Tag Archives: restaurant reviews

Hoteliers take a stand against dishonest guest reviews

The New York Times reported earlier this week that American hotels are looking to take legal action against accommodation and restaurant review websites such as TripAdvisor, given the often unsubstantiated and libelous comments and claims made by guests, with damaging effects on the reputation and income of such establishments.

A class action lawsuit is being planned in the USA against TripAdvisor , which has 35 million guest reviews posted for almost every hospitality business around the world.  Guests can have a free-for-all and report their views without any proof presented to TripAdvisor or input sought from the owners of the hospitality establishment.   This leads to an unbalanced perspective presented, and it is clear that there are many more negative than positive reviews posted, and that most negative reviews are about a dispute about money, often relating to a walk-out and refund demanded but not paid due to a cancellation or booking policy.

TripAdvisor does allow the management of hospitality establishments to respond to such reviews, but has very strict guidelines about such response, in that one may not even mildly disparage the guests who have posted the review (for example, describing the state of inebriation of the guest!), no matter how true it is, one may not use the same words as used in the guest comment, and one may not mention the guest by name, if one knows who the complaint comes from.  TripAdvisor does not remove negative reviews of a property that has been sold, and will not remove reviews identified by the management concerned as being dubious.   TripAdvisor has clear guidelines that guests may not be incentivised in any manner to write positive reviews.

In the past year TripAdvisor has been lambasted for the false positive reviews that many accommodation establishments have posted about their businesses, to raise the average rating, and to ‘suppress’ the negative reviews to a next page.    In addition, negative reviews have been posted by competitors or ex-staff members who wish to settle scores.  TripAdvisor does not validate the accuracy of the reviews posted, does not screen the content, and abdicates legal liability for the content of the reviews posted on its site via the USA Communications Decency Act.   Yet TripAdvisor sends owners of hospitality establishments regular summaries of its listed properties, and it is a recent e-mail that highlighted “Hotel horror stories” that showed that TripAdvisor was endorsing its reviewers’ opinions, and thereby no longer was protected by the Act.

Hospitality businesses say that many reviews are “unsubstantiated, inflammatory claims”.  “The world of the Internet and particularly social media has pretty much outstripped ethical guidelines, and some legal ones as well”, says the founder of KwikChex, an UK reputation management company that is managing the lawsuit against TripAdvisor.   Reviews that claim that staff stole money, assaulted guests or discriminated against clients may not be legal on such review sites, as they allege criminal actions, argues KwikCheck.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the lawsuit against TripAdvisor will be, and what affect it will have on greater fairness and balance in guest reviews.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: @WhaleCottage

Social Media: The Whale War and Freedom of Speech

Whale Cottage and I have been the subject of a most vicious defamatory and destructive Twitter campaign in the past week, with unsubstantiated untruthful allegations made, aimed at damaging the reputation of our company and of myself.   The Twitter campaign fabricated information for the benefit of causing a sensation.  Initially the account was set up as an impersonation of myself, by appearing to be my personal Twitter account.  Twitter closed the account down temporarily last Friday, until the perpetrator changed the Biography on the Twitter page.  Not only was it malicious in content and libelous, but it was also threatening in its aggressive tone.

I have written this blogpost with the purpose of acknowledging that we are aware of the campaign, that we know who drove it, and that we believe in what we do and what we stand for.   We do not want to signal through silence that the abusive campaign contained any truth, other than the colour of my jacket that I wore at the OYO lunch on Friday, referred to in one of the Tweets, bringing the perpetrator and his companion into the foodie blogging community!

