SA Hotelier slams TripAdvisor, and its blackmail threat!

TripAdvisorThe excellent South African tourism news service Southern African Tourism Update published a letter it received from Chris Harvie, owner of The Rissington Inn in Hazyview just over a week ago, expressing what many owners and managers of tourism businesses feel about the TripAdvisor demon.

Harvie is not only the owner of a guest house, but he is also a prolific and eloquent travel writer for the Sunday Times and other titles. His letter also appeared in the Sunday Times.   We salute him for being brave enough to tackle a topic that is a swearword in the hospitality industry, for the following reasons:

*    It is one-sided, being posted without a reply to the accusations from the owner/manager

*   It can be posted by aggrieved former staff, suppliers, neighbours, other hospitality businesses, or anyone else that has a gripe, without it being verified by TripAdvisor

*   All writers are anonymous – if they believed in what they have to say, why not reveal their real name?

*   It is often defamatory and downright dishonest, the events distorted to suit the impact and damage the writer wishes to make.  TripAdvisor is strict in not allowing one to be rude or honest in describing the (not always perfect) behavior of the guests.

*   Many complaints relate to booking cancellations, travellers not being happy to be held to the terms of the cancellation policy which they sign in acceptance when they made the booking!  This is when the blackmail makes its ugly appearance, in that one is threatened that the establishment will be ‘reported to TripAdvisor’, as if it is a judging body!  Sometimes it is impossible to fill an exact set of dates of the cancelled booking, no matter how busy it might be.

*   NO guests book restaurants on the basis of their TripAdvisor ranking, yet we see a village like Franschhoek fighting for the number one ranking.   We have heard horror stories of self-written positive reviews and damaging negative reviews of competitor restaurants, just to stay in the top ranking.  The minute a restaurant brags about being number one ranked on TripAdvisor, one can assume it contains self-written ‘reviews’.

*  Not all guest use TripAdvisor to evaluate their experience.  Return visits, recommendations to friends and family, and messages written in the Whale Cottage Camps Bay Guest Bookguest book are what really demonstrates true satisfaction of our guests at our Whale Cottages.  We invite guests to send friends or family to check the accommodation, so that they can be happy with what they are booking.

*   TripAdvisor is receiving increasingly negative publicity for its fake reviews, and damaging effect on hospitality establishment reputations.  Bigger hotel groups are starting to sue. Class action cases against TripAdvisor in the UK and the USA, in which bundles of individual hotels are being represented, have also been reported.   TripAdvisor states that it does not take responsibility for the content for the ‘reviews’.

Speaking to Chris over the phone after his letter appeared he told me that he had received overwhelming support, but that few hospitality business owners would support him publicly, for fear that it would affect their own image!

We leave it to Chris Harvie to express his frustrations and anger about TripAdvisor on behalf of the South African hospitality industry, although it would apply to such establishments worldwide.  We are astounded that TripAdvisor is a business partner of SA Tourism, which clearly has no clue what its tourism products and suppliers think and feel about the ‘review’ website!

‘Letter to the editor: TripAdvisor takes the joy out of hospitalityToday's News 
25 Fri, Oct 2013

Chris Harvie puts his neck on the line and looks at how TripAdvisor has taken much of the joy out of hospitality to the detriment of both hosts and guests. 

Have you noticed that we hoteliers have undergone a sinister character-change? Do you see fear in our eyes? A persecuted look? Well, if you aren’t aware of it, you should be. Because you are ruining our lives. Not all of you, admittedly. Only a miniscule percentage of you, but enough people to make a significant change to the way we operate. 

More than almost any other industry we give up our entire lives to serve the public. We give up our homes, our marriages, our holidays, our Christmases, in our endeavour to achieve 100% guest satisfaction at all times. 

Hospitality is a lifestyle. A calling. It is not a career. We don’t do it for the money, and being ‘nice’ to people is not an easy job. 

So what do we get in thanks for our efforts? TripAdvisor. 

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? There’s no worldwide website called SickAdvisor where ‘millions of members’ crit doctors in over 100 million reviews, is there? Or a RipAdvisor site to attack clothing manufacturers? Or TrickAdvisor to expose second-hand car dealers? 

So why pick on us, when we are the ones who are at work when nobody else is? For whom a public holiday is not a day off but an even longer and harder day than usual? 

I have been in hotels for more than 30 years, from frequent guest to junior employee, manager and owner, and I am always filled with admiration for my colleagues for what they put up with from some of the more unsavoury members of the public. 

I use the word ‘professional’ deliberately because I think we are probably the most professional profession in the world. You trust us with your down-time, your recreation, your secrets, your trysts and your dirty linen. You trust us to feed you, to make your bed, to keep you safe, to wash your clothes and to clean your car whilst you switch off and relax. 

And in return, talking of dirty linen, we get internet-wide vilification. 

Until the advent of TripAdvisor , we hoteliers took a pride in what we did. You loved us, we loved you. We’d go to bed exhausted but satisfied that we had done our absolute best and believing, realistically, that we had satisfied more than 99% of you. And that the 1% simply wouldn’t come back. After all, if you go to a supermarket that doesn’t sell what you want, you don’t go the media. You go to a different supermarket the next time. 

