OFT may act on website 'Hotel Bribes'

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The influential holiday website TripAdvisor has found that hotels are bribing guests to write favourable reviews in exchange for cash or discounted prices.

The practise, which is illegal in Britain, Ireland, France, Italy and Germany, reflects an increase in the number of hotels which pay people to provide glowing yet misleading feedback. Many such properties also advertise on the website Digital Point, offering $10 for each positive review posted on TripAdvisor.

Mis-leading hotel reviews

Founded in the US in 2000, TripAdvisor has already blacklisted 30 properties around the world. Any hotel the site suspects to have planted sham reviews is identified online by a red flag, accompanied by the advice that 'individuals associated with the property may have interfered with traveller reviews' and a description of the wrongdoing.

With over 500,000 destinations and some 45 million reviews, TripAdvisor is a popular resource for holidaymakers seeking unbiased opinions about places to stay. And it welcomes hoteliers who encourage their guests to submit user reviews once they get home.

However, TripAdvisor's Emma O'Boyle says it is strictly against the site's guidelines to offer incentives, discounts or upgrades, stressing that "We take serious steps to penalise businesses caught attempting to manipulate the system."

In 2009 a New York company which had uploaded fake consumer reviews was fined nearly £200,000. Last year a Midlands hotelier offered free bathrobes to any guest willing to post a favourable review, whilst a hotel in the north gave away free meals.

With the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) promising to investigate if it believes rules have been broken, a business in Cornwall may face an inquiry over allegations it has breached TripAdvisor's reviewing rules.

Guests of the Cove Hotel, near Penzance, receive a letter from the owner inviting them to become a 'Friend of the Cove' and offering 10% discounts and a 'free apartment upgrade'. In return they become 'brand champions' for the Cove and are asked to post an 'honest but positive view' on TripAdvisor.

Incentives are also offered if guests recommend the hotel to the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide, influential publications which many rely on for independent hotel and restaurant advice.

The Cove's owner, Lee Magner, insists there has been no wrongdoing. "In no way are we paying people to put positive reviews on TripAdvisor. We are merely rewarding their loyalty."

However, a spokesman for the Office of Fair Trading spokesman said: "If complaints are made directly to us then the issue could be something we will look into."

Nick Harris, head of travel law at Simpson Millar LLP, said that it might be tempting to report hotel complaints to local trading standards offices in instances of mis-selling. "But these cases underline how important it is to find out as much as possible about any hotel you're thinking of visiting, if possible from more than one source," he commented. "And it's good to hear that both TripAdvisor and the OFT are being proactive in resolving these issues."


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