I'll admit I had no idea when TripAdvisor debuted in February 2000 that it would become a force to be reckoned with. I am still often amazed at how this little website, a jumble of hotel reviews contributed by anyone with access to a computer, would grow to exert so much influence in the lodging industry that a whole new area of marketing has grown up around it.
Today, there are workshops, professional courses, spin doctors to help hoteliers and hospitality professionals use the power of TripAdvisor to their advantage.
And sometimes repair the damage from a bad review.
But here's a new tactic — at least one I hadn't heard of.
Tony and Jan Jenkinson, a retired British couple, stayed one night at the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool, England, and posted a review of the hotel on TripAdvisor, calling the establishment a "rotten, stinking hovel."
The price of the room was 36 pounds, about $56 at current exchange rates, but the couple's credit card was charged an additional 100 pounds after the review showed up on TripAdvisor. The Jenkinsons said the extra charge was a fine for the negative review. The couple brought this particular image-control tactic to the attention of authorities.
Tony Jenkinson acknowledged in an interview with the BBC that the 100-pound fine was hotel policy disclosed in the small print of the hotel's booking form. He said that unfortunately his wife wasn't wearing her glasses when she signed the form, so she didn't read the fine print and had no idea of the policy.
The policy states: "Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not.
"For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum 100 (pounds) per review." The Broadway Hotel is ranked 858 out of 894 hotels in Blackpool by TripAdvisor; of the 256 reviews on TripAdvisor, 191 rated the hotel as "poor" or "terrible."
Along with trying to get his money back from the credit card issuer, Tony Jenkinson contacted the British trade-standards office; a spokesman there said such a policy could be deemed illegal, as an unfair trading practice.
Officers spoke to the hotel and it is believed to have since agreed not to impose any further fines.
TripAdvisor said it was investigating the incident — as of press time, there was no further word. It said that while such instances are very rare, "it is completely against the spirit and policies of our site for any business owner to attempt to bully or intimidate reviewers who have had a negative experience."
On the other hand, I've noticed plenty of "suggestions" at hotels nowadays that say, in one way or another, if you've enjoyed your stay, you should do a TripAdvisor review, etc. etc.
"We take pride in the fact that consumers know they can rely on TripAdvisor to help them make informed decisions," said James Kay, a company spokesman. "We built this community by giving customers a platform to share their honest opinions, whether good or bad. We strongly believe in their right to do so."
The moral of the story? Bring your glasses, read the fine print at that hotel check-in. Or keep your opinions to yourself.
And speaking of TripAdvisor ...
Last week, I got a pitch from the folks at HeyLets.com and its CEO Justin Parfitt, who started by noting how ubiquitous user reviews are these days.
"From Yelp to Amazon, reviews these days are good for just one thing: Seeing what others think of a product, service, or business."
He asks: "But are reviews really helpful? Could they be an outmoded one-size-fits-all solution in a world where a user's interests are increasingly customized and niche-specific? Are they going the way of the dinosaurs?"
Parfitt, described as "an expert on how to use reviews to make good consumer decisions," says today's consumer needs next-generation review sites and apps. These more sophisticated sites "will more intelligently utilize your personal data and contextual preferences to make more thoughtful recommendations."
OK, surprise, that's what HeyLets.com is all about.
—Show you a personalized feed of recommendations from users who have similar interests.
—Use your social data to inspire you to try new things across the full range of your interests.
That's what it can do now. And "Even more impressive ... HeyLets will soon learn over time how you live your life."
After it sucks up enough of your data to really get inside your head, it will be able to:
—Anticipate your needs and propose activities for particular days by using information about past movements and even the weather forecast.
—Automatically disregard reviews from people with distinctly different preferences (e.g., a vegan diner who posts a at a non-vegan restaurant).
—Help you avoid less reliable reviews from so-called Debbie Downers — people who only post critical updates and negative content.
—Help you to think less and rely on metrics and statistics to create the life that it knows you really ought to want, according to the info spewed out by the next generation of sites and apps.
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