Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Trip Advisor Blackmail & Bribery

Whenever I ask guests how they decided to book with us, whatever else they say they invariably mention Trip Advisor.  I would not be surprised if reviews on Trip Advisor are the single most powerful influencer of travel decisions today.

On the whole this a very good thing. The site gives travelers unprecedented access to usually reliable information. Trip Advisor generally rewards good suppliers and punishes bad ones.

Of course this much power inevitably leads to abuses.  Suppliers are tempted to post phony reviews—good ones about themselves and bad ones about their competition.  (I even heard  one can buy reviews from an enterprise in the Philippines  at very reasonable rates.  I was not tempted.)

Travelers are also tempted to abuse Trip Advisor. It still does not happen very often, but many of us in the travel business have noticed a increasing tendency on the part of travelers to use threats of bad reviews and/or promises of good ones as a lever to get refunds or upgrades.

I  try to judge each case on its merits, but the minute Trip Adviser blackmail or bribery comes into the picture, I have a strong inclination to resist.

My reason for this is that I think that Trip Advisor is much too valuable a resource, both for us and for travelers, to allow its trustworthiness to be contaminated by reviews that have purposes other than to help fellow travelers make informed decisions.  In the short run buying off bad reviews might seem like good  business, but I am convinced that the whole travel business is better off in the long run if all of us who are in the business let the reviews fall where they may. Somehow I think the people who would consider using our services are sophisticated enough to figure out whether a review is accurate or not.

So what do you think?  Do you use Trip Advisor to make decisions about your travel?  How do you judge the accuracy of reviews?

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13 Comments and 2 Replies

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    • I use trip advisor when planning a trip. But I do not go blindly with the reviews especially when the review count is less than 20 or so. I usually go through the reviews posted by more senior members (who have a larger post count). I think once the number of reviews goes beyond a certain number, then the false ones will not have a lot of impact.

      • At September 25, 2010
        9:39:12 pm
        Kathleen said:

        Michael,
        I do not use Travel Advisor because we rarely travel. I ask my friends for travel help and go buy a book.
        However, my 28 year old daughter and son-in-law use Trip Advisor when making final decisions for travel to Spain, China, Peru, Russia and Turkey. Your expeditioners, whom I met at Tortogeuro, are all above average. Your retreat is far enough off the beaten path that they are motivated to find CRE and able to read the truth which you portray on your site.

        • I own a small hotel management company in Costa Rica (www.cayugaonline.com) and work very closely with Michael and Costa Rica Expeditions. They are a great company and if they book you somewhere, it is a true sign that it is a great hotel. In terms of tripadvisor, we use it now as a quality control tool for our managers and take the postings very seriously. Usually, they are right on and help us find weaknesses so we can correct them. In rare cases though, we find that competitors or their friends try to lower our rankings by posting “fake” reviews. My recommendation to trip advisor is that there is more of a verification system that the guests have actually stayed at a property (like with the Expedia reviews). In terms of the blackmailing… tough one… we have not figured that one out yet. Any help and comments are more than welcome. Keep on blogging Michael!!!

          • At September 23, 2010
            9:45:13 am
            Terry Bliquez said:

            We do not use Trip Advisor….when we come to Costa Rica, CRE is always our choice…we go by customer service and experience. We can also trust the experience of friends and family. We are just not ones to to take a thumbs up or thumbs down from a site which is someone else’s opinion which, as you stated, can be woefully inaccurate. blessings Terry

            • Hi Michael! The topic of forums is kind of a timely one for me. Being based in Cuba I don’t usually the luxury of time or a decent enough connection to participate much, but this spring/summer I spent time with my family in PEI while my husband was back slaving away in Cuba. With 24-hr wireless internet and some of my leisure time to spare, I began more actively participating in the Lonely Planet & Trip Advisor forums, mostly on Cuba-related topics. I was immediately contacted by some of the senior forum members and started to realize what a closed group really controls much of the information there. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that some of the members were extremely knowledgeable and mostly fair with the information they provided, although many of the same operators are frequently plugged which kind of left me wondering if there weren´t kickbacks offered or something for their referrals!!! Perhaps for the destination of Costa Rica the participation in Trip Advisor is different, but for Cuba by far and large the questions posed are largely for the all inclusive resort traveler. I had to laugh a couple of days ago when some Brit came on there wondering if she should bring sugar for her boyfriend´s tea. Come on now, seriously???!!! I find most topics on the TA Cuba forum very superficial and not of any great personal interest at least. The Lonely Planet Forum, however, seems to target a more savvy independent traveler. The answers provided are more in-depth and topics much more interesting.

              I was actually scared off from the forums for a little bit in the beginning as I truthfully answered a couple of posts with some insider information I had about a fraudulent operator, who later threatened me and the OP, and who posed as a disgruntled customer in an attempt to discredit our agency. But he was discovered and the post removed. But if I hadn’t posted and been sharp enough to realize that he was faking his identity, then the disparaging remarks he made would have remained there to unduly influence potential customers, having nothing to do with reality.

              I rarely use TA for my personal travel, but was happy to see that a hotel I selected in N.S. earlier this month was #1 on their list of properties in the area. Although in the back of my head I fully realized that it’s #1 from a very select group of travelers who choose to participate there, so take all their reviews of course with a big grain of salt. It did turn out to be a nice place, and IMHO good value for $.

              • At September 22, 2010
                7:09:21 am
                John said:

                Michael,
                We have used Trip Advisor with great success for several trips. Using TA we have avoided bad rental car companies, bad guide services, and bad accomodations.

                In some cases, we used their suggestions to plan whole vacations – you get ideas from so many sources.

                In turn, we always provide reviews of places, facilities, and services we used. We try to be objective and helpful, but also don’t hesitate to point out our disappointment when some facility or service just wasn’t as advertised.
                We’re also generous with praise when a service goes the extra mile for visitors.
                So TA gets a ‘thumbs up’ from us.
                jd

                • At September 21, 2010
                  9:46:27 pm
                  Jennifer Fletcher said:

                  No, I haven’t yet used Trip Advisor to make decisions about my trips.
                  I usually Google the country or region I’m interested in & then gradually zero in until I find what I like.It takes some time!We like to rent a house/cottage & stay a while. I’ll pay attention to reviews of other people then.Our needs are simple & we don’t rent luxury homes- just comfortable ,clean & nicely decorated,with a pool if it’s hot.We’re not cheap & are willing to pay a reasonable going rate for accommodation. You get what you pay for – there’s usually a reason places are cheap!
                  Last year in Costa Rica, we rented a house but before going there we wanted to travel around to see some other places.THis was too complicated for me & I immediately thought of Costa Rica Expeditions : I’d previously read about you in both “A New Key to Costa Rica ” & the “Tico Times” guide book.For me, it was a no-brainer – these books are compiled by people who’ve either spent a long time in Costa Rica or live there.
                  I’m also very conscious of the fact that Costa Rica Expeditions is based in Costa Rica ,that you’ve been there a long time ,Michael,& that you offer well-paying jobs to Costa Ricans & contribute to the economy of the country.This is very important to my family.
                  We were more than pleased with the personal attention we got & were so glad to have consulted you.

                  As for the bribery & blackmail question,I think this is a really sad comment on dubious business practices today & the way some people are always trying to wheel & deal & grab what they can due to a “Me,me,me!” sense of entitlement.
                  I’m no angel – far from it,believe me,but I know that when all is said & done,your trustworthiness & good name are your most precious assets.
                  Got off track there a bit but as far as I’m concerned,your comments are right on, Michael.

                  • At September 21, 2010
                    9:14:14 pm
                    Patricia Pick said:

                    Hi -

                    I have used Trip Advisor for many years, and have always found the reviews helpful and generally quite accurate. There is always the occasional bad review, but no one – and no place – is perfect. Everyone has a bad day from time to time.

                    There is also no accounting for taste. I recently read a review of a place that we have stayed – easily one of the nicest places we have EVER stayed, but this reviewer was complaining because it was TOO nice!

                    Patricia

                    • At September 21, 2010
                      6:38:12 pm
                      michael epstein said:

                      Hi Michael,
                      Yes we use Trip Advisor when we plan a trip, like when we went with Costa Rica Expeditions. However we always read as many reviews as possible so as to not be swayed by one or two bad reviews. We know that it’s impossible to please everyone ALL THE TIME, so inevitably the general sense of the rating has to come out. We have always read the most terrible review on a location that is on the first quartile of all the hotels, restaurants, etc. We have never been deceived when arriving at our destination; the averages always held true.
                      If a owner or manager can be blackmailed, then they indeed have a quality
                      problem, and are scared to have it uncovered. I believe that their reviews would ultimately reflect the problem.
                      Thank you for making us aware of this potential problem.
                      Best wishes….Michael

                      • At October 09, 2010
                        8:07:06 am
                        Rafael replied
                        to michael epstein:

                        Dear Michael, as a hotel owner you fear blackmail only if you have a very good reputation. If you have a bad service or your hotel is has problemes with quality you’ll get bad reviews anyway, so the hotels with less quality problems are the ones exposed to this threat. You can rightaway recognice when a person will blackmail you with TA. They start with some false accusation that you can deny easily, like “how is it possible that your beds are not King Size or The steambath was too steamy!”. After this they say “anyway, you better make us a discount, or…” We had two cases of TA blackmail and we don’t blame TA for this, in the contrary we are very happy with this wunderful tool. This is just amother tool for indecent people that feel better if they steel some money. The cases are extremely rare, but they do exist. Sadly enough this is part of human nature!

                      • At September 21, 2010
                        4:19:20 pm
                        Alex S. said:

                        Hi Michael,
                        I use Trip Advisor all the time and find it to be a very reliable grassroots information exchange which has yet to steer me wrong. How does one pick out the “blackmail” reviews? If I see a bad review, I generally look up the member posting the review in question and try to read any other reviews posted by the same member. In most cases, complainers tend to be quite habitual with their complaints and so I find I can weed them out quickly. Also, if the owner/ manager of the establishment on the receiving end of the complaint replies with a reasonable explanation of the situation, I can then see both sides of that particular story and decide for myself. Finally, if most reviews are great and a small handfull or less are negative, then I tend to ignore those negative reviews. As I said, so far, so good with T.A.!

                        • At September 21, 2010
                          4:17:05 pm
                          Kathy said:

                          I do use Trip Advisor and I agree with Michael that it is a very good tool, when used judiciously. When I read reviews I always look for the ones that seem too pat or too negative. They are usually the outliers and then I can use the rest to get a general sense of the place. I think very few people see one or two negative reviews and reject a place for that. Often times a negative review can actually ” readas positive” for me. For example, if one visits the rainforest and I read complaints about bugs and rain, I really look at that as a reflection on that traveller rather than the place! Like any assesment generated by many people you can spot trends; this is a great location, but the resteraunt is not it’s strength.
                          I recently had an awkward situation myself with a review I posted. I had a single bad experience with an outfitter who otherwise provided stellar service at all properties but one where a noise complaint was badly handled by management. The company involved offered us a 4 figure settlement ( we did not ask for this and plan to donate it to an organization in that part of the world). I did have to explain that I had to be honest in Trip Advisor about my experience, but I explained that the issue was handled very well by the company once they were made aware of the trouble with local management. I felt it wasn’t fair to not mention the problems because of the settlement, but I also felt it was fair to share how responsive they were after it escalated. In the same vein I think it’s important for travel operators to ” hold the line” on extortion, though I think this is a big temptation!
                          Another thing- I never use the ” rankings ” this is the #1 hotel. That seems to me to be a popularity and size of the property contest. Also there are as many “right properties” as there are people looking,,, different people have different priorities, so what’s 1 to you might be 10 to someone else.

                          • At September 21, 2010
                            5:07:23 pm
                            Kathy replied
                            to Kathy:

                            I should clarify- we were not offered a settlement BECAUSE of the review. This reputable company offered it in response to a complaint from our travel agent long before any reviews were posted. In my conversation with a rep from the organization, I then mentioned having to be honest in a future review. Didn’t want anyone thinking they were paying us off!

                          • At September 21, 2010
                            4:09:09 pm
                            Deb said:

                            Hi,

                            I absolutely use Trip Advisor as a source for trip planning. It gives better reviews than almost any other travel resource I have found. I have gotten some fantastic advice in planning trips when I posted questions and I have learned a ton about areas, accomodations, and activity providers by reading what others have written. Our vacations have been much richer for what I have learned on Trip Advisor. The one trip in recent memory where I was too busy to do some advance research on TA made it clear why it is so important–we ended up heading out on a snorkeling trip with a company that had ample negative reviews on TA and we too had a bad experience, wasting a precious day of vacation.

                            That said, after you’ve been using the site for a while you can pretty easily see the reviews that are scams–either falsely glowing reports or attacks on a business. They are often posted by someone with few, if any, other reviews. Or when you look at the poster’s other reviews you see a pattern that makes it pretty clear that they are not a real traveller writing about their experiences. Or there’s a ton of reviews that all are pretty consistent with one another and then a review that is completely the opposite.

                            Finally, there are people who go places they should not go and then give poor reviews because they made a bad choice. Those are obvious too–they’re at a rustic place complaining that it wasn’t up to Ritz standards or they’re in a mega-urban area complaining the rooms are too small. Those reviews I just skip and move on to the next one.

                            Best to all of you at Costa Rica Expeditions–we had a fantastic time with you and look forward to returning again.