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Are "Dirtiest Hotels" Subjects of Dirty Trick?

Hotel ratings posted by consumers are coming under fire by some as not being legitimate representations of hotels. So what’s the deal?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
David Wilkening
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Hotel rating systems have been around for more than a decade, but it took TripAdvisor’s widely publicized list of “dirtiest hotels” to ignite a fiery controversy that has led some in the industry to call for reforms.

The recent list was particularly hard on UK Hotels, which led to an Independent story that pointed out:

“The industry worries…that TripAdvisor and similar sites -- sites that rely on anonymous reviews -- yield too much power.” The concern had existed before, but TripAdvisor’s “Dirtiest Hotels” list made it an even hotter topic, the British newspaper says.

Bob Cotton, CEO of the British Hospitality Association, says that hotels across Europe are lobbying the EU Commission to rewrite the rules governing Web site reviews. The goal was to make sure they’re legitimate and not written by rivals.

“Web sites have a responsibility that the person has actually stayed at the hotel or dined at the restaurant,” Cotton says. “I have been having discussions…on behalf of the industry so that some sort of common sense should prevail, as it does on sites such as eBay.”

He admitted that on-line comments can’t be banned. “And I am in favor of all these methods of modern communication. But we need a fair crack of the whip.”

He said he was aware of some cases where hotel owners were double-crossed by competitors who wrote disparaging remarks.

Like it or not, the reviews are clearly influential.

“Research shows a large percentage of potential clients place great value on unbiased consumer opinion,” says German hotelier Maritim chief executive Gerd Prochaska.

As might be imagined, some of TripAdvisor’s widely publicized reports about bad hotels were graphic. “House of Horrors,” was mentioned more than once, as was “Hell.”

“By the time Debbie White spotted some uninvited guests of the insect kind in her hotel room, she had already had enough,” broadcast CNN.

The room was filthy and the “sheets creeped her out. But it was the bugs that pushed her over the edge.”

She saw two cockroaches and killed them, she said of her stay at the Heritage Marina Hotel in San Francisco. The hotel grabbed the top spot in the U.S. as “dirtiest” in this country.

Despite the Web site which bills it as one of San Francisco’s best values, half of the 320 TripAdvisor reviews rated it as “terrible.” Eighty percent of the respondents did not recommend it.

Perhaps predictably, some of the hotels complained bitterly about their rating.

The Heritage hotel’s general manager said the ratings were based on “subjective, irate, anonymous postings” and did not reflect the true condition of the hotel.

Any maintenance issues for the hotel from 2009 have been addressed, said manager Dan Brannan in a written statement to the news media. A detailed renovation will continue through 2010, he added.

Management at the seaside Grosvenor Hotel, named by TripAdvisor as Britain’s No. 1 “Dirtiest Hotel,” also complained about the site’s methodology.

Hotel owner Chraig Khajuria said that, out of the 3,000 guests in the past six months, the hotel had only 35 poor reviews, saying “some of our guests have said they would be back again to stay.”

TripAdvisor said its methods of evaluation include “automated tools” and a team of moderators to detect fraud.

Its list is based on reviews posted on the Web site by travelers who are asked to rate a hotel’s cleanliness on a scale of one to five. TripAdvisor then takes data submitted from January to December and sorts it out in the cleanliness category to come up with yearly rankings.

TripAdvisor was founded in February 2000. At the time, the site said it recognized a huge information gap between travelers and hotels. A part of Expedia, the site is home today to more than 36 million reviews covering 450,000 hotels in more than 70,000 cities.

The ratings system has come a long ways in very recent years.

“Time was that ratings were the only way individual travelers or their travel agents could get some sort of handle on where they might like to stay in a destination they didn’t already know,” wrote Ed Perkins, author of AskEd & AnswerEd at Smarter travel.

Even the biggest guidebooks could cover only a fraction of the hotels in any one area.

But the void was partly filled by major guidebook series such as AAA (“diamonds”) and Mobil (“stars”) in North America and ViaMichelin (hotels in Europe), which rated hotels as a result of actual on-site inspections by professionals.

Today, of course, there are innumerable sites in addition to TripAdvisor, such as HotelShark and IgoUgo. Some sites have gimmicks such as Osyter.com, which says it hires only professionals (though it has cut back on reviewers in recent months) and Hotelicoper.com, where reviews are from people known to users.

Among major criticisms about these online sites are they are generally rated by amateurs who may base their judgments on only one night’s stay. That’s a position similar to a restaurant reviewer who eats a single meal before delivering judgment (it’s common practice for any professional restaurant reviewer to have at least two - and often more - dining experiences before passing judgment).

Slate last year wrote an article that was titled “There are good reasons not to trust crowd-sourced sites.”

All sites are subject in part to hotel manipulation, the article pointed out.

“This past summer, TripAdvisor admitted that it was having trouble with hotel staffers posting reviews of their own properties,” said Slate. The site with 36 million monthly visitors “assured everyone that it has a dedicated staff who can sniff out fishy posts. It also slaps a red warning label on the profiles of any properties that it suspects have manipulated their own review,” Slate says.

“Still, there’s not much TripAdvisor can do to guarantee its credibility,” Slate added.

Despite that, however, most commentators agree the sites are helpful - in at least a limited way.

“It’s a great tool now, where ten years ago you had nothing,” says Daniel Mount, associate professor of hospitality management at Pennsylvania State University.

He suggests that hoteliers urge potential customers not only to read reviews but also to check word-of-mouth opinions. Alternately, whenever possible, he tells hotel managers to urge would-be guests to check out a room before booking it.

And he and others suggest that hotel people should tell potential guests to make it a point to view as many sources as possible. In common with food and drink, hotel review sites are often best only when used in moderation and possibly with a pinch of salt.

Credit
David Wilkening    David Wilkening
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: David Wilkening is a writer specializing in travel and business-real estate writing. His work has appeared in dozens of publications and dot coms. He never met a trip he didn't like. He is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit, Orlando and Washington, DC, where he was a writer and editor covering a wide variety of subjects ranging from politics to feature stories.
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