Convincing TripAdvisor

Nearly 300 innkeepers submitted their stories of hardship, grievance and praise for TripAdvisor when I asked the industry to share thoughts and opinions of how this site impacts the businesses and lives of innkeepers. Innkeepers spoke up and continue to send me emails almost daily on the subject. There is no doubt of the need for PAII to facilitate a conversation between our industry and TripAdvisor. The conversation began just a couple of weeks ago, when I visited with TripAdvisor CEO, Stephen Kaufer, and some of his top staff.

Distilling 300 different stories and perspectives into a succinct message was a difficult task (and I read every single one of them), yet some patterns emerged. With only an afternoon with TripAdvisor, I had to pick some of the most pressing matters to bring to the table.

My meeting with Kaufer and others (Brian Payea, Director of Trade Relations, and Tricia Oliveira, Manager of Hotel Relations and Fraud) was 3 hours of rapid-fire questioning. It must have felt like a deposition to them. I found their team to be very reasonable and willing to listen and respond to the issues we are bringing to the table. I was pleased to leave the meeting with what seemed to be some agreement for certain changes and a commitment to keep discussing other matters that couldn’t be solved in one afternoon. As expected, there were some requests and ideas I brought to the table on behalf of innkeepers, which were not met with agreement.

Those headline topics, all of which seem to be supported by an ample number of stories and lines of reason, were as follows:

Site Features and Property Pages – B&B pages on TripAdvisor and overall search functionality seem to lead traffic away from B&Bs, and the use of certain terms seem to demonstrate a favoritism towards hotels above all lodging options.

Reviews and Reviewers – it seems that anyone can say just about anything about an inn on TripAdvisor (with some exception), without needed oversight, except some automated fraud protections and a few basic rules (which don’t seem to be enforced consistently).

Popularity Index – it’s a secret what exactly impacts an inn’s ranking on TripAdvisor, but there are factors which seem to ignore fairness. Ranking on this index can immediately be impacted by fraudulent reviews or those used as means of revenge, rather than honest feedback.

Conflict Resolution – the opportunity to leave a management response seems to be the only tool available to combat unfair or untrue reviews, and TripAdvisor appears to be slow or unresponsive with attempts to have grievances resolved. When grievances are resolved, they seem to favor reviewers more than the reviewed.

Site Features and Property Pages
The “Map this Hotel” link on most B&B pages leads to an Expedia.com map page that does not show the location of the B&B, unless the B&B provides inventory to Expedia.com. The map that shows up for B&Bs not on Expedia shows properties near the B&B that are on Expedia.com, which include the B&B’s competition. So, for the 90%+ of innkeepers who are not on Expedia.com, this seems like a “bait and switch” tactic. Stephen Kaufer felt this was indeed a disservice to both the innkeeper and the visitor to the site and should be addressed. I offered the idea of allowing the link to go to a Google Map of the property, if the property is not on Expedia.com, just like the restaurant pages on TripAdvisor. If the B&B is on Expedia, the map that shows up is an Expedia map of all the area properties including the B&B in question. The jury is still out on what the solution will be for those B&Bs not on Expedia.
(On the morning of 10/10/2008 I noticed that some B&B’s “Map this Hotel” link actually goes to a Google Map window. This is much better. But, this isn’t the case with all B&Bs. I’m looking into it.)

I asked about the sources used for the “Average Rate” figure seen on property pages, since many innkeepers report their true average rate is not in line with what TripAdvisor reports. Many innkeepers have callers who reference the TripAdvisor rate, which can often be far from accurate. The average rate is either pulled directly from sources like Expedia.com and Hotels.com, or it’s pulled from a third-party source that apparently finds these rates. For those not on Expedia, this can be a big problem. The TripAdvisor staff says any innkeeper can contact their staff to get the average rate adjusted. A problem, as reported by one innkeeper, is that the rate has a tendency to change back to the rate provided by their third-party source. I offered the solution of allowing innkeepers to enter their own average rates, or better yet rate ranges, through the owner log-in area. The restaurants listed on TripAdvisor display rate ranges. I thought this would be a safe bet for innkeepers. They liked the idea.

