Are Hotels Being Held to Ransom by Online Reviews?

September 14, 2016


The word “blackmail” is a new addition to the modern hotelier’s vocabulary—at least when referring to hotel guests. In the past, there wasn’t much a disgruntled party could do except refuse to book that hotel in the future, complain to friends, or perhaps write a letter to the local newspaper. (I have experienced some unhappy travellers in the past who also threatened to go to one of the television stations and complain, but these are few and far between.) Flagging the attention of travel agents might be possible, but you’d need an awfully big bee in your bonnet, and an awful lot of time on your hands.


The opposite is true today. With a few keystrokes on a pocket device, unhappy guests can disseminate a global message:I had a bad experience. Take your money elsewhere. Their pictures are not real. It takes almost no effort to permanently alter a hotel’s reputation. Recent studies show that nearly all prospective guests (more than 97%) use guest reviews to help them decide, reading 6-12 reviews on average before deciding.


In other words, those keystrokes matter.


But here’s another twist to the plot. As experts study the psychology of choice, they’re beginning to notice that people with too many choices operate with a fear of making the wrong one. They might even feel regret before they choose, putting them in a negative mindset and making them more likely to see faults.


It’s also apparent, as mentioned in my last post, that guests pay more attention to negative reviews than positive ones.


All of this paints a rather tyrannical portrait, in which the slightest annoyance to any guest can negatively affect a hotel’s reputation and sales. Indeed, words like blackmail and extortion are openly used by hospitality experts to describe the behavior of a small percentage of guests. Using the threat of a negative review, unscrupulous travelers demand unreasonable concessions such as free stays and upgrades. There may even networks of blackmailers who exchange information about which hotels will concede to threats, and which hotels will not.


The problem is real enough for TripAdvisor to launch its own blackmail alert system, where hotel managers can report dubious reviews before they’re even published. The program is still in its early stages, and it remains to be seen how effective it will be in reducing blackmail.


In the meantime, what can hotels do when they feel they’re feeling threatened, tyrannized, blackmailed by the social review system? The first order of business is to try and solve the problem without making unreasonable concessions. Nine times out of ten, the guest is legitimately frustrated and is not making a calculated attempt to game the system.


In terms of resolving complaints, hotels have always reported excellent results when acting in a pragmatic and understanding way. A room change might be offered, or even a move (including transportation) to nearby property under the same management. The solution should always be equal to or greater than the problem—but things like free stays and room upgrades don’t really cost much when compared to the alternative. As long as staff are trained and empowered, you will be amazed at what can be achieved. (Many years ago I managed a hotel in Brisbane where we offered Australia’s first 100% Service Guarantee. With this offer, if guests didn’t feel our staff was as friendly or as helpful as they could be, we would offer either a refund or another night’s free accommodation. We tracked the value of what we gave away, and in 18 months we gave away less than $1500 worth of accommodation or services. Most guests were just happy to be heard and have their issue resolved.)


There are always of course, those few guests who, despite the best intentions of management, refuse to accept anything short of total concession. In this case, it might be prudent to release the guest from their reservation (if they wish) and offer to find them another hotel. If the tension cannot be broken and you feel an unwarranted review may be forthcoming, consider the following:


  • Contact TripAdvisor and/or the OTA through which the reservation was made

  • Document the problem honestly and chronologically so that you are prepared to issue a response to the review when it does appear, or;

  • Solve any underlying problem that led to the complaint.


Many people still have concerns with social reviews and blackmail is only the latest grievance against the model. For instance, some hotels may offer free or discounted stays in exchange for glowing reviews, much like companies who send free products in exchange for reviews on Amazon. On the other hand, guests who write negative hotel reviews can also be stressed, troubled, or even unwell.


There are any number of ways in which the system can fail to tell the truth—which isn’t good for hotels, OTAs, review sites, or prospective guests. That’s why companies like  Oyster are making the argument for curated, professional hotel review platforms that aren’t susceptible to the volatility of the general public or the interests of unethical hoteliers.


That said, social reviews aren’t going anywhere. The only reasonable course of action for the modern hotelier is learning how to live with an imperfect system. You may encounter a blackmailer or two in the course of a given week, month or year. But the vast majority of guests seek reasonable solutions to their problems. Being able to tell them apart—and deliver consistently where it matters—will keep the gears turning in your favour.



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