TripAdvisor: are you for or against?

The  Staff Canteen
TripAdvisor rarely manages to stay out of the news for long, whether it’s chefs writing angry ripostes, imaginary restaurants popping out of nowhere or sarcastic five-star reviews of homeless hostels, there always seems to be someone taking a pop at “the world’s largest social travel network”. The Staff Canteen decided to find out why and whether all the flak is fair.  

Phantom restaurants, five-star homeless hostels and scathing replies

In April there was the Glasgow homeless hostel which received a spate of glowing ‘five-star’ reviews commenting on the friendliness of the staff, the excellence of the room service and the ‘breathtaking’ marble floors and crystal chandeliers. In July there was the case of the ‘phantom’ restaurant in Devon. Supposedly set in an old fishing vessel in the town of Brixham, ‘Oscar’s’ received rave reviews, even comparing it favourably with El Bulli,  but the floating restaurant turned out to be a damp squib – it was the invention of a miffed businessman whose friend’s hotel had received a barrage of bad TripAdvisor reviews. Most recently there was the case of The Blade Bone Inn owner, Kiren Puri, who posted a 1,000 word reply to a negative review on the site. The scathing reply went viral, with owner and chef-patron, Puri, blasting the reviewer with comments like: “I have never met a self-professed foodie start his meal with a bowl of chips,” and: “Your parents appeared to be as embarrassed to be with you as I was to have you in my restaurant.”

'Ruined nights' and dirty tricks

All very amusing, but there is a more serious side to the sarcasm, fake reviews and angry responses: many chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers have issues with TripAdvisor; after all, with increasingly tight margins, negative reviews can mean the difference between life and death to a struggling business, and many in the industry question the fairness and objectivity of some of these comments. Sat Bains is a chef who has been famously outspoken about TripAdvisor in the past. The chef-patron of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains has been known to post caustic replies to negative reviews, including, according to a Telegraph article, inviting one reviewer to “invest in a dictionary” and regretting that another had received a surcharge for dining alone because the lonely customer could have “got himself a date with the cash.” Behind the humorous quips though, there is a serious point. As Sat Bains told The Staff Canteen: “I think when it's constructive, then fair enough. The issue I have though is when I feel it's unfounded. I think, unknowingly, some people can have a negative effect on business because they don't understand why you do what you do. We've been criticised from everything from only offering tasting menus to serving food in bowls as opposed to plates. The latter was our most recent and they said it ruined their night! If they'd only asked why while there, any of the staff could have told them.  The most common complaint from chefs and restaurateurs is the ‘anonymous’ negative review that just seems a little too close to home, often because it is. In fact it’s the rival restaurant just down the road trying to take business away with an underhand review. Paul Foster, head chef at Suffolk’s Tuddenham Mill, is someone who has given up reading TripAdvisor reviews and has found his own evidence of foul play on the site. He said: “We had a bad review claiming to be written from a chef I know, who has a restaurant just up the road. The chef called us the next day and told me the review definitely wasn’t from him. We suspect it was from another restaurant nearby that just wanted to cause bad blood between us.”

An Invaluable tool?

Despite these obvious issues, TripAdvisor must be doing something right. It is the world’s largest site of its kind with over 2.5 million businesses listed and more than 250 million visitors every month. There must be something that customers find trustworthy about the reviewing system or they would simply stop using it. Perhaps people just have enough common sense to sift the useful from the rubbish? Mark Frost is a forty-year-old chartered accountant from Derbyshire who describes himself as a bit of a foodie. Mark eats out two or three times a week and finds TripAdvisor an invaluable tool for making informed decisions on where to go. He said: “You’ve got to interpret who’s written it and why before you make any decisions. I read the best review and the worst review and I try to get a feel for who has written them. I try to read as many comments as possible and then make my own evaluations on what I’ve read. I also try to find out how many times the good and bad points repeat so I can get an idea of how common they are.” This is all well and good but not everyone has the time or desire to analyse comments in the way that Mark does. Isn’t it reasonable to ask for a system where a quick scroll through will give you a fairly objective idea?

Monitoring systems and fraud detection

Perhaps it’s time to hear what TripAdvisor itself has to say. James Kay, UK PR manager for the site, said: “What we want the site to be is a place where you can get a useful and accurate picture of the places you’re researching; with the monitoring system we’ve got in place, we’re pretty confident that that’s what we deliver. In one of our recent surveys, ninety-eight per cent of our customers said that the reviews they read were accurate compared to the experience they went on to have.” According to James, TripAdvisor employs a three-tiered monitoring system. The first is an electronic tracking system which screens each review individually for suspicious attributes; the second is the TripAdvisor community itself which can report abuse using the ‘problem with review button’; and thirdly there is a team of 200-plus international specialists with backgrounds in banking and credit card fraud, who monitor reviews for suspicious behaviour and track down those responsible for it.

Proof of purchase?

All of which sounds very impressive but still fails to convince chefs like Simon Hulstone, chef-patron of Michelin-starred The Elephant in Torquay. Simon cites his own activities on the site as evidence of its shortcomings: “We managed to get our local Wetherspoons into the top ten by writing great reviews about their packets of crisps,” he said. “We literally wrote reviews on how good the prawn cocktail flavour was compared to the McCoy’s flame-grilled steak; their filters didn’t seem to pick up on that.” For Simon Hulstone, the only way TripAdvisor could regain his trust is by radically overhauling its systems. “People need to prove that they’ve been to the restaurant,” he said. “We’ve had reviews talking about our tuna or smoked salmon – these are things that we’ve never even had on the menu! Everybody should provide a copy of their receipt as part of their review and there should be a scan of it including full pricing and date to prove that they’ve eaten there and are talking about the food that they’ve had.” Clearly the system is far from fool proof so what does TripAdvisor intend to do to safeguard against these kinds of aberration in the future? And, perhaps more importantly how do they intend to regain the trust of chefs like Sat Bains, Simon Hulstone and Paul Foster?

Social media versus old-fashioned customer service?

“We do feel a sense of responsibility to the industry,” said TripAdvisor’s James Kay. “When activity that is designed to catch us out slips through the net we rely on our community to report it to us and that is in fact what happened in the case of the restaurant in Devon. Our community value the accuracy of our content as much as we do.” With over 150 million reviews and opinions posted on the site perhaps it is inevitable that the odd story like the homeless hostel or the missing restaurant are going to come out once in a while. Perhaps we ought to cut TripAdvisor some slack. Or perhaps the whole argument will soon be irrelevant anyway. In a recent case in Canada, a Hotel is filing a lawsuit against a negative reviewer for a reported $95,000 in damages and loss of profits. If it is successful, people could become a whole lot more circumspect about what they write on the site. Hundreds of thousands of chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers around the globe are possibly rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation at this news; but equally millions of newly-empowered customers might well mourn the loss of a platform on which they can give their opinions. Maybe it is this that is the real issue with TripAdvisor, not that it is unfair, biased or inaccurate but that it has highlighted a widening gulf between customers and those working in the industry and is symptomatic of a wider issue with social media in the modern world. As Simon Hulstone says: “Everyone’s a food blogger now; everyone’s got a phone with a camera on it; and people seem to want to tell the world their problems, rather than tell us, when we could fix the problem on the spot.”  

The results of our TripAdvisor survey: 38% for TripAdvisor, 62% against

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st October 2013

TripAdvisor: are you for or against?