Tripadvisor, the 360 degree warzone

Launched exactly 14 years ago this month, Tripadvisor has never ceased to produce controversy both within the travel industry and among travelers. Some of these include: its ownership structure and integration with Expedia, a major global travel distribution channel, the 2011 theft of its email list; succesive acquisition of no less than 6 independent travel review websites and 7 apps, which laid ground for a worldwide monopoly and last, but not least its intrinsic valuation model of any review.

I created my accounted and posted my first review in January 2009 and I have, since, ”earned” my way up to the esteemed status of Top Contributor, my most recent review being published earlier this week, marking 163 contributions. Until my formal request to have my account closed, little did I realize how much time, effort and energy I had actually wasted – for a while, being under the false impression that my reviews would actually help other travelers and hoteliers to navigate the endless world of reviews and rankings.

In over 5 years of my relationship with Tripadvisor, I have closely followed its evolution, seeking to understand its real potential and whether it could actually maintain its credibility, despite the fact it created a blacklist of hotels over suspicious reviews, a list which I believe to exceed 50 properties. Then, I could not help but grasp the negativity Tripadvisor had been building up, due to its policing role.

As a strong believer in the positive role of Tripadvisor, personally, I never made use of my potential or actual reviews to blackmail or discredit any hotel I ever stayed and reviewed, especially given my luxury business background and, as a Law graduate, my nature to try and understand all sides involved before throwing the blame on any of the parties involved.

Ironically, my history with Tripadvisor started and ended in Switzerland, the cradle of luxury hospitality. To my utmost surprise, upon my check-out from a luxury hotel in one of the upscale Swiss mountain destinations, I received an email from the hotel which was meant as a warning against a possible negative review, indirectly hinting that such a possibility would attract my ”black-listing” on the Swiss Deluxe chain of hotels as well as by the regional tourism board. In fact, without my prior consent, the hotel’s email included in copy executives from the two organizations, without myself ever being in touch with any representatives of the two.

I then realized this was all linked to a recent 1 star rating review on Tripadvisor for the exact same hotel where a guest was complaining about the same black-listing procedure. I automatically made a connection with what one of the hotel’s managers said about how dangereous Tripadvisor, mentioning a negative review who had booked through and apparently failed to cancel in time to avoid penalties – at least this was the point of view of the hotel. I went on to check Tripadvisor to find the ”crowning” 1 star rating of the guest.

On the train from the mountain resort to Zurich, the incident made me pause and reflect. Why would Tripadvisor validate such a dramatically negative review (there is a 48 hoour interval from submission to publication)? – especially considering the guest never made it to the hotel. I found myself puzzled and I had to give the benefit of the doubt and accept that the point made by the Tripadvisor member was perfectly valid as it actually involved an experience which resulted from relating / interacting with the hotel. This also made me reflect on the fact that not only was it pointless for Tripadvisor to check whether guests / reviewers actually stayed at the respective hotel, but also that such undertaking was impossible under these specific conditions.

What worried me most were the consequences kindled by a Tripadvisor review, involving a traveler, an independently owned and managed hotel, a state tourism authority and a marketing hotel chain. Regardless of whether a local hoteliers’ association or the regional tourism authority had actually developed or kept such ”blacklists’ of hotel guests was to me the wake-up call on the multiple ”wars” Tripadvisor has been igniting all over the world.

From over 5 years of closely following Tripadvisor as a ”Top Contributor”, I can certainly say its business model is deeply flawed, and in many cases Tripadvisor turns into a privately owned ”police” of the tourism industry, worldwide. Its monopoly and therefore its gigantic size and coverage, have made it impossible for Tripadvisor to provide any customer service. After 5 years of membership, I submitted 5 reports, one per day and in each one I had a very specific question. To all of my reports, I received a standard reply in an email format which hardly qualifies for any entity that claims to be an international authority.

Unless international hoteliers take immediate action to demand a probe into Tripadvisor’s monopoly at a worldwide level, the game is going to get seriously dramatic. I have already been witnessing over 100 complaints from top luxury hotels globally, the most recent one being from a luxury property in a large U.S. metropolis telling us about its hardships caused by Tripadvisor, the very same accommodation being reviewed by different Tripadvisor ”members”, one for instance with a poor rating, the other, with an excellent rating, both reviews focusing

In a future article, the CPP-LUXURY.COM team will reveal our extensive research and a guide on what hotels and Tripadvisor readers could do in order to avoid being disappointed.

Oliver Petcu in  Geneva