Best Practice, Etiquette, Dirty Tricks & The Big Publishing Decision
It all started with Web 2.0, gathered pace with Trip Advisor & the app stores then suddenly reviews became absolutely ubiquitous. Whether you are buying a book, gadget or shirt online you’ll probably be presented with a review score and can browse through the opinions of customers ranging from rants to love letters, some eloquent and some less so.
Undoubtedly the two categories most affected have been food and travel and there’s been a transforming effect on these industries. A tiny boutique bed & breakfast or out of the way restaurant simply couldn’t compete with the advertising budget of the big boys or those with a prime location but now everything has changed. Deliver an exceptional product and customers will promote you for nothing and if your seafront position used to let you cut corners on quality then you had better think again.
As reviews became critical it’s not surprising that lots of people were willing to cross ethical boundaries to improve their ratings with Trip Advisor in particular becoming a free for all. Hotel and restaurant owners wrote glowing tributes to themselves and trashed their competitors and a technological cat & mouse game between publishers and businesses got underway. Software was developed to spot false reviews and shady businesses sprung up managing profiles in a sophisticated way and offering good or bad reviews for money. It’s even rumoured that there were organisations hurting restaurants & hotels with bad reviews then selling a service to improve the ratings in a cyber variation of a New York mafia protection racket.
In the UK holiday industry, however things developed in a different way mainly because Trip Advisor bought Holiday Lettings early on in the cycle and so doesn’t allow cottages to be listed on the site by third parties in the same way as hotels and restaurants. The only way to get your cottage listed on Trip Advisor is to pay for a listing on Holiday Lettings and if you think that flies against the principle of being a comprehensive unbiased directory then you are absolutely right.
For a long time directory sites didn’t do reviews except those listed by the advertiser (who was paying for the space after all), then AirBnB arrived and the rush to copy the model of charging a big commission and calling it a booking fee went alongside the introduction of reviews.
Publish and be Damned?
So the big decision for all holiday agency sites is whether to publish all reviews, good and bad and score each property. The initial reflex is to say of course you should, the customer is king, quality should rise to the top of the list and bad practise be punished.
For a directory site with free or low cost listings you need to provide some value and anyway there are hundreds of directories to choose from and owners can simply not list if they don’t like it. The caveat here is that there is no way to know if the reviewer actually stayed at the property and without sophisticated technology you can be back to the wild west situation with owners and their friends praising their properties and slating their competitors.
The bigger directory sites that take the money have no decision to make as they are built on reviews and can ensure they are only submitted by genuine guests.
Agencies like us though have different circumstances and it’s not helped by the fact that the vast majority of happy guests will not send a review so you tend to see either great praise or one or two outlying customers who had a bad experience dominating the page and really hurting bookings on what was probably a one off event or problem with a now departed cleaner.
There is one crucial difference though- we demand exclusivity from our owners, they are not free to advertise in 20 other places, some agencies even restrict the number of weeks an owner can have themselves (yes really!) so the relationship is very different. In my mind this makes us like a Hotel’s own website or a car showroom, I think people understand that we are not providing an unbiased independent opinion. You wouldn’t expect to read in a property description that the view is a bit rubbish or parking really difficult any more than Ford would put a sign on a car in their showroom saying Jeremy Clarkson thinks the Vauxhall is much better.
When a guest has a bad experience I can guarantee that the owner is really upset and will work with us to address the problem. Should we publish a rant from a guest who had a dirty shower or no hot water for 3 days? To me that’s like asking if an owner is lying injured on the floor should you run up and kick them in the teeth with a hobnail boot?
Simon Tolson owns Rumsey Holiday Homes in Sandbanks and a portfolio of holiday cottage agencies in Cornwall.