'˜Review scores add up quickly without quality'
The growth in online hotel bookings sites has been a boom for both consumers and b&b owners - giving customers easy access to potential holiday accommodation.
But while the internet revolution may mean rooms can be booked at the click of a button, not everyone is pleased with the way such sites operate.
Now the UK’s competition watchdog has ordered a probe into the sector amid concerns about the accuracy of information presented.
Here in Blackpool, there has been concern for some time.
Taking internet bookings has replaced door-knockers when it comes to filling up properties and the change is driving trade for many businesses.
But unfair listings is causing frustration for some hoteliers in the town.
Ian White of The Chorlton Hotel on Hull Road, and a member of the Central Blackpool Holiday Area, has been battling for changes for a couple of years.
He says the review system on some sites misrepresents the quality of some guesthouses, which is disheartening for those who are genuinely running good quality properties.
Ian said: “My concerns particularly relate to review scores out of 10, but which go up by intervals of 2.5.
“Marks of zero get ignored because they think someone just didn’t want to give a mark in that category, so the lowest score a property can get is 2.5.
“But most people give at least 2.5 for location, because you wouldn’t book somewhere if the location wasn’t relevant to you, and so a score quickly adds up to five.
“This means some places, which are really quite poor, get a review score of five and people think that’s half decent, and I’m only staying a couple of nights or whatever.
“So they make a booking and then can be left very disappointed.”
Other frustrations include booking sites which have preferred partners, who will make a lot of rooms available to the site, and offer more than one-night stays.
Those hoteliers who pay more than the basic 15 per cent commission also get preference.
Ian added: “We don’t offer one night stays which means we can’t be a preferred partner, even though we fulfil other criteria.
“And that means when a potential customer does a search, we can’t get onto the first two pages.
“So I welcome this review very strongly.”
StayBlackpool, which represents many hoteliers in the resort, is also welcoming the probe.
President Claire Smith said: “We have many concerns, for example some sites promote self assessed star ratings which the general public just don’t realise.
“They think these ratings are genuine from some governing body and they’re not.
“If you rate a property 0 out of 10 the algorithms are set to show a review score no lower than 2.5 out of 10, suggesting that even the worst properties are actually half decent.
“The main problem with all of this is that we, as little b&b owners, cannot survive without these online travel agents especially Booking.com.
“They are so powerful which means that we can’t cause a fuss with them directly as they can ‘shut us down’.
“I know this sounds dramatic but that’s the power they wield and one day we can find ourselves at the bottom of their search engines.”
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an investigation which will examine areas such as hidden charges, search results, and discount claims.
Leading booking sites include Expedia and Booking.com.
In a statement, booking site Trivago, which is majority owned by Expedia, said: “Trivago will work with the CMA to explain the benefits it delivers to consumers looking for their ideal hotel.”
Booking.com said it would not be commenting at this time.
According to the CMA, about 70 per cent of people who shop around for accommodation use hotel booking sites.
Nisha Arora, a senior director at the CMA, told the BBC’s Today programme: “We are concerned about the clarity and accuracy of these sites.
“Rather than helping consumers they may actually be making it more difficult for them.”
The British Hospitality Association (BHA) has also welcomed the probe as many of its members are concerned about the ‘vast power’ of online booking agencies.
It highlighted “high rates of commission, use of misleading information, pressure selling, and a lack of transparency”.
“In the process guests are paying more than they should for rooms.”
The BHA also said contract terms with some sites often included clauses that stopped a hotel offering a lower price on its own website than that offered to the online travel agent.
Blackpool hoteliers who want to take part in the CMA investigation are urged to send responses by email to [email protected] by December 15.