I inquired about the possibility of having links on the B&B pages back to the B&B websites. Currently, for those visitors to TripAdvisor who want to learn more about the property, they have to open a new window and use a search engine to find the B&B. So, essentially, the B&B pages on TripAdvisor are dead-end experiences for users. Kaufer agreed this wasn’t ideal for their site visitors. He is contemplating the prospect of putting links on the property pages that go directly to the B&B websites. This would be a big deal for innkeepers, especially those who carefully track web traffic, as they’ll be able to know how many leads come directly from TripAdvisor.

I encouraged the consistent use of the term “accommodations” instead of “hotels,” which is used throughout the site. To their credit, the front page uses the term “Hotels & Accommodations,” but then “hotels” seems to be the term of choice in all subpages where a link to all lodging choices might be. Kaufer said that where the term “hotels” is used in many places, it’s the only option for a link to lodging properties. In those cases, it’s not that big of a deal; anyone searching for even a B&B would instinctively click the “hotels” link when it is placed next to links such as flights, things to do and restaurants. Nevertheless, I think “hotels” still represents one part of the accommodations industry and believe a more general term could be used. I’m not sure what changes might happen with this issue, but I’ll continue to beat the drum.

When examining the search functions on TripAdvisor, there really are two main choices from the homepage: what I call the “super search” field at the very top of the home page, and the “availability search,” which asks for the traveler’s intended destination and arrival/departure dates (the actual words used are “Find Hotels Travelers Trust”). There are problems with both search tools. When using the “super search” field, if one types in “Norman, OK,” he will see a listing of accommodations that have the word “Norman” in the name of the property, i.e. Hilton Garden Inn Norman. But the Montford Inn, which is the town’s #1 rated B&B, doesn’t show up, unless you 1) click on the “hotels” link under the Norman, OK link then 2) click on the B&B radio button on the “Search Norman Hotels” page that appears. The obvious problem with this is that most B&Bs (and hotels for that matter) don’t have the city name in the name of their businesses. TripAdvisor staff didn’t seem to think this was that big of a deal, and that most people who type “Norman, OK” would most likely next click the Norman, OK link (which leads to an overview page about Norman) or would click the “Hotels” link right under the link to
the overview page. The “availability search” tool has been a big problem for innkeepers, because those B&Bs not with Expedia are getting left behind. If you typed in “Norman, OK” and chose the check-in date of January 12, 2009 and check-out date of January 13, 2009, you would first see any hotels in that city that have online availability through one of TripAdvisor’s commerce partners, i.e. Expedia.com. To find B&Bs, you would have to click on the B&B radio button. Since there are no B&Bs in Norman that offer online availability through Expedia, the message reads “No B&Bs/inns found.” There is a subtle link that says, “Show all B&Bs / inns regardless of price, availability or online booking option,” but it’s confusing. If they plan to stay with the current search functionality that might indicate that no B&Bs had availability on the dates entered, I suggested that language along these lines be used:

“The system is returning no availability for B&Bs/inns who offer rooms on TripAdvisor’s commerce partner sites. There may be B&Bs/inns in this market with availability and pricing you seek. Click here to show all B&Bs/inns regardless of price, availability or online booking option to continue your search.”

Kaufer said they would change the wording to reflect what I thought was more accurate, if we came up with more concise wording.

If an B&B is in a city or town in the same market as another city (i.e. Mt. Pleasant, SC and Charleston, SC), the B&B will only show up in searches of that B&B’s particular city. In other words, B&Bs in Mt. Pleasant, SC, will not show up when doing a search on Charleston, SC. Innkeepers outside the city limits of Charleston would probably enjoy being listed among properties in Charleston, but TripAdvisor searches are strictly city-based. In other words, a B&B in Mt. Pleasant will only show up on searches for B&Bs in Mt. Pleasant. The TripAdvisor staff indicated there are no plans to change this.

