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Hoteliers Look to Shield Themselves From Dishonest Online Reviews

The 35 million hotel reviews posted on TripAdvisor reveal everything from snooty staff to filthy toilets, and sometimes the reviewer’s overly picky standards.

But those comments can also cross the line between honest criticism and unsubstantiated, inflammatory claims, with potentially damaging consequences for some hotels.

Although TripAdvisor does allow property owners to post responses to reviews, some hoteliers want the site to monitor comments more actively and take action when managers express concerns, especially when reviews border on libel.

As TripAdvisor’s influences grow, these tensions reveal how the free-for-all of online customer feedback differs from an era of professional reviewers operating under clearer guidelines.

“The world of the Internet and particularly social media has pretty much outstripped ethical guidelines, and some legal ones as well,” said Chris Emmins, a founder of KwikChex, a British reputation management company that is seeking to organize a lawsuit against TripAdvisor on behalf of its clients.

Mr. Emmins said more than 800 businesses had inquired about participating in the case, but he expected only a few dozen would meet the criteria the company hoped to test, including the legality of reviews that accuse hotel staff of theft, assault or discrimination.

“I don’t think they belong on a review site,” he said. “They’re allegations of criminality.”

In the United States, the Communications Decency Act generally protects sites like TripAdvisor from being held liable for third party posts. But some hoteliers contend TripAdvisor goes beyond the neutral role of host by sending e-mails highlighting “hotel horror stories” — in effect, endorsing those opinions.

Other complaints are that TripAdvisor is unwilling to remove questionable reviews from the site, declines to retire older reviews (even when a property is under new management) and screens owners’ responses more vigorously than members’ comments.

Jon Grabowski, an owner of the 24grille in the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, sued TripAdvisor over this issue last year, after the site failed to remove or investigate an anonymous review claiming that his business partner had entertained a prostitute in the restaurant.

“The review stated that this person witnessed the owner of 24grille waving a prostitute into the restaurant and then purchased her drinks,” Mr. Grabowski said, explaining that the woman was a client of a record label the partners operate.

“All we asked is that, because it could not be backed up by any fact, that it be removed from the Web site,” he said.

Although the lawsuit was dropped, the review was eventually removed, Mr. Grabowski said. But it left him and his partner frustrated.

“I want to find out if people had bad service or if they had a meal that wasn’t good,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Internet is sometimes just a cesspool of negativity.”

Adam Medros, a vice president at TripAdvisor, said he could not comment on cases involving litigation, but he noted that hotel owners had the option to post a response to any review.

“We encourage every property to do this, because at the end of the day, travel is never a perfect experience,” Mr. Medros said. “I’ve certainly heard from more than one user that they’re willing to pass over a bad review when the owner addresses it.”

As for the thorny problem of anonymous reviews, he said giving guests that option was crucial to getting good feedback and to achieving the critical mass that has made TripAdvisor successful.

Even Orbitz, which previously limited reviewing privileges to guests who had booked a hotel through the site, recently started allowing nonverified customers to post comments. But reviews from verified guests are weighed more heavily when Orbitz calculates the hotel’s rating, said Brian Hoyt, an Orbitz spokesman.

The tension over these reviews highlights how much is at stake as hoteliers obsess over TripAdvisor ratings, fostering speculation that some properties offer guests incentives to post positive comments.)

But at the least, monitoring and responding to customer reviews has given rise to companies like Revinate in San Francisco, which charges $200 to $600 a month to track a hotel’s online reviews, analyze trends and benchmark that data against competitors.

Niki Leondakis, president and chief operating officer for Kimpton Hotels, a Revinate client, said these tools streamlined the process of responding to reviews, which Kimpton encouraged its managers to do “as quickly and as frequently as possible.”

HKHotels goes even further, setting a company goal to have its hotels in New York — the Casablanca Hotel, the Library Hotel, the Hotel Elysée and the Hotel Giraffe — occupy the top four slots on TripAdvisor’s traveler rankings for the city.

“For years, we have been completely obsessed,” said Adele Gutman, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing. “We talk about it every day.”

Employees focus on personalized service, and the hotels offer guest-pleasing amenities like free Internet access, a breakfast buffet and a wine and cheese reception. It’s that service that leads to positive reviews, which, in turn, leads to bookings, she added. “We can walk around our club room and talk to people and ask, ‘How did you hear about us?’ ” Ms. Gutman said. “They say, ‘TripAdvisor, TripAdvisor, TripAdvisor.’ ”

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