Many pubs that struggle with TripAdvisor are rural and don’t have the level of footfall of some London restaurants that may get more than 100 reviews a month.
That’s not to say negative reviews aren’t frustrating for high-footfall establishments, but a single bad review is, arguably, less tangibly damaging for them than it would be for a countryside pub that gets closer to 25 reviews a month.
After all, if you run a pub in a tiny town or uber-rural location, especially if it’s a food-led pub that relies on people taking the time out to make a journey to you, anything that decreases the likelihood of customers making that journey, even by a small amount is worrying.
TripAdvisor is not without its benefits.
Many operators have taken the initiative to use it as a marketing tool, engaging with customers and demonstrating a real dedication to constructive dialogue with those less-pleased by their hospitality.
Some have even managed to flip negative reviews on their head, drumming up publicity and press with witty, astute responses.
James Lewis of Gauthier Soho, speaking at a debate held by the Alliance of Independent Restaurants (AIR) last week pointed out that the ability to instantly get a glimpse into the minds of your customers can only be positive.
And it should be noted that it’s not just errant customers causing problems – there have been examples of pubs and restaurants using TripAdvisor to give the local competition a knock, or operators hiring PR firms to manipulate ratings with false positive reviews.
Helena Egan, TripAdvisor’s global director of industry relations, who also sat on AIR’s panel, was keen to highlight the legion of positive stories from business owners who employ TripAdvisor to their own gain.
And make no mistake, there are plenty of such stories.
But what if you don’t want to spend hours replying to reviews, haggling with the site’s verification team and dealing with the all-too-familiar anxiety that accompanies a negative review?
It takes time to invest in the kind of TripAdvisor usage that pays off and, in the hospitality industry, time is money.
This would be the end of it, if pubs and restaurants had a say in whether they were listed in the first place.
The fact that TripAdvisor is essentially imposed on them is somewhat uncomfortable.
It may be a great tool in the right hands, but what if you don’t have the time or resource to use that tool? What if you don’t want to be on it in the first place?
There’s nothing you can do besides ignore it, and that’s easier said than done.
It only seems fair that operators be given the choice as to whether to open themselves up to an army of amateur critics.
Egan stressed to the panel that TripAdvisor endeavours to take down reviews that are proved to be fraudulent or slanderous.
But the company can’t suspend and then republish reviews once complaints have been resolved because of the various legal boundaries governing comment moderation online.
Unfortunately, that means in some cases it can take a matter of days – or even weeks – until a bad post actually disappears from the site.
Perhaps the answer might be to ‘flag’ reviews with some kind of indication that they are being contested?
And the anonymity the site affords its users is still a serious point of contention.
While the idea of “no receipt, no review” is appealing, it is unlikely to become a reality – it would place too much of a boundary between the site's users and its function.
It would make the process clunky, and clunkiness is the enemy of any website that trades on traffic.
Making social media verification necessary to use the site would be one option.
Needless to say it would still be possible to create a fake Facebook or Twitter account to post a fraudulent review, but it stands to reason that most would simply not be bothered.
Ultimately, you have to accept that TripAdvisor and countless other review sites are here to stay. With the digital revolution, they have ineffably changed the way customers interact with food and drink businesses.
TripAdvisor’s presence at AIR’s debate was a solid signal from a much-maligned company that it wants to engage further with the hospitality community, working alongside, rather than against business owners.
Harmonious co-existence may not be a reality yet, but it’s a conversation both sides need to approach with sensibility and an open mind.
AIR's panel debate took place at Joe Allen on Wednesday 7 September and featured James Lewis of Gauthier Soho, Jennifer Barrett ex-director of client relations at Bookatable (recently left the company), Daniel Woolfson of The Morning Advertiser, Andrea Klar-Nathan of Tonic Communications, and Helena Egan of TripAdvisor. It was hosted by Adam Hyman of CODE Hospitality and emcee'd by restaurateur Tim Healy.
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