Some innkeepers expressed an interest in having their inns removed from TripAdvisor; they’d rather not be found than endure the negative reviews (whether real, fraudulent or embellished). I mentioned to the TripAdvisor staff that travelers must agree to the terms and conditions of the site in order to leave reviews, but innkeepers and hoteliers who disagree with the terms and conditions were “forced” into existence on TripAdvisor. I asked why they could not be removed, except in the case when the inn closed. Kaufer explained the purpose of the site is to provide information and reviews on all accommodations, and they would be a less useful resource if travelers wanted to find reviews about properties that were really open for business, but didn’t want to be reviewed. I’m not sure what the legalities are here, but I think this should be pursued more deeply. It doesn’t seem right that one business can profit from the existence and the reviews of others businesses against the will of the business owners.

TripAdvisor staff said that very few innkeepers take advantage of some of the tools that would maximize the usefulness of their property pages. For example, TripAdvisor lists 65 B&Bs in Cape May, NJ, and less than half include photos of the properties. Innkeepers have the ability to upload their own photos and videos, or ask friendly guests (and photo enthusiasts) to upload their own media.

Reviews and Reviewers
The issue of qualifying reviewers was an important topic of my conversation with the TripAdvisor staff. The system treats all reviews similarly, but not all reviewers are necessarily equal. Some are first-time “inngoers,” while others have been staying at B&Bs for years, and therefore have different expectations than the new folks (not meeting expectations seems to be a cause for many harsh reviews). Some reviewers never even stayed at the properties they were allowed to review. Some innkeepers suggest that a review should be qualified with the question, “Did you mention any problems cited in your review with the manager or owner, giving them a chance to correct those problems?” Other innkeepers insist the right thing to do is to NOT protect the identity of the reviewers.

One of the most common criticisms of TripAdvisor is that the site allows users to leave reviews of B&Bs, even if they didn’t stay at the B&B. I read many stories about how prospective guests cancelled their reservations with a B&B, protested the cancellation fees and left negative reviews of the B&B as a means of revenge. There were even some stories about how potential guests threatened to leave negative reviews if their deposits were not returned; only to find out they still left negative reviews even after their money was returned. TripAdvisor allows reviews to be posted that deal with any experience one has with a property or the management. On one hand, I can see why TripAdvisor allows this. If I read a review in the paper about a fantastic new restaurant in Philadelphia and made 7:30 pm reservations for dinner with my wife, only to find that by 8:15 the night of our dinner we still had not been seated, I might decide to leave the restaurant. I certainly would be interested in leaving a review on Zagat.com or some other notable restaurant review site. It was a valid experience that I had at the restaurant, even though I did not eat there. On the other hand, I can see how allowing anonymous reviews by people who didn’t even eat at the restaurant is an invitation for false reviews. A problem with TripAdvisor is that someone who didn’t stay at the B&B could leave a review about all aspects of the B&B, including value, check-in, room and cleanliness. My suggestion to TripAdvisor staff was to first ask the reviewer, “Did you stay at this property?” If the answer is no, then the reviewer cannot review any aspects of the inn except something like “reservation process,” and their review should have less of an impact on the property’s “Popularity Index” than a review by someone who had a full stay. Kaufer thought this was an interesting idea that deserved merit and attention.

To the idea of requiring the reviewer to indicate if he or she mentioned any problems to the innkeeper, Kaufer said the management response tool should indicate any cases where guests neglected to bring up issues that could have been corrected during the stay.

Regarding the idea of indicating if a reviewer is a first-time inngoer, novice, experienced or veteran, the TripAdvisor staff didn’t seem to think it was a great idea. This would be altering their membership profiling or review system to accommodate a small segment of their universe.

Another issue brought to the table was the fact that people can leave reviews today about experiences they had three or four years ago. Furthermore, those reviews will show up first on the list. To the untrained eye, it appears as though the new review was for a recent stay. One has to open the actual review and look for the “Date of Stay” in order to see that the review was about an experience four years ago. At least the review should be placed in chronological order by “Date of Stay” instead of the date the review was entered. The TripAdvisor staff didn’t seem to object to that line of reasoning, although there was no commitment to change the programming to place the old review automatically in chronological order. Kaufer suggested they increase the visibility of the “Date of Stay.” Kaufer also explained when the site was first launched, they probably agreed to a more liberal timeline on reviews in order to get the system populated with reviews. Now that the system is full of reviews, he agreed it made sense to examine that policy again. Nothing older than one year seemed to be a reasonable policy. I think it makes most sense for reviews of the most recent stays to default to the top of the list; after all, travelers want to first see reviews of the most recent experiences.

