A Question of Ethics

Here’s what happened. A ballroom full of innkeepers has gathered. It’s the first morning of the PAII conference. Our keynote speaker, Daniel Levine, is speaking about five social trends that are impacting our businesses. It’s a fresh, forward-thinking message. Then he drops a bomb on the audience.

Levine was talking about the social trend he calls, “Transparency Tyranny.” In brief, it has to do with the phenomenon of consumer-generated content on the internet. In our world of innkeeping, that mostly means online reviews, ala TripAdvisor, BedandBreakfast.com, etc. He gave a few other examples of how Web 2.0 is taking over the internet. One funny, but scary, example was www.rottenneighbor.com, where one can “Locate, Rate and Share Good and Bad Neighbors Before and After You Move.” In the context of this Web 2.0 discussion – and here’s the bomb – Levine suggested to innkeepers that they should essentially “game” the TripAdvisor system by leaving your own reviews of your own properties. In fact, he even suggests innkeepers should leave multiple reviews from different IP addresses or servers, so that TripAdvisor doesn’t catch you leaving multiple reviews. If you didn’t know, that breaks the rules TripAdvisor sets for innkeepers and hoteliers.

Personally, I was appalled. I looked around and wondered if everyone else heard what I had just heard. I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to stand up in the crowd and stop Levine during his presentation, but maybe I should have. The advice he offered was way off base. A few innkeepers walked out during his presentation. I was concerned that he lost all credibility at that moment, and that his main message was going to be lost.

The very next morning at the second general session of the conference, I delivered a formal rebuttal to Levine’s suggestion. I told the gathered innkeepers that PAII neither condones nor endorses what our speaker suggested. I shared my belief that it is perfectly ok to invite your guests to submit reviews of their experience, but within the bounds of good ethics. Apparently I struck a chord, because my comments were met with much applause. It was reassuring to see that the innkeeping community is by-and-large an ethical group of people. Furthermore, the conference was buzzing in the hallways and classrooms with this issue. Again, it was good to see that innkeepers care about doing the right thing and responded with shock to Levine’s comments.

Here’s a question for me to consider: what does PAII do with what happened? First, as I told the conference attendees, we’re not going to lose Levine’s valuable message on social trends. PAII is going to take each social trend and engage our members in a conversation about them. What are you doing now to embrace the trend? What do you think innkeepers can do? What does PAII think innkeepers can do? The five trends shared with us were:

Transparency Tyranny
Mobile Everywhere
Women Power

To the issue of ethics as it relates to online reviews, I am going to bring to the PAII Board of Directors the idea of publishing a public position statement on behalf of the innkeeping community about the proper and ethical approach to take with online reviews. The online review phenomenon is relatively young, and in some cases there is a lack of direction and convention. The sites that offer reviews have their own rules, but we believe there should be a statement from the innkeepers too. Online reviews – when done properly or improperly – impact the lives of innkeepers in a significant way. I believe your trade association is the place to host a conversation about these matters, endorse an ethical way of doing business and let the world know what our position is.

In addition, we will step up our dialogue with our friends at TripAdvisor. The two major players in our industry are BedandBreakfast.com and TripAdvisor. In my humble opinion, I think BedandBreakfast.com has done a good job keeping the innkeepers in mind when designing their online review program. On their FAQ page, they even encourage travelers to stay at inns that have no reviews, or even negative reviews. They know very well that a negative review doesn’t paint the entire picture. The content on this page offers well-balanced advice and insight, and I think they will continue to solicit the advice and input of innkeepers as their site continues to develop. TripAdvisor’s scope in the lodging world is much greater than the B&B industry, but I believe one online review on a B&B (especially a negative review) can be more impactful than one review on a hotel. It’s a matter of proportionality, and I’m not quite sure they understand that yet. By and large, their site accommodates and serves hoteliers.

With a much smaller inventory and customer base, B&Bs stand less of a chance of pulling in a high volume of reviews compared to our hotel brethren. The review system works best with volume. It’s just like when PAII conducts a survey; results are more valid when we have 500 participants in the survey, than if we had 50. The overall impression of a B&B or hotel will be more representative of the average customer experience when there are a large number of reviews. While the system is still young and the number of reviews still rather low, I am concerned that guests will more likely disregard a negative review about a hotel than a negative review about a B&B. Instinctively, a site visitor will assume that a couple of negatives review he or she is reading about a hotel are only a couple of reviews among thousands of stays. But, a few negative reviews on a B&B might seem to the untrained eye as more representative of the truth, simply because the inn might only have 4 rooms.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a brave new world in which we live. I hear from innkeepers fairly frequently about their grievances with the online review phenomenon. What are your thoughts on the ethics issue? What are your frustrations, or stories of how online reviews have benefited your business? I welcome you to comment on the Innkeeping Blog by clicking here.

Author: Jay Karen

Jay is the President & CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.

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