in an edited format on the 27th of March 2011 here

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