The horror stories of social media gone astray are covered in depth, especially when they are related to anti-Yelp or other anti-review sentiment.
One recent case has soared into the outrage stratosphere, as a small inn in upstate New York City has been called out for a policy that ostensibly charges weddings a $500 fee for any negative Yelp review. The inn in question is the Union Street Guest House
, and has been drawn into a widely controversial stream related to discouraging negative reviews.
First reported by gossipy Page Six
, the original policy stated:
Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our inn, your friends and families may not. If you have booked the inn for a wedding or other type of event . . . and given us a deposit of any kind . . . there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review . . . placed on any internet site by anyone in your party.
Since being widely publicized, the Inn has since maintained that the policy was a joke. However, the remaining policy - which has been amended to remove the $500 fine - suggests that the inn was really trying to avoid negative reviews caused by people staying at the inn as part of a large party that didn't have a say in location selection.
It appears that some of these guests felt the accommodations were too rustic, and that was leading to negative reviews. From the website, as it currently stands:
Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our Inn, your friends and families may not. This is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer - therefore we expect you to explain that to them. USGH & Hudson are historic. The buildings here are old (but restored). Our bathrooms and kitchens are designed to look old in an artistic "vintage" way. Our furniture is mostly hip, period furniture that you would see in many design magazines. (although comfortable and functional - obviously all beds are brand new) If your guests are looking for a Marriott type hotel they may not like it here.
We recommend that you tour our Inn before your wedding so that you will know the quality of our lodging.
Yelp, for its part, says that this policy is misguided. It released the following statement:
For ten years (this month), Yelp has provided a platform for people to exercise free speech and warn consumers about bad business behavior such as this. Yelp fights to protect free speech for consumers and against efforts to intimidate or stifle it. Trying to prevent your customers from talking about their experiences is bad policy and, in this case, likely unenforceable anyway.
We encourage people to share their first-hand experiences; reviews that are contributed as a result of media attention and do not reflect first-hand experiences run counter to Yelp’s Terms of Service and will be removed from the site.
Nonetheless, Yelp hasn't removed many of the reviews resulting from the widespread media coverage of this policy.
In fact, this is the very first review that pops up on Yelp for the Union Street Guest House - note the banner above the review as well, which doesn't exactly engender trust in Yelp's own review system by appearing to punish this business owner with these lingering malicious reviews.
Other reviewers in this same time frame speak of getting bed bugs at the inn, and compare the $500 fine for a negative review to North Korea's denial of civil liberties and general repression of an entire population of humans.
Tnooz has asked Yelp about the recent influx of negative reviews following the media maelstrom, and for clarification of its process for identifying and removing fake reviews or review from people who have never experienced a business. The article will be updated with any response.
Over on TripAdvisor, there are far fewer of these sort of media-fueled reviews - although the hotel has several one and two star reviews that speak to unfriendly guest policies described as a "take it or leave it" style of customer service.
TripAdvisor has a 24-48 hour process in place, where suspicious reviews are removed via an algorithmic system that flags reviews for further attention. In this case, the company does not support any sort of intimidation - financial or otherwise - of reviewers:
It is completely against the spirit and policies of our site for any business owner to attempt to bully or intimidate reviewers who have had a negative experience. We have sent this property correspondence addressing that issue.
Consumers know they can rely on TripAdvisor to help them make informed decisions, which is why millions of travelers keep coming back to the site each month. We’ve built this community by giving customers a platform to share their honest opinions, good or bad. We strongly believe in their right to do so.
Following yesterday’s events, it appears that the Union Street Guest House has removed the clause threatening guests with financial penalties from their website. This is a positive result for travelers and free speech supporters alike. TripAdvisor will be monitoring this property going forward and will continue to be on the lookout for policies like this one.
The hotel itself has not responded for comment, but Archive.org's Wayback Machine shows the following movements of the negative review fine policy over the past 2 years:
- April 14, 2014: Review policy still in effect, stating however the $500 fine will be removed from the "deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event" and also that those staying and attending weddings elsewhere "leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review." The charge will be refunded if the review is removed, and "we only request this of wedding parties and for the reasons explained above."
- December 7, 2013: Same review policy in place as above.
- March 1, 2013: Same review policy in place, with an additional reminder: "We recommend that you tour our Inn before your wedding so that you will know the quality of our Lodging experience."
- December 26, 2012: Same policy.
- October 27, 2012: The policy is a bit less intense at this time: "If you stay here to attend a wedding and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500. fine for each negative review. If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event (this is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer and we expect you to explain that to them)."
- August 7, 2012: The policy is not in place at this time.
So the evolution of the policy suggests that some event triggered an escalation in approach, and the approach was attempting to manage expectations and eliminate the disconnect between the reality of the space and the consumer's perception.
Overall, yet another example of how travel businesses must address reviews head on while remembering that what happens online stays online - and that the power of memes like this can spread widely with deep impact on the business.