Pam and Larry Willis had recently purchased the Gables Wine Country Inn in California’s Sonoma wine region four years ago when they received it: their first TripAdvisor threat.
“A guest pulled me aside and said he didn’t get the level of concierge service he expected and was going to write a negative review online if he didn’t get his money back,” Mr. Willis said. “It was pretty bold.”
Mr. Willis told the guest he was sorry but the complaint did not warrant a refund. Ultimately, the guest took no action. But the episode put the Willises on guard.
The threat of a bad online review on TripAdvisor, Travelocity or other consumer-advisory sites has become an increasingly common form of guest leverage, lodging executives say.
“Even a single negative review can cause someone to choose a different hotel or restaurant, so the threat of a bad review is real,” said Sarah Tanford, an associate professor at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Her research has found that negative online reviews can outweigh other decision-making factors for prospective guests, including price, when they are selecting where to stay or eat.
People in the hospitality industry know that the power to soothe the aggrieved guest is more important than ever in the era of crowdsourced negativity.
In Mr. Willis’s case, if a lodger brings a problem to his attention while the guest is still at the inn, he takes pains to make things right. But because the Gables has only eight rooms, he said, “we can’t afford to give away free nights just to avoid a bad review.”
For the most part, Mr. Willis said he had to trust that the preponderance of positive reviews online would outweigh the few negative ones when potential guests read through them.
Bigger lodging companies have more options.
The review threat happens “more frequently now” when guests complain to the hotel staff, said Michael Rossolo, a director of revenue management for Marriott in Hawaii.
Some guests write a negative review while still on the property, knowing that the travel websites are monitored by the hotel staff. In that case, they will most likely get a call “to see how we can make things better,” Mr. Rossolo said.
If a guest posts a complaint because the poolside bar was unexpectedly closed, he said, “we might send a nice bottle of wine and a note up to their room.”
Mr. Rossolo said his hotel also gave guests advance notice, ahead of their arrival, if construction or other disruptions might affect their stay.
The specter of negative online reviews has had the positive effect of forcing the hospitality industry to focus on better service, according to a recent report from Business Travel News, which serves corporate travel managers.
Many hotels recognize “that they operate in a world in which one traveler’s experience can be magnified across legions of potential customers via online review sites,” Business Travel said.
Alan Muskat operates No Taste Like Home, a “wild food foraging” tour company in Asheville, N.C. Guides take guests into the wild to find mushrooms, sassafras and other edible flora that they then take to a participating restaurant to turn into a meal. The experience may not always meet everyone’s expectations — especially if there isn’t much flora to collect on a particular day.
“We’ve dealt with the threat of bad reviews several times and have a system for it,” Mr. Muskat said. Guides ask all guests to write a review on paper before they leave the tour, he said.
“We know right away if there is a problem,’’ Mr. Muskat said, “and can fix it before they go online and post something.”
The online sites say they try to keep reviewers from attempting outright blackmail.
TripAdvisor examines each review, using automated tools to flag questionable content. Such comments are then examined by a team of reviewers before they are published, in an effort to make sure each posting is legitimate. The website has a staff of more than 300 people in seven countries engaged in that work.
Brooke Ferencsik, the senior communications director at TripAdvisor, said hotels should report any threatening behavior to the site before a negative review is posted. TripAdvisor will then investigate, asking for proof of the action and reviewing the history of the property and guest.
Frank Isganitis, co-owner of the LimeRock Inn in Rockland, Me., successfully used that process when a potential guest took offense at a reservation foul-up and threatened to “ruin the business” of the inn.
“We wrote up the incident and sent it to TripAdvisor,” Mr. Isