Guests sometimes threaten negative reviews in exchange for freebies, upgrades or reduced rates.

By Maria Yagoda
Updated August 15, 2017
Credit: Phoenix

Before the age of the online review, if you hated a restaurant’s coq au vin or a hotel’s springy mattress, you had no choice but to fume silently, maybe complaining to the staff, but more likely venting to your social circle. Now, unpleasant experiences live forever on the Internet, but is that fair?

Anyone working in the hospitality industry will tell you there are pros and cons to increased transparency. Erik Warner, the co-founder of Filament Hospitality and Eagle Point Hotel Partners who recently renovated the Sound View Inn in Greenport, New York, appreciates that sites like TripAdvisor allow independent hotels to shine, as guests can browse photos and reviews of places they wouldn’t have found otherwise, plus they can see for themselves that “the Marriot in Cairo is the same as the Marriot in Kansas City.” Yet Warner must navigate daily the threat and fallout of nasty TripAdvisor reviews, as he monitors the site to make sure he’s not missing problems at his hotels. Guests know this, and sometimes they threaten poor reviews in exchange for freebies, upgrades or reduced rates.

“We had an experience at one hotel where a guest felt we didn’t sufficiently warn them about a restaurant not being ready for their arrival and that they deserved a heavy discount on their room,” Warner said. “Even though we have an initiative in place where the hotel emails and texts the guests so they know the status of the property weeks before they arrive.”

Platforms that allow any person with Wi-Fi to be a critic have amplified the once-immeasurable power of “word of mouth.” If a hotel messes up, it’s not just the beleaguered guest’s friends who’ll hear about it. Prospective guests will read about the horror—of a loud air-conditioning unit or lipstick-stained glass—and keep scrolling to the next option. According to TripAdvisor’s own research, 50 percent of travelers won’t book a hotel without reading the site’s reviews, and eight in ten users say TripAdvisor helps them plan better trips.

“The potential audience has grown immensely from a handful of individuals to hundreds, if not thousands, of savvy consumers who are increasingly using this information to make booking decisions,” said a TripAdvisor spokesperson. “A business’s online reputation is impacted by everything a customer can find about it on the Internet, including reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, social media posts, consumer photos and more.” (In an email, she added that TripAdvisor takes blackmail threats seriously and has set up mechanisms to prevent them. "It’s against our policy for users to threaten a negative review in exchange for some kind of upgrade, discount or freebie," the spokesperson said. "We have a dedicated tool that business owners can use to alert us to the threat of a blackmail review before it’s submitted.")

Ease of choice means ease of rejection. Warner’s experience with the guest who used a negative review as a bargaining chip is not isolated—he said it happens “all the time,” and so did other hotel managers and owners I spoke with.

“TripAdvisor has created transparency, but it can also bring out not the best in people,” he said. “What we’ve found with our hotels is that there are people who feel this is their one experience to air all their laundry out, and you see many more of those people than those who’ve had genuinely good experiences.”

To take a more offensive strategy against online screeds, which are often written by guests who never said there was a problem in the first place, Warner has set up “procedures to offset” negative reviews and says he’s allocated thousands of dollars to this initiative. “I’m trying to create an open line of communication,” he said. “We use verbal cues to remind them, asking if there’s anything that could have made their stay better. And then, once they get it off their chest, we can go—‘OK, that’s a legitimate concern you raised, let’s discuss.’”

Despite those who use review sites to “get stuff,” as Warner put it, many users recognize the responsibility that comes with the power of the review. Jeffrey Eisner, a food blogger at Pressure Luck Cooking, puts serious thought into his reviews, and he follows a very strict code when he feels complaining is warranted. He said he would never use a bad review as leverage. (In fact, no user I spoke with admitted to doing this, but some said they’ve witnessed it.)

“I never seek freebies with threats of writing a poor review,” he said. “I have no tolerance for people like that because I'll just assume that everyone is searching for the negative just to get free things. Your due diligence as a guest is to inform the hotel of the situation and hope they rectify it in the proper manner.”

Another user said, “When you give a bad review, you often get an apology or even an adjustment retroactively added to the bill. We’ve never tried to get freebies or anything like that. We’re honest reviewers. Good or bad, we call them like we see them.”

It comes down to tact—solving problems when they’re happening, rather than secretly plotting online revenge. “I don't think there's harm in asking the hotel to move you to a different room if it's below standards or not as advertised,” Eisner added. “But the way to get that to happen is with tact and being kind up front. Threatening to write a negative review is never the way. It instills a ridiculous sense of entitlement.”

Warner is in the business of hospitality, so he always tries to accommodate people, however unreasonable, but he wants his guests to try to put themselves in his shoes. “Let’s not air it out on the internet, where it lives and breathes forever,” he said. “But some people feel like that’s the power they have—‘I’m going to get back at you.’”