By / 15th September, 2011 / Blog / Off

TripAdvisor is to be investigated by the Advertising Standard Agency (ASA)

following action by KwikChex a Bournemouth based company that makes its money by protecting online reputations. The objection seems to be centred around unsubstantiated hotel reviews, with many hoteliers complaining that adverse reviews on TripAdvisor are affecting their business.

I would hope that the whilst investigating TripAdvisor the (ASA) would also consider investigation both bad and surprising good reviews, something that perhaps is not relevant to KwikChex mission of protecting online reputations, but should be relevant to the (ASA)  because a series of very good reviews for one hotel can also adversely affect bookings at other hotels in the area.

The abuse of online sites to boost your business has already been pointed out by the editor of the Good Hotel Guide Caroline Blake.  If  KwikChex is right that there is no check on reviewers who post bad reviews, making the system open to abuse, the other side of the coin  must be considered, because equally there is  no check on those who post good ones.

TripAdvisor does offer reply facility

I will say here and now that I have no adverse comment to make with regard to any of those hoteliers who feel they have been subjected to unfair reviews, having been done over myself by unfair, untrue and defamatory comments made by professional newspaper hacks, against whom I have had no redress, I understand fully how very angry and frustrated they must feel. But TripAdvisor does offer the hotel the ability to reply individually to a review, see here how it can be used to good effectby owners. There I understand complaints from some hoteliers about the reply facility.

However standing back a little and considering other subjects, perhaps we can see a bigger picture emerging, when we reflect that in February this year the Department for Culture, Media and Sport withdrew its support for the national Quality Assessment Scheme. Suggesting that online companies exactly like TripAdvisor were more than capable of filling that market. I find it a little disconcerting that only a few months later TripAdvisor is at the centre of storm regarding its reviews. On one side we have a plethora of interested professional parties, NGOs and private companies, who see their infinite control of the grading system, funding streams and book sales under threat, on the other, a system of hotel grading that offers the real customer a voice.

That is not even to approach  the question of why it is that hotels and restaurants in particular should be subject so much grading attention by professional bodies, NGOs, newspaper reporters, or any other Tom Dick or Jill you care to mention. When garages, hairdressers, butchers solicitors and any other business, get away virtually unscathed. When was the last time anyone looked up Michelin guide to hairdressers, the VisitEngland guide to Taxis or the AA guide to garages, the last in particular as a motoring organisation one would have thought they would be a leading voice in quality assurances for garages, with garage owners and mechanics right across the land waiting desperately for the next edition to hit the book-stands to see if they have made the grade.

The government argument is that the Quality Assessment Scheme hasn’t driven up standards, is elitist and doesn’t acknowledge the importance of value for money at all price points. John Penrose the minister for tourism said “The official ratings systems are too often unreliable and unfair not only for the industry but for the consumer”.

VisitEngland is an organisation whose remit is to champion tourism in this country, that is what the government pay them to do, they however have decided that their remit should be extended onto passing judgement on hotels before they will actually do the job they are paid to do. They have created whole departments aimed at just that and before VisitEngland will even consider mentioning a hotel it first has to pay them several hundred pounds in order to judged by VisitEngland assessment criteria. Perhaps those hotels that do not meet their criteria can get a rebate on their taxes for the amount of public money spent on promoting tourism because it is not promoting them, it is actively working against their interests by promoting others in their sector, of course pigs might fly.

There are two national accreditation schemes available VisitEngland VisitScotland VisitWales and the AA. However since 2005 these organisations got together and introduced something they call common standards in assessment criteria, so in reality there is only one rating standard.  They also merged different classifications, the AA used to have a diamond classification for Bed and Breakfast accommodation that has now merged with stars, so some of the criteria for stars has made its way across to B&Bs, thus they have moved the goal posts.

The problem is the assessment criteria consists of box ticking related to ancillaries, how much space is available, how many hangers in the wardrobe, the hotel inspector now put much greater great emphasis on ticking off a big lists of “features” they might as well just send a robot to do the job.

Because of this standardisation of assessment criteria the merging of classifications and emphasise on box ticking the rating system struggles to cope with boutique hotels and older smaller properties that do not tick all their boxes. These business fall through the gaps in the assessment criteria not because they are not worthy but because of the confines of the assessment criteria. See Londonhotelsinsight.com for fuller details, and a comparson between the those hotels liked on TripAdvisor and those ranked by the profesionals using their box ticking method.

The problem of criteria is becoming even more relevant as the older more experienced hotel inspector is being replaced with a new breed of form filler and corporate traveller who applies the criteria at the expense of everything else. He/she no longer has the depth of  knowledge, capability or the freedom to make an informed decision of a hotels worth to a guest. Where the more experienced inspector would be able to subjectively balance say room size against quality of service or food in the restaurant the new breed just objectively tick a box, where the more experienced inspector would realise that a particular hotel was aimed exclusively at the leisure market, the new breed worries about writing space in bedrooms for the businessmen that never visit and perhaps suggests that this is more important than televisions in the bedrooms, even though according to the AA, a hotel should be judged by its market position. The bottom line is that after all the box ticking everything else about an inspection is nothing more than the personal view of the inspector informed by his visit, as such it should carry no more weight than any review by any other guest. Unless you happen to think that a hotel inspectors view on how lamb should be described on a menu is intrinsically better than your view.

Just check Petrus to see how different people even in the same organisation can have completely different views. Not even the renowned Michelin guide is beyond question as it has  in the past been forced to withdraw its guide from sale when it carried a top review for a restaurant that had not yet opened.

The grading organisations live by their claim that they make reliable and impartial assessments of hotels, but the average person does not understand that those assessments are made to criteria which excludes many of the features and amenities they might want from a hotel and includes many they would not care about.

I have been around for  long time and I try to keep an open mind and perhaps have seen too many scams in my life to be completely taken in by so called unbiased  independent reviews. Is the AA completely unbiased, perhaps the question would not have been raised  when it was a not-for-profit organisation, but these days does it really not consider the amount of advertising one hotel is paying for in its numerous guide books when making grading recommendations or when grading a group hotel does an inspector not consider the amount of money the AA is earning from the group as a whole. Does the grading criteria used reflect an input from large organisations who find it easier to package everything up in little individual wrappers instead off offering their guests say:  large bottles of hair shampoo or home made biscuits with real tea or coffee in the bedrooms instead of those sachets we see all over the place. You will find that a hotel might be downgraded for offering these personal touches or at best they will be discounted.

Big operators can`t control TripAdvisor

Of course big hotel operators and the wealthy like the present grading system because it allows them to get top grading by just making sure they tick all the boxes, they are not happy with the advent of information sites like TripAdvisor where the paying guests views are put to the fore. So I am tempted to ask myself is this just a big noise being fermented in order to pressurise VisitEngland not to go down the route of actually allowing real customers voices to be heard above those of the professional box tickers. Because the industry would just love to keep control of their own grading and know that if they do this, or do that, they will get the best grades, something that is impossible when the real customer has a voice.

The AA now owned by Acromas Holdings
VisitEngland is an NGO and was established in April 2009, says its inspection system is now almost self financing. Well not, it is hotel financed, we are being forced upfront to finance an NGO that is then forcing its own criteria on us before they will promote us.