Nowadays, things have changed. We go to bed in fear, we sleep fitfully and we wake up in trepidation. And, believe it or not, our first move over our morning pick-me-up is to log onto TripAdvisor to reassure ourselves that, during the night, some disgruntled whinger (or even worse a bitter rival, rancorous blackmailer or a scorned lover) hasn’t wreaked a worldwide web of retribution, public vilification and personal attacks that will sit and fester in the search engines way beyond any relevance they might ever have had. 

We are under attack. And to make it worse, our persecutors are allowed to remain anonymous so we don’t know their names, when they stayed, what room they were in or where they sat in the restaurant. They can attack us, name us, humiliate us but we are not even allowed to know who they are. 

Our pride in our art is wilting. The fulsome joy and spontaneous hospitality are on the wane as we find ourselves more and more on the defensive. 

If you don’t like my hotel, tell me privately, but don’t emblazon it across the ether. It may not be what you wanted but it might well suit somebody else. Although, like most hotels, we aim to please the maximum number of people, we can’t, realistically, be everybody’s cup of tea or favourite soup, so if we are not what you wanted, don’t blame us alone. You may be equally at fault for choosing the wrong place for your needs and I am not going to waste my heart attack on reading your unreasonable rantings posted on a busybody website. 

So what’s the solution to this seemingly intractable issue? Well, firstly, if we must have a TripAdvisor, it should be optional and attractive for hotels to have an entry. The website is well-followed enough, now, surely, for everyone in hospitality to want to be on it and for an absence from the site to raise enough questions on its own? I am all for reasonable and constructive guest feedback, but it should be the hotel’s choice as to how it receives that. 

Secondly, reviewers should be obliged to use their real names and not hide behind keyboardwarrior anonymity. Reviewers’ contact details should also be available to hoteliers and restaurateurs on request. In this way, we can find out more details of any complaints and rectify any problems. 

Thirdly, as with a number of similar sites, TripAdvisor should approach hotels for comment before publication in the case of an aggressive or negative review, instead of allowing the industry a limited (and heavily censored) opportunity to reply after the event, by which time the damage is done. We hoteliers are not allowed a website where we can complain or warn our colleagues about difficult or immoral guests — it has been tried but was ironically declared defamatory — so it is only right that we should have a veto or at least a right of reply to any attacks on us before they go public. (TripAdvisor is not alone here. Booking.com causes similar problems by asking for both positives and negatives when soliciting reviews from users, which has the disadvantage of asking people to scratch their heads and find a negative, even when they might not previously have been bothered by one.) 

Hoteliers hate TripAdvisor. Full stop. It’s not a watchdog. It is potentially the hotelier’s enemy in the way that no other industry has one. 

Certainly it provides a great opportunity for good feedback and positive promotion through genuine rave reviews, but it is also a potential vehicle for systematic persecution, and is easily used by the unscrupulous to threaten and blackmail hoteliers into providing more than has been paid for and to seek out special favours. 

For now, the hotelier’s best option still seems to be to ignore TripAdvisor and not to court reviews.

 We hospitality folk want you to be happy, because if you’re happy, we are happy. Then we can put the joy back into hospitality. It will be to everybody’s benefit’.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage

4 replies on “SA Hotelier slams TripAdvisor, and its blackmail threat!”

  1. Nick Jones says:

    As I’ve said many times, TA is a valuable tool for independent travellers & all property owners have the full right of reply. No traveller will assess a property on one or two reviews, we always look at the full picture.

    If Harvie is so upset & totally convinced that he’s been stitched up then he should take TA to court.

    • Thank you for your view on TripAdvisor NIck.

      No individual property owner in South Africa can afford the legal cost of running a court case in the USA, where TripAdvisor is based.

      TripAdvisor definitely restricts owners/managers’ replies, in length of reply, and its content.

  2. Nick Jones says:

    Chris, I’ve seen rebuttals on TA which run to 2 x A4 sheets. Here’s a link to our favourite B&B in Stellenbosch with a long response to a TA report. The owner also successfully had an unfair report removed by TA.

    http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g312673-d1407993-r125026121-Aan_Dorpstraat_Guest_House-Stellenbosch_Western_Cape.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT

    • Thank you Nick.

      When I last tried to reply, one had to verify who you are by sending an original copy of your ID to TripAdvisor (which does not prove that I am linked to Whale Cottage!) to America. Replies by owners/managers had a maximum character limit similar to Twitter. I was asked to change the content, and was not allowed to mention the name of the guest, although the guests are allowed to mention mine and those of my staff! I was not allowed to reflect the level of alcohol intake of the guest, which had led to her fall, no matter how politely I phrased it and how many persons in the guest house could verify her behaviour.

      The bottom line: why do dissatisfied guests not address their dissatisfaction while they are staying, so that it can be addressed? Your countrymen are particularly bad at this, not wishing to offend face to face, but do not hold back in e-mails and/or TripAdvisor!

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