So how did this campaign arise?  About 2 weeks ago I wrote a review about Crush!3, as I have also done about the first two issues of the Crush! digital food and wine magazines, of which Michael Olivier is the editor.  A number of food bloggers and our readers posted comments on the Blog, the majority being in agreement with our point of view.  We have regularly requested input from Olivier in response to our reviews, but have received none.  In fact, his reaction has been to block us on Twitter, to not respond at all to communication, and to not acknowledge my presence at a recent industry function, even though we have been acquainted for many years.   On Saturday 16 October, the Crush! team of editor Olivier, and contributors Sophia Lindop, Andy Fenner (JamieWho?) and David Cope (of The Foodie blog) , who also owns the PR company called Established & Partners, with Chef’s Warehouse and Cookery School as sole client, it would appear, and Caveau/HQ/Gourmet Burger, Rudera Wines, Cape Classics and Hippo Hotel as ex-clients) had dinner at Lindop’s house to celebrate Crush!3.  On Twitter one was informed about the dinner through the attendees’ Tweets.  A Tweet by Fenner “Having a whale of a time with the @Crush_Online team” first caught my eye that evening,  which was reTweeted by Cope (but since removed), and echoed by the Crush! designers on the @Crush_Online Twitter account “also having a whale of a time. Flap Flap”, a few minutes later.  

An hour later a full-scale campaign began, with a total of 99 disparaging Tweets sent over the period of a week, one more demeaning than another.   A number of clues allowed us to link the campaign to Cope, information which we have handed to the police.   An abusive collection of e-mails was received from Cope as well, and there were clear parallels in what he wrote by e-mail and in the Tweets of the abusive Twitter account.  When we alluded on our blog to the Crush! team, and Cope in particular, being responsible for this childish campaign, there was no response from Olivier to deny it, and thereby he has condoned it.  We invited him to comment on our exposure in this blog post, and were surprised to receive a response from him for the first time since Crush! was published (we are delighted that Olivier acknowledges our input, but surprised to read that he values it, given his reaction to it, as detailed above): “I am not aware of any campaign, by any member of the Crush team, to defame you or Whale Cottage.  We would not embark on a defamation campaign when we are trying to build an online community willing to engage with us in an open, honest and constructive manner.   At Crush we value all constructive feedback and the fact that you have taken the time to read Crush and to make suggestions.  Crush magazine is in its third edition and determined to establish itself in a new market.  Needless to say, the Crush team would not like its brand linked to campaigns that aim to defame. I would therefore appreciate it, if you could forward any material that uses the Crush brand without our permission”.

Our Whale Cottage Blog has been controversial (no surprise that we were nominated and voted a Top 10 finalist in the Most Controversial Blog category in the recent 2010 SA Blog Awards).  We have exposed the dishonest claim by Carne restaurant that all its meat is organic (claim since removed from their website); we have awarded Sour Service Awards every Friday, never popular amongst its recipients; we have exposed the conflict of interest in the running of tourism matters in Hermanus; we have been critical of many restaurants that we have reviewed; and we have been critical of Crush!, but have acknowledged that it is improving.  This does not always make us popular amongst those businesses that we have written about.   We are proud of this Blog, and present the truth as we experience and see it.  We are not afraid to tackle any topic. Our reward is the 40000 unique readers reading our Blog every month, and our more than 1300 Twitter followers.

I have asked myself whether one changes tack in the face of such an abusive and emotionally violent and terrorising Twitter campaign.  Some people I spoke to used the PR adage that all publicity is good publicity.  Others said that social media memory is short, and that Cope would run out of things to fabricate, which is what happened.    But the overwhelming response was that I should change nothing about this Blog, and that I should continue with what we do.  This is wonderful support.   Some very special readers and followers were brave enough to react to the campaign publicly, and I am most grateful to all of them.  We are also grateful to our Twitter followers who saw the petty campaign for what it was, and unfollowed or blocked the abusive Twitter account. 

One of the characteristics of social media is that the boundaries of what one can say are blurred, with no clear guidelines of what is acceptable, and what is not.   There is no consistency in the different social media platforms and their codes of conduct.  Freedom of speech seems to be the overwhelming principle of this new method of communication, often at the expense of the truth.

Freedom of speech brings with it responsibilities, and cannot ignore the law, which dictates that one cannot disparage and defame others.  Good journalistic practice – yes, Bloggers, Facebookers and Twitterers are “New Age” journalists – is that information presented must be checked for accuracy, and that one cannot make statements about others unless they are proven.  The word “alleged” should precede any label one would give the action of any other person one is writing about, unless they have been convicted of the action they have been accused of.

This raises the question as to what the limits are for social media users, and what responsibility sits with Social Media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogging.

Blogging seems to have few restrictions, as there are numerous blogging platforms.  Many bloggers use WordPress, but the company does not specify a Code of Conduct.  The servers hosting the blogs may have a code of conduct, but these are not normally visible to the blogger, especially if one works via a webmaster.

Facebook’s Code of Conduct is lengthy, and appears to be the most protective against disparagement and defamation.  It is also very reactive to complaints in taking action immediately, not a surprise when one sees ‘The Social Network’ movie about the establishment of Facebook.  It states the following in respect of protecting one’s rights, the closest it gets to addressing what one may or not say:

“1.     Protecting Other People’s Rights

We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.     

1.     You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.

2.     We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement.

3.     We will provide you with tools to help you protect your intellectual property rights. To learn more, visit our How to Report Claims of Intellectual Property Infringement page.

4.     If we remove your content for infringing someone else’s copyright, and you believe we removed it by mistake, we will provide you with an opportunity to appeal.

5.     If you repeatedly infringe other people’s intellectual property rights, we will disable your account when appropriate.

6.     You will not use our copyrights or trademarks (including Facebook, the Facebook and F Logos, FB, Face, Poke, Wall and 32665), or any confusingly similar marks, without our written permission.

7.     If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it.

8.     You will not post anyone’s identification documents or sensitive financial information on Facebook.

9.     You will not tag users or send email invitations to non-users without their consent.”

Twitter has a Code of Conduct too, but seems very loath to take action against Twitter abuse, believing in freedom of speech, and Twitterers’ rights to expression.  It does not disallow disparagement, a major weakness of its Code.  It also does not demand honesty in Twittering, which means that anyone can say anything about anyone else on Twitter, without it necessarily being truthful.  It abdicates its legal liability in any dispute between Twitterers, yet does call for local country laws to be respected: 

·         Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

·         Trademark: We reserve the right to reclaim user names on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those user names. Accounts using business names and/or logos to mislead others will be permanently suspended.

·         Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.

·         Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.

·         Copyright: We will respond to clear and complete notices of alleged copyright infringement. Our copyright procedures are set forth in the Terms of Service.

·         Unlawful Use: You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or for promotion of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.

·         Verified accounts: You may not use the Verified Account badge unless it is provided by Twitter. Accounts using the badge as part of profile pictures, background images, or in a way that falsely implies verification will be suspended” 

      The abusive campaign has created food for thought for many Bloggers and Twitterers, many wondering how they would react if they were targeted by such a 140-character onslaught on a daily basis.   There are no clear rules.  There also is no precedent in South African law as to any Blog post, Tweet or Facebook entry having been the cause of a defamation claim to date. In the USA, a young Twitter user last year sent a disparaging comment about an apartment rental agency to her 20 followers, and she was sued for $50 000 by the agency.

We welcome your point of view on Freedom of Speech in Social Media Marketing.

POSTSCRIPT 27/10:   The abusive campaign recommenced this morning, the first Tweet denying David Cope’s involvement, a little too obvious!   Another Tweet refers to a lunch I have booked at Tokara this weekend, a violation of my privacy relative to the restaurant, meaning that this information has been leaked by a staff member of the restaurant.

POSTSCRIPT 12/11:   We have established that food blogger Clare Mc Keon/McLoughlin from Spill Blog is passing on information to David Cope for the abusive Twitter campaign.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter @WhaleCottage

Social media grows and evolves, constant challenge for food/wine bloggers

From being one of a handful wine estates using social media two years ago, Backsberg is now one of about 300 (around 50 %) of wine estates who do so.  This places pressure on all wine estates to constantly reevaluate their social media strategy, to remain ahead as well as relevant to one’s followers and friends, said Simon Back, Marketing Manager of Backsberg.

The Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club last night met at Rainbow Experience in Mandela Rhodes Place, which will be the venue for the Cape Town Show supper club, which opens on 5 November as a musical and food showcase, including Cape Jazz, Goemma, Kaapse Klopse, Township jive, Kwela and Mpantsula on the music side.   The bloggers attending were spoilt with a taste of the menu that will be served with the Show: African Hummus and Cape Snoek pate served with Lavache as starters; Lentil cottage pie, Dukkah Crusted Beef fillet and traditional Cape chicken curry as main courses; and desserts were Malay koeksisters, Dutch melktert and a traditional chocolate brownie.  

Simon first became interested in social media when he read the Stormhoek case study initiated by marketer Chris Rawlinson, the wine having been marketed purely by means of blogging, long before most winemakers had even heard the word.  From early beginnings Simon’s blog readers grew to include regular readers.  He switched from Blogger to WordPress, finding it driving more traffic to the Backsberg website.  As the blog readership grew, Simon realised that he had to make a commitment to write regularly, and he advised new bloggers to not commit to blogging if they cannot keep up with the regular commitment, and to rather Tweet or Facebook.   Simon had to find his focus in writing the Backsberg blog, choosing specifically to write about his family farm Backsberg, and wine in general in South Africa.   Twitter and Facebook have grown tremendously in importance, and Simon says that the 900 or so Facebook friends are worth more to him than hitting thousands of ‘uncommited’ readers via an advertisement.   Simon writes from a personal Twitter account (@SimonBack) and a colleague writes from the @Backsberg Twitter account, to keep content fresh and unduplicated.  A monthly newsletter is sent to members of the Backsberg Wine Club, and the Facebook and Twitter presence of Backsberg is aimed at increasing the number of members.   Simon shared with the bloggers that he was shocked to hear recently that newsletters are dead as a form of communication, because they contain too much information, and do not appeal to readers whose attention span is reducing due to information overload.  Simon foresees an application like 4Square becoming more important, with incentives being offered linked to one’s brand.  Simon has been recognised as one of the most social media savvy wine marketers, and represented South Africa at a Prowein conference in Germany on social media earlier this year. 

Backsberg is synonymous with environmental care and reducing its carbon footprint.  Backsberg was the third carbon neutral wine estate in the world, and the first in South Africa, a pioneer in this important eco-orientated wine production. It is the first South African wine company to bottle its wines in plastic bottles under the Tread Lightly brand, a further environmental-concern action by Backsberg.  The Food and Wine Bloggers were spoilt with Backsberg Sauvignon Blanc 2010 and the Merlot.   Simon’s talk was so successful, various aspects of it having been tweeted by the Food & Wine Bloggers during the meeting, that “Simon Back” became a “breaking” trending topic about three hours after the meeting.

Tom Robbins only recently started his eatcapetown Blog, focusing purely on Restaurant Reviews.  He has been a journalist at Business Report, and has written about most things other than food in this capacity.  He is a freelance journalist writer and “hobby” reviewer, he says.  He is interested in the anthropology of food, and regularly reads international restaurant reviewers’ reviews.   His policy is to be fair and objective, and he likes to tell the story, making his reviews longer.  He likes to discuss the type of clients he sees in the restaurant, its interior and exterior look, including the type of cars parked outside, and does not focus on the food alone.  

Tom calls for independence from bloggers, and asks that they declare the free meals and wines reviewed.   Tom feels that free gifts make one loose objectivity.  Yet, he says, one can argue that an invitation may give one access to a chef, and a chat to him/her may give one interesting insights into the restaurant and its food, which could add to one’s review.  He prefers anonymity, and therefore uses an illustration of himself on his blog so that he is not recognised when he enters a restaurant.   He does not ask many questions, hoping to experience as average a meal as possible.  Tom quoted the example of Jancis Robinson, who refers to www.wine-searcher.com in her reviews, and discloses in them that she receives a fee for her referrals.  Guaranteeing editorial coverage for advertising placed in a wine magazine, for example, has no credibility for the reader, when they spot the advertisement a few pages along.  “I believe disclosure indicates respect for readers” he said.  Disclosure of freebies is currently being debated in the USA and is likely to be legislated.   It is already included the American Bloggers’ code of conduct.   A question from a blogger about why chefs ands restaurants take reviews so badly was debated, and it was felt that chefs are known to have enormous egos, and that they are ecstatic when the review is good, and tend to ban patrons when it is critical.  Tom said this is ‘human nature’, and probably most people would react this way.

The Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club was formed to reflect the tremendous growth in and power of food and wine blogs in forming opinion about food, restaurants and wines.  Most bloggers do not have any formal training in blogging, and learnt from others.   Each of the two bloggers talk for about half an hour about their blog, and what they have learnt about blogging.  The Club gives fledgling as well as experienced bloggers the opportunity to learn from each other and to share their knowledge with others.  Attendees can ask questions, and get to know fellow bloggers.  The Club meetings are informal and fun.

The next meeting of the Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club is on Wednesday 24 November, from 6 – 8 pm, at the Grand Daddy Hotel in Long Street.  Food blogger Mariska Hendricks from The Creative Pot Blog and Emile Joubert from the Wine Goggle Blog will be ‘paired’.  Contact Chris at info@whalecottage.com to book.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter @WhaleCottage

Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club: ‘pairing’ Simon Back from Backsberg Blog with Tom Robbins of eatcapetown Blog

The sixth Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club meeting takes place on Wednesday 20 October, from 6 – 8 pm, at the Rainbow Room at Mandela Rhodes Place, and will pair Tom Robbins from eatcapetown Blog, a restaurant review blog, and Simon Back, from Backsberg Blog

Tom Robbins  was born on a dairy farm in Karkloof in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.  Tom hot-footed to live in cities as soon as he was old enough, though has never lost his rural roots.  He has spent most of his career working as a journalist with one disastrous exception when he opened a café-bar in Pietermaritzburg in 1999.  Tom’s career in journalism has spanned most beats from politics and the courts to travel and engineering.  Most recently he worked as a financial journalist, covering the retail and consumer goods sectors for Business Report.  A year ago Tom established the restaurant review website eatcapetown and continues to do odd jobs as a financial journalist.  He has no formal training in cooking: he is a writer who enjoys cooking rather than a cook who enjoys cooking.  Tom’s current addiction is roasting (both pot roasting and open roasting).  What he knows about wine is dangerous, he says!   Tom will be talking about restaurant reviewing, often a contentious topic, and will discuss review writing styles.   He will also address the difference between PR and journalism in respect of blogging, and how this affects disclosure of gifts/freebies received. 

Simon Back  has a Business Science degree, majoring in Economics, from UCT.  He joined Backsberg, the family farm, in 2008.  He is responsible for all aspects of marketing, and sales to North America.  Backsberg is well-known for its environmentally-friendly approach to wine farming, being very focused on its carbon footprint, and how to neutralise it.  The wine estate recently launched the first South African wines in plastic bottles, under the Tread Lightly sub-brand.  Simon is particularly interested in the role of Social Media in the Marketing Mix. He was invited to represent South Africa in Germany earlier this year, as part of a panel at Prowein 2010 on ‘Social Media and other Marketing Innovations’.  Simon will be talking about the future of blogging and social media.  He will challenge bloggers in asking them to consider how blog readers will change over time, and how their blogs need to evolve to reflect these changes. He is looking to stimulate debate on the future of blogging and social media.

The Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club was formed to reflect the tremendous growth in and power of food and wine blogs in forming opinion about food, restaurants and wines.  Most bloggers do not have any formal training in blogging, and learnt from others.   Each of the two bloggers will talk for about half an hour about their blog, and what they have learnt about blogging.  The Club will give fledgling as well as experienced bloggers the opportunity to learn from each other and to share their knowledge with others.  Attendees can ask questions, and get to know fellow bloggers.  The Club meetings are informal and fun.

Wines are brought along by the wine blogging speaker, and Simon Back will introduce the Backsberg wines served.  Snacks will be served.  The cost of attendance is R100.  Bookings can be made by e-mailing info@whalecottage.com.

Venue: Rainbow Room, Mandela Rhodes Place (next to Taj Hotel), Wale Street.

Other bloggers that will be talking at future Bloggers’ Club meetings are the following:

Wednesday 24 November:  Marisa Hendricks of The Creative Pot Blog, and Emile Joubert of Wine Goggle Blog, at the Grand Daddy Hotel, 6 – 8 pm.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.comTwitter: @WhaleCottage