I was struck by the latest response by Trip Advisor, to the pressure that is being brought to bear on 'false' or inaccurate reviewing! This appears to have snow-balled from a Channel Four documentary - The Attack of the Trip Advisor! I have to say that words almost failed me after having seen this program; I am not sure what the program hoped to achieve by choosing to examine a very small part of the holiday reviews world. I feel that it is important to distinguish between the kind of complaints we hear of and those presented through this program. Whilst I would not wish to reduce the impact of what the 'reviewers' found or felt, their reviews are a long way off the kind of holiday horrors we hear of. With regard to the owner's of the various properties, whilst frustration may be part of their daily battle with the Consumer, reflecting true feelings about Consumers on camera is never a wise Commercial tactic - I wondered if they were told to seek professional advices before filming started? I would always be at the front of any queue to defend a Consumer's or Hotelier's right to free speech and reply, did this program achieve that - I will leave you to judge? All in all, I came away feeling quite frustrated by the program; it presented a curious television spectacle, but did nothing to advance the real issues - free speech - verifiable reviews - the right of reply and so on. Had they done so, they would have captured a wealth of comment and observation by examining the true 'hotspots' of travel!
We have previously commented on the issue of Travel Reviews. In that commentary, we examined the nature and structure of travel reviews and how the Consumer was bound with quite draconian terms and conditions; we also commented on the proposals made by the company gathering hoteliers together for action - we observed on their demands that:
- Improved management response facilities – no problem there!
- Auto-deletion of reviews older than 2 years – no problem there except where a hotel consistently provides holiday illness complaints, should not that record be available for everyone to view?
- Deletion of reviews where the problem has been resolved – what about mass illness cases that have run for several years, should not that record be available for everyone to view?
- Qualification that reviewers are anonymous and unverified – No problem there, but how is verification going to be achieved?
- Screen out keywords such as poisoning, theft etc – That is controlling the message and affects the very freedom of expression we take for granted – anyway if you are going to verify contributors what is the problem? This is probably the most worrying proposal!
- Stop the use of broadcast e mails highlighting best/worst hotels – We have never understood the value of these as they often refer to destinations most British Holidaymakers will never visit.
- An improved response system for owners – We consider the response system questionnaire should mirror that of consumers found on most travel review websites. We support the right to respond, however caveats should be posted next to such reviews highlighting, that disputes are never resolved through such portals and that consumers should seek independent advices!
What is interesting is that whilst the parties are engaged in a 'litigation waltz', Trip Advisor is now about to launch a hotline for property owners and are to run seminars on reputation management - Interesting!
But what about the Consumer, surely they have a right to comment; surely they have a right to be protected too?
This year we have received complaints from holidaymakers on the following issues:
- Reviews submitted just simply do not appear - what has happened to them - why were they not published?
- Holidaymakers have reported that they have been offered a 'free' holiday by hoteliers next year if they place a positive review on any website;
- Other holidaymakers have reported that they have been threatened that they 'have' to make a positive review before they can leave a hotel;
- Holidaymakers are subjected to threatening online behaviour from the 'supporters' of a hotel or resort (we have experienced the same from such 'groupies' when putting 'Call to Arms' on our own website!);
- Holidaymakers who have often placed 'balanced' reviews online are sometimes subjected to the 'contrary' view which seeks to ridicule their points of view;
- Holidaymakers are subjected to, in serious cases of illness, a very slick and organised online response designed to isolate the illness complaint at source!
So perhaps before we get too caught up in the moral outrage presented by this program, we should reflect upon the wide range of holiday complaints submitted by Consumers each day and what they are saying. I am sure that in any examination we would find many justifiable complaints that cut to the heart of the tourism debate; how do travel companies, local, tourist, health and fire authorities monitor and manage the tourist product - are the products fit for purpose?
Remember this as well, many tour companies will link you into positive reviews at the point of sale, but as soon as a negative review surfaces, it becomes a 'subjective' view and one that is not verified (despite the fact that these same companies have teams of travel representatives, customer complaint forms, letters of complaint - which they often deny) - so remember, the issue here is not about this particular program's subject matter, it is about the industrial use of reviews to a Commercial advantage by companies both big and small!
I am often challenged on regulatory matters, with my opposite numbers claiming that the Consumer is the best regulator! Now I happen to think that perhaps the Consumer needs a helping hand, through regulation, to ensure a good and safe product. However, if my opponents are correct, then surely portals like Trip Advisor support the notion of the Consumer Regulator - isn't it a bit hypocritical to suggest that this route should be cut off - isn't it a dangerous attack on free speech?