Oh, the things hotels will do for a good review.
It's not enough to ask guests for a write-up on a popular site such as TripAdvisor or Yelp after they've checked out. Lately, some innkeepers have been pressuring their customers to say positive things online -- in extreme cases, even before they've checked in.
Take what happened to Pam Stucky when she recently made a reservation at a small hotel in Scotland. Before she arrived, the owner sent her an e-mail soliciting a recommendation on TripAdvisor, even though she'd never been to the hotel.
"Two or four guests staying together can send two to four independent reviews," the innkeeper wrote. "Different pseudonyms should be used."
Stucky, a Seattle-based writer, was uncomfortable with the come-on.
"He hounded me to give him a positive review," she said. When she arrived, the owner told her he was trying to get TripAdvisor to remove some of the less flattering write-ups about his property, while persuading guests -- and future guests -- to say nice things about his business. She says the hotel was "fine," although her quarters were somewhat cramped.
At a time when properties from the largest chain hotel to a two-room bed-and-breakfast are engaging in a practice known as reputation management, the latest tools of the trade are you, their guests. Marc Karasu, the president of MeasuredUp.com, a reputation management company, says that hotels see the importance of encouraging happy customers to post their experiences online to enhance the hotels' reputations and draw bookings. "But it's easy to cross the line," he added.
Where is the line? It depends on whom you ask. TripAdvisor, the largest and arguably most credible of the online review sites, takes a dim view of resorts that try to spin their own ratings. The site's policy, which has been in effect since 2006, is clear:
"Property owners are welcome to encourage their guests to submit user reviews upon their return home, but they are not allowed to offer incentives, discounts, upgrades, or special treatment on current or future stays in exchange for reviews." In other words, the reviews have to be legitimate and not motivated by any special offers.
"Whenever a traveler reports that they've been offered an incentive, we follow up with the property and, where appropriate, impose penalties," said April Robb, a TripAdvisor spokeswoman. Those can include dropping a property on the site's popularity index, excluding it from its Travelers' Choice awards or posting a warning next to a listing that its reviews are "suspicious."
Chris Brusznicki, the president of GamedayHousing.com, a sports vacation rental Web site, says that online reviews are so important to his business that he personally calls guests to ask them for a review on Yelp and Facebook. "Reviews are a huge differentiator for properties and help future guests become more comfortable with a rental decision," he said.
But hotels that are on the up-and-up are reluctant to tell guests what to write online. Bill Chamberlain, who runs the Blue Heron Inn in Darien, Ga., says he takes a hands-off approach to the ratings. "We have never asked a guest to leave a positive review," he said. "We simply ask them to post a review on either TripAdvisor or Bedandbreakfast.com in a thank-you note that is e-mailed to every guest a day or two after departure." Although the property's TripAdvisor reviews are mostly positive, one guest complained about lax housekeeping and security.
"There is no shortcut or marketing ploy that can do as much for you as good old-fashioned hard work and being truly passionate about providing genuine hospitality," said Adele Gutman, the vice president of sales and marketing for HKHotels, which owns several properties in New York that have received high marks online.
And yet for every HKHotels or Blue Heron Inn, there are thousands more that believe the Internet can be manipulated to their ends. They don't talk about their actions in public, but from time to time someone will post an anonymous comment on my travel blog, complaining about a tactic their competitors have used to boost their online ratings. Those strategies usually include asking someone connected with the hotel to post a fake review or offering free rooms or discounts to guests who write something nice.
It was only a matter of time before the backlash. In January, Brett Birman, a salesman with a New York finance company, launched a site called AvoiditNYC.com. He did it "because I have had bad experiences in the past and felt that my negative reviews on other Web sites, like Yelp and Citysearch, are often overlooked," he told me. So far, AvoiditNYC.com is home to only one hotel review -- of a small property on West 29th Street, in which a guest complains about the "dark and sketchy" neighborhood.
So what does all this mean to you? Obviously, hotel executives don't think twice about leveraging guests like you to improve their online reputations. But if it's happening to you, it's probably happening to tens of thousands of other hotel guests every day. How many of them are being asked to endorse a hotel they've never stayed in, or have been offered a free night in exchange for a glowing write-up? And how many are doing it?
What does that say about the overall reliability of user-generated hotel reviews? Well, let's just say that it doesn't exactly enhance their reputation.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.