Hoteliers in Blackpool have been urged not to give in to ‘blackmailers’ who threaten to post damaging online reviews.
Owners on the Fylde coast have been put on alert in an email from Visit Blackpool president Claire Smith, who says the two hotels she runs with her husband Mark are among those locally which have been threatened with poor reviews on the popular TripAdvisor website.
She says complaints can be fabricated entirely and that minor issues are sometimes blown out of all proportion by guests out to get ‘something for nothing’.
Dan Yates, who runs the Howarth House hotel and apartments on Clifton Drive South with his wife Julie, said: “We’ve had a few instances of customers telling us they were TripAdvisor reviewers and saying ‘you wouldn’t want me to put this on TripAdvisor would you?’
“They try to use it as a tool for negotiating to get a discount or something else.”
Howarth House has a four and half out of five rating on TripAdvisor and it was awarded the website’s 2013 certificate of excelllence, but Mr Yates added; “We welcome good reviews and we welcome criticism so we can improve but people should not use these things as a kind of bribery.”
Mr Yates added that fabricated reviews from people who had not stayed at his accommodation had also been a problem, and that several had been posted on TripAdvisor a week before they had been due to appear on hit TV show Three In a Bed.
“One of them mentioned a mess under the fridge but we don’t have fridges in our hotel rooms,” he said.
“I suppose these reviews could have been from a jealous competitor,” he said.
Mrs Smith, who runs Number One South Beach and Number One St Luke’s with her husband Mark, decided to send out her warning after the British Hospitality Association (BHA) spoke out about the growing problem.
She said she had received ‘three or four’ calls from different people who had asked about the cost and availability on a particular night, then offered to post a good review on TripAdvisor in return for a big discount.
“They will just keep doing that until someone gives in and if your business is not doing quite as well it can be easy pickings,” said Mrs Smith, whose establishments have also received high marks on TripAdvisor.
“Most hoteliers in Blackpool have a TripAdvisor story,” she added.
“We’ve had complaints from people for things like the restaurant not being open on a quiet Monday when they had not previously asked about dining in the evening - even when we offered to drive them to a takeaway.
“There was a time when someone wanted to bring a takeaway up their room where we have white cotton linen and another family took offence when we asked them if they could bring their muddy pushchair through around the back rather than wheeling it over our cream carpets.
“It’s little things like that and some people will tell you they will put a review on TripAdvisor, probably in the hope that you will say you’re sorry and give them a discount or send up a bottle of champagne.”
Mrs Smith said that she and her husband had also been targeted by reviewers who had not stayed at their hotels.
“One said we had kept them waiting at the bar - but we don’t have a bar,” she said. “I got TripAdvisor to remove that one. These people are either just being malicious or hoping we will offer them something.
“They are trying to get you over a barrel because they know that a detrimental review can have a big impact on you.
“The answer is to be strong, stand up to them and say no.”
BHA chief executive Martin Couchman said he was in talks with TripAdvisor about the ‘growing’ issue.
“While it’s very difficult to put an exact figure on how widespread the problem is, it is clear that there is a small minority of online reviewers who are either directly or indirectly blackmailing hotels and restaurants for their own gain,” he said.
“Even just one or two bad reviews can have huge consequences for a business’s reputation.”
A TripAdvisor spokesman said its management centre now gave owners the chance to report threats before a review was submitted.
“Thankfully, such instances are rare, but if an owner does experience this, we have tools in place to help them report it to us,” he said.
“Our fraud detection experts will then investigate and, where we find evidence of threatening behaviour, take action to stop their reviews from ever reaching the site.”