I also brought up the issue of reviews remaining on the site that could be four or five years old, and that things definitely change over time. I inquired about allowing old reviews to “sunset” off the site, as they were basically useless for someone traveling today. TripAdvisor staff said the old reviews would remain, but that much older reviews are virtually worthless with regards to impacting the Popularity Index, indicating that with age a review becomes less significant (if that’s any consolation for those who inquired about this topic). The staff did reiterate the policy on their website about old reviews being removed when there is new ownership. If someone buys an existing inn and furnishes proof of the new ownership to TripAdvisor, they will remove all the old reviews. Some innkeepers reported to me unsuccessful attempts to get this done, while others said they had no problem getting old reviews removed. If any innkeepers continue to have problems in this area, please feel free to contact us. We’ll try to help.

TripAdvisor allows members to rate other members’ reviews as being helpful or not. I suggested if members rate another member’s review as NOT helpful, then this review should fall in significance with regard to the Popularity Index. If some crazy, impossible-to-satisfy guest leaves an absurd review (and others find it to be unhelpful), shouldn’t that review have less weight than those which were either not rated or found to be very helpful? This is not the case right now, but the staff seemed to like the idea.

Some innkeepers reported that their guests attempted to leave reviews, but the reviews never made it to TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor staff said they do not prevent reviews from being posted, unless they don’t conform to the rules (and in those cases, the reviewers will be notified). The likely scenario is that the reviewer didn’t go through the final steps of confirming the reviews. I believe in some cases, the reviewer will get an email (maybe after the first attempted review) requesting a confirmation. If the reviewer doesn’t complete the steps as instructed, the review will not be posted. Innkeepers should be sure guests who inform them about this are aware there might be confirmation steps to take. Looking in a spam or junk mail folder might be a good idea to check for emails from the TripAdvisor system.

I asked the TripAdvisor staff if a negative review holds more weight than a positive review. They said no, but wouldn’t go into much detail about the algorithm used to determine the Popularity Index ranking. We can surmise that rankings are helped by the number of positive reviews, as well as how recent they are. I would guess the system works something like a Grade Point Average system. I remember when I had a 4.0 GPA through the first semester of my sophomore year in college. That second semester I earned a C in a class, and my GPA plummeted to something like 3.6. It took 3 more semesters of straight As to bring it up into the 3.9 range. That C didn’t hold any more weight than an A when examined by itself, but it surely had a big impact on my GPA. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that negative reviews might have a similar impact on ranking.

Some major competitive sports involve scoring by judges (i.e. 1 to 10), and in some of those cases the lowest and highest scores are omitted. I brought forward the idea of dropping the highest and lowest reviews. Understandably, TripAdvisor staff didn’t think the idea was a good one. If someone has a legitimate negative review, it should probably remain.

I asked why they don’t require proof of stay with negative reviews, like the folks at BedandBreakfast.com. They said the business model would require proof for all or proof fo none, and they opted for none when they started the site. There is no intention of changing that. They cited the fact that having to go through the steps of furnishing proof would deter many people from leaving reviews, and I agreed that would likely be true. If I was required to dig up a receipt, I would probably give up the quest to leave a negative review. Fewer negative reviews would likely get posted, which would mean that travelers wouldn’t value TripAdvisor (or any other similar review sites) as a legitimate resource for candid reviews, thereby limiting the effectiveness and purpose of the websites. One could argue that proof of stay should also be required for positive reviews, as a means to prevent an innkeeper or hotelier from stacking the deck with false positives. Requiring proof of stay for reviews (either positive or negative) would no doubt curtail the number of reviews, but it would also combat false reviewing. The bottom line is that TripAdvisor has no plans to start requiring proof of stay. I personally have mixed feelings about requiring proof of stay. It would curtail fraud and embellishment, but many people feel they can only leave honest reviews due to the protection of anonymity. If I’m a frequent guest of a hotel and had some bad experiences, but know that I’ll be back to that hotel, I’m not sure I want the hotel to know that it was me who left the review – but I may indeed want other potential guests to know my two cents. The ideal situation would be where all reviewers would either have to identify themselves or proof of stay could be furnished automatically through email identification and the reservation process. Administratively, that is a nightmare for review sites like TripAdvisor to consider, since reservations are not made through their site.

Popularity Index
While I touch on the Popularity Index in other areas of this summary, I posed some specific questions about the index (well-knowing that their algorithm is a secret). I explained, though they probably don’t need reminding, that the index is impacting commerce. Innkeepers tell us that a ranking of #1 can mean real business. The converse can be true; a drop in ranking or low rankings can damage or kill a business. No one knows the rules, but some education is needed. To illustrate my point that the system is a complete enigma (to a fault), on the day I visited TripAdvisor the #1 ranked hotel in Austin, TX, was the Super 8 out by the airport. It has a total of 12 reviews. All were 5s and none was older than April 2008. With all due respect to the Super 8, I didn’t understand how such a property could be ranked #1 in such a metropolitan area. Even the TripAdvisor staff seemed stumped on that one.

I asked if the volume of reviews impacts the ranking, and I couldn’t really get an affirmative on that one. If you look at the Super 8 example above, you would think not. I asked how can a 5-room B&B that is open for one year with 20 reviews compete on a level playing field with a 15-room B&B open for 30 years with 300 reviews? I wondered if a ratio of rooms-to-reviews should be considered. In other words, if a property has 5 rooms, then they shouldn’t have to garner a large number of reviews in order to compete at the top of the ranking. TripAdvisor didn’t seem that interested in having a ratio-type formula; they said smaller properties are just going to have to work harder to gain more reviews. Kaufer suggested that innkeepers of smaller properties are more likely to have a more intimate relationship with the guests, so getting more reviews might not be as difficult. To his point though, would a ratio-based formula also mean that one negative review would be more impactful in the Popularity Index for a small inn than a larger inn? As of now, no change is expected with regard to the number of rooms a B&B has.

The Popularity Index is a ranking system, i.e. #1 or #5 in a particular market. I asked why they chose this format, rather than a categorical ranking bas
ed on having achieved a certain score (i.e. a Preferred Property based on having an overall score of 4.0 or higher). In that scenario, B&Bs with similar scores have a chance to compete more evenly, rather than one B&B actually being ranked #1. A problem with a numbered system is that a B&B could be ranked #10 in a market of 70 B&Bs, and still be phenomenal. But with a numbered system, that B&B would not be seen on the first page. A visitor would have to click through more links to see that property. If rankings were based on achievement categories, visitors might go deeper into the site to see all the B&Bs that achieved good rankings; thereby facilitating even more page views for TripAdvisor (translation – more exposure for all those paid, sponsored links all over the site). TripAdvisor staff said that travelers want to see numbered rankings, and that they prominently display average rankings already. So, guests who want to see all the properties with average rankings of 4.0 or higher can already do that. Nevertheless, my point was that visitors are distracted by the numbered rankings, and the foster hyper-competitiveness. This hyper-competitiveness is what drives innkeepers to go beyond their comfort level to solicit reviews.

One innkeeper asked me to find out if any individual TripAdvisor staff members have the ability to single-handedly change a property’s ranking. The innkeeper claimed after some negative interactions with the TripAdvisor staff that the B&B’s ranking immediately dropped. The staff insisted no individual employee at TripAdvisor has that ability. But, I was told (if my memory and notes serve me correctly) that if the innkeeper of a property is under suspicion of fraudulent activity, the B&B is placed on a certain probationary status, and that status can impact their ranking. In other words, TripAdvisor staff can impact ranking based on what they deem is suspicious activity by an innkeeper or hotelier.

I expressed to the TripAdvisor team that in a competitive system, such as the Popularity Index, where the stakes are very high, it’s vitally important that the reviews which dictate the ranking be 100% legitimate. This is why I’m pressing for changes with conflict resolution, which you’ll read about below.

Conflict Resolution
From the stories sent to me, it seems as though management responses go through a more stringent line of scrutiny than reviews. I imagine the ratio of reviews-to-responses is probably 100-to-1, so it stands to reason the TripAdvisor staff doesn’t examine reviews as closely as they do management responses. I received several stories about management responses never showing up on the site, and in some cases not getting any response as to why. The staff insists management responses are not singled out for scrutiny more than reviews, but many anecdotes shared with me seem to tell a different story. For example, neither reviews nor responses are allowed to contain “insults,” yet I hear stories of innkeepers or staff being called unethical, lazy or other terms. When innkeepers attempt to make similar comments about the reviewers, they are restricted (although I think innkeepers should think carefully about lashing out at possibly deserving guest; remember management responses are for future TripAdvisor visitors and prospective guests, not necessarily the upset reviewer).

I asked how many staff members are assigned to helping owners with conflict resolution, but they declined to tell me. I asked this question, because an overwhelming number of innkeepers complained about how long it takes to get a reply from TripAdvisor, and in most cases the replies are rote and don’t really address the problems. All the while, potentially false or negative reviews remain on the site causing further damage to the inns’ reputations and rankings. I was told that response and/or resolution time right now could take 2 to 4 weeks. I didn’t get the sense that things were necessarily fair and balanced, and conflict resolution is the at the heart of most matters.

If a reviewer was to claim his bed contained bed bugs, and yet it just wasn’t true, I asked what recourse an innkeeper might have. The TripAdvisor staff insisted that any bed bug claim was an immediate red flag, meaning the review in question was immediately under suspicion for being false or fraudulent, and that staff fully investigate such claims. That’s not to say, though, that an innkeeper has any recourse except to bear the negative review on the inn’s page and in the popularity rankings (should the TripAdvisor staff not find enough evidence to deny the review). The problem is that a staff of unknown people is playing judge and jury with many he-said/she-said cases like this, and the innkeeper is the one who stands to suffer much more than an anonymous reviewer.

TripAdvisor is often accused of libel, since potentially false or malicious content on their site could (and does) cause serious harm to the reputation of businesses. But it appears TripAdvisor is protected, because the content of the site is generated by anonymous individuals – not TripAdvisor. When asked if they ever had to reveal the identity of one of their members when a hotelier or innkeeper was bringing suit against the reviewer, they could not recall one instance when that occurred. While I am not an attorney, I plan to consult with attorneys that specialize in libel and defamation law, so I can learn more about the ins and outs of the matter. It just doesn’t seem right that a business is forced into existence on a site like TripAdvisor and to sustain any attacks that come its way – whether true or false. It is evident that B&Bs out there are being harmed by false reviews. One’s standing on the Popularity Index can directly impact the number of inquiries and reservations a property gets, and false or defaming negative reviews impact a B&B’s placement on the index. Nevertheless, TripAdvisor seems comfortable about being protected against libelous statements made on their site, and there seems to be no satisfactory resolution for innkeepers who find themselves victim to false statements that get past TripAdvisor’s fraud detectors.

TripAdvisor espouses a zero tolerance policy for fake reviews, which is admirable, but we know the system is far from foolproof. They espouse the policy on the very page where a member is to leave a review. I encouraged the staff to consider an equally-grave warning about zero tolerance for false or malicious reviews. There is a difference between a fake review (someone who never had an experience with the B&B) and a false, malicious review (an embellished or untrue negative review). But if members are protected behind the shield of anonymity from accusations of libel, such a new warning will not likely see the light of day. Nevertheless, I think TripAdvisor could do much more to protect owners of hotels and inns from actual libel, rather than leaving them hanging in the wind and exposed to defamation.

Regarding the management response system, TripAdvisor often encourages innkeepers to use this tool as a means of completing the picture a member half-painted, as well as a means for engendering a positive message about the B&B. My opinion is that the current set of rules and system of scrutiny should be loosened up, and innkeepers should be allowed more latitude in saying what they want. They should be allowed to criticize TripAdvisor policies (which is not allowed in a management response), and they should be allowed to make comments about the reviewer as they see fit. On one hand, I know some innkeepers will go too far and write things they probably shouldn’t (in the heat of the moment), but I still think it’s the right way to go, assuming the rules for reviewers don’t change. Some TripAdvisor staff seemed to think it was reasonable to allow management or reviewers to criticize TripAdvisor policies; after all, I said, this is all about Web 2.0 and transparency, righ
t?

I asked if a B&B’s Popularity Index ranking is altered when an owner leaves a management response. While they do not reveal the “secret sauce” of the index, they said no. I think leaving a management response is certainly a good idea, but it doesn’t help one’s ranking. Many innkeepers feel they do not want to “dignify the negative review” with a response; I think they are doing themselves a disservice by staying quiet. A reasonable, well-worded response can show potential guests there is a caring, conscientious innkeeper at this business, and a response can help complete the real story. The review is only half the story, but visitors to TripAdvisor may think it’s the complete story in the absence of a response. Innkeepers would really be helping themselves by completing the story.

Lastly regarding conflict resolution, I suggested a new procedure for the TripAdvisor staff to consider. Because a review can quickly impact a B&B’s ranking and reputation, innkeepers should be notified by email immediately when a new review is posted. If a negative review is posted, and the innkeeper believes the review is fake, false or fraudulent, there should be an opportunity for an appeal (and here’s the important part) during which time the review is immediately removed from the site until the appeal is settled. The innkeeper should have an opportunity to contact the reviewer through the TripAdvisor messaging system without revealing the reviewer’s identity (not unlike what buyers and sellers can do on ebay), and inquire about the review. Maybe the reviewer was quarrelling with his wife during a stay at the B&B and took it out on the innkeeper with some false or misleading accusations. Would a cooling off period and kind inquiry from the innkeeper allow for a more accurate review? What if the reviewer misstated some “facts” about the B&B? What if the innkeeper had good reason to believe the reviewer never stayed at the property? I call this an “abeyance period.” Hold the review in abeyance until the matter has a chance to be settled offline. It’s important that it get settled offline before the review impacts a B&B’s reputation and ranking, because a negative review can cause an immediate financial (and possibly undue) impact on the B&B. I think that is the right thing for TripAdvisor to do, if they truly want to facilitate a fair and balanced system. There should still be an appeals process through which an innkeeper can request that TripAdvisor consider removing a review based on factual errors or other breeches of the rules, so it’s not completely up to the reviewer if a review is changed or removed. It’s just not fair to an innkeeper that a possibly unfounded, false or fake review can immediately be posted for the public to see – and stay there for many weeks – until an issue is resolved. Kaufer seemed to think this was a reasonable idea, yet it would take a while to implement such a change. Nevertheless, this is an idea I will continue to advocate.

Closing
To those upset innkeepers who were hoping for blood to have been spilled, it didn’t happen. Certainly there are some very serious issues here that greatly impact the livelihood of thousands of innkeepers, and we are taking them very seriously. At this stage in the game, we feel it is important to work with the leadership of TripAdvisor. They need to understand the disproportionate impact their site has on our sector of the lodging industry, so that policies, procedures and functionality is not built without adequate awareness of our needs.

As you see, there are many issues on the table, and I tried to cover a lot of ground in little time. For those issues that seemed to be met with relative agreement, I will keep those on a short list for hopeful change sooner than later. I will continue to represent the needs of innkeepers on all other matters with TripAdvisor and report progress or outcomes to the membership as they happen. I am an advocate for the innkeeping industry, yet I think it’s important to look at these issues from the perspectives of those in our industry, TripAdvisor and consumers. What I seek is fairness and what makes good sense considering all players in this online review phenomenon. After all, we know TripAdvisor has brought new business to inns all over the continent (how many innkeepers have been told, “We saw your reviews on TripAdvisor…”) from the millions of visitors they get, yet we know how unfair practices can cripple a business. The end result is to make sure that not only do we not get lost in the TripAdvisor world, but that we are treated fairly. While in the grand scheme of things we don’t deliver much money to TripAdvisor or their commerce partners like Expedia, we certainly deliver eyeballs to their website. That undoubtedly makes us deserving of some attention and changes. It’s too important to innkeepers to put something like this on the back burner.

Jay Karen
President & CEO

Author: Jay Karen

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

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