Does TripAdvisor Hold Restauranteurs to Ransom?

Founded in 2000 in a small office above a pizza shop in Massachusetts, TripAdvisor has exponentially grown to become the biggest and most used review-sites in the world. From bars, hotels, restaurants and resorts, TripAdvisor has 125 new reviews posted every minute, and over 300 million unique visitors reading over 200 million reviews and opinions a month.

Their readership and power they now command in the tourism and hospitality industry is astonishing to say the least,and has led to a seismic shift in power from hotelier/restaurateur to the consumer. No longer do consumers look at grainy pictures of hotels in magazines, or go to restaurants that were recommended by a paid food critique in the Guardian, but they read in real-time what service your ‘average Joe’ had last week and see how clean the showers really are.

For example, you wouldn’t have found a review in a Travel Agents advertising ‘a cat paw in your pillow case’, or that your hotel is as beautifully similar to ‘Alcatraz’…

TripAdvisor Barcode

Many claim that this has been enormously positive for travellers. Where once we were vulnerable to the quirks and rudeness of countless Basil Fawltys, we now have a source of both warning and redress before we plan our vacations away or nights out.

However not everyone is positive about TripAdvisor. And you can imagine why.

TripAdvisor has become the essential lifeblood of the hospitality industry, pushing sales and traffic to their respective venues through positive customer experience and ratings. However, as easily as TripAdvisor can build your business empire, with one bad review or customer experience your bar, restaurant or hotel and your empire can be destroyed as quick as a chocolate fireguard.

Of course, the industry is well aware of the power of ‘terrible reviews’ and unsatisfactory customer experience can have on their business. Nevertheless, there is a general feeling that customers now wield too much power and, figuratively speaking,  have the industry in a choke hold, ultimately controlling the fate of a restaurant at the mere click of a button.

Context and expectations

For instance, take Jared Blank. Blank is a long-time analyst of the travel industry and likes to kick back by looking at reviews of the world’s greatest hotels on TripAdvisor. Specifically, the terrible reviews.

“No melon is ever ripe enough for people on TripAdvisor,” he says. “There are hotels that rate in the top five in the world, and people are still complaining. I’m always shocked by the comments: from the quality of the fruit, to the mobile-phone reception on an island in the middle of nowhere, to whether the person on the front desk was smiling sufficiently upon their arrival. It blows my mind.”

“I look up the TripAdvisor reviews of the Ritz in London. Out of 279, 166 give the hotel five stars out of five, but 27 give it just one, and their reasons are varied and revealing – about the hotel, and also the reviewers. “Beware the stuffy and outdated dress code,” warns one, “apparently being dressed head to toe in Armani and having a Prada handbag isn’t good enough for this officious and petty hotel.”

“It’s all a matter of context and expectations. I don’t expect a $80.00 a night hotel to be up to the standards of a $800.00 hotel. Some do. I’ve stayed in $40.00 a night hotels and my only real requirement was that the room be clean.”

This sums up nicely the paradoxical nature of TripAdvisor. It’s a democratic platform that celebrates consumer power, the right for everyone and anyone’s opinions to be heard accorded to equal weight- yet these reviews are full of astonishing contradictions and bewildering hypocrisy throughout.

Delusions and agendas

Many of the bad reviews or ratings can not only be conceived from the unrealistic expectations that customers have with a venue, but also the ‘agendas’ that people have against a destination, even before they’ve sampled it themselves.

Take the thoughts of an anonymous Travel Agent commenting about TripAdvisor:

There are those that read Tripadvisor, form an opinion that they aren’t going to enjoy themselves from the off and set out on a mission, pet lip in tow to hunt out as many faults as possible, again I speak from experience… I somehow always end up next to them on the plane. I seriously had a woman next to me last year when going to the Caribbean. She was staying at the same hotel I was… Cue 5 hours of ranting, warning me amongst other things that I needed to be up at 4am to claim a spot by the pool and would need to be sat on it at 6 even though the sun doesn’t come up till around 7… oh and if I wanted a hot breakfast I’d need to be there at 6:15 am sharp but would have to plan a shift rotation for the rest of my family as the pool man removed any unused towels at 6:25 am. (Why get there at 4am then?!) When I asked how many times she’d been to the hotel the response was 0, but the ‘tripweb advisor internet thingy’ said so…”

The anonymous Travel Agent continues…

“None of this was remotely close to the truth. My family and I loved it, when I chanced upon said woman later in the week and asked if she was having a good time, she could only come up with more negatives and did actually say that she was going to ‘write to the internet’ to add the fact her “curling tongs didn’t get as hot as they do at home…”

Sounds like someone you know? It probably does as, whether you like it or not, we’ve all done it. A couple of years ago I stayed at a Ski Chalet in the Alps with some friends and after reading a TripAdvisor review about the ‘Mountain Goat’ sized stew that the Chalet chef cooks on a Tuesday we waited with much anticipation and hunger for our big feed. Tuesday came and what greeted us wasn’t a ‘mountain sized portion’, but a very reasonably portioned stew. At the time my friends and I were dismayed that we didn’t receive our ‘mountain size goat’ and I remember feeling somewhat disappointed for days after.

However come to think of it, the food we had was absolutely delicious, but it was just a combination of our expectations based falsely on an exaggerated customer review that shaped our own experience of the food in that moment. Again, this was only realised after reflection, and although I wasn’t fickle enough to write my own review on TripAdvisor, I heard many others round me (who obviously read the same review) thinking of writing a damming indignation. And that’s the problem right there.

It’s funny. The British used to be famous for never complaining. We’d sit through the worst meals in the world and when the waiter enquired how it was, mumble “lovely.” But give us an anonymous review site and we declare war over starter that’s a minute late, or in my case a portion that ‘wasn’t as big as expected’. Psychologists have even come up with a name for this – the online disinhibition effect, where a number of factors combine to make people who would once mumble “lovely” type 500-word diatribes with the caps lock on.

Industry fightback? 

The industry has had enough of these keyboard warriors that endlessly post about their venues. Recently, one chef at 47 King Street West, Manchester, even personally attacked a hen party labelling as ‘chav cheap trash’ after bad review.

Comments from the restaurant’s official Facebook page, which appears to have since been deleted, said: “The chavviest, worst, most vile people ever to grace our restaurant. Wouldn’t know fine dining if it slapped them in their ugly faces!

“And 5 out of 18 of them turned up 1 hour and 10 minutes after the booking time and “expected” fresh starters…are you having a laugh…clearly never eaten out in a decent restaurant in their lives. What absolute trash they were. We pity the groom!”

This kicked off #chavgate and the restaurant had to delete all social media, “going underground”, as diners then took to TripAdvisor to say that yeah, actually, they didn’t much like the service 47 King Street West either. At one point, the restaurant was receiving more than ten “one star” ratings in 24 hours.

Understandably this is not a professional way to exercise balance between business and consumer, however the above example is symptomatic of the overall frustration of the asymmetric control that consumers have on the industry. And, funnily enough, the Government recognises this.

Last month, Government backed business watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched a call for information on online reviews and endorsements, encouraging both customers and business owners to share their opinions in an online consultation. The fact-finding exercise analyses the role online reviews and blogs, as well as media companies, play in “helping businesses to promote their products/services.”

Despite the reach of such online review sites—and the fact that Australian, French and Italian authorities have all taken action against fake reviews in the past five years—the CMA’s inquiry is the first of its kind in the UK.

Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, Consumer, said:

“The information contained in online reviews and endorsements can be a powerful force in the hands of consumers. Informed consumers make better decisions, driving competition on price and quality. Businesses have always known that ‘word of mouth’ is one of the most important factors for potential customers; what online reviews and blogs do is to provide a greatly amplified version of this. However, for this sector to work well it is important that this information is genuine, relevant and trustworthy”

Balance of power?

So will the CMA enquiry address the industry grievances with TripAdvisor?

Frank McCready, who owns the Old Brewery guest house in North Yorkshire, and runs a website called I Hate TripAdvisor hopes so.

McCready would “like changes in the law that meant people who posted reviews had to be visible and accountable – if you publish something you have to use reasonable restraint, make sure your facts are right. I’m angry at the moment that it’s not transparent, it’s not honest, it’s not straight. It’s seriously damaging people’s livelihoods.”

Where once we had dozens of critics who knew what they were on about, now we have millions of critics who have no idea what they’re talking about. One Telegraph commentator branded this as ‘the twilight of the professional critic’.

The same commentator goes onto remark that…”You often find yourself wondering who writes these things. Some of them have you asking not what the author’s first language is, but if they have one at all”.

It is true that the industry does need some form of regulation. But this will come at the cost of individual liberty and freedom of speech in the industry. Should we leave it to the restaurant experts and the glossy magazines/stock images from Travel Agents? No as this would be impossible in the internet age. Nevertheless, TripAdvisor needs to work with the CMA to tackle these industry grievances and reach some form of compromise, before it becomes an endemic problem and permanent schism business and consumer forever.

–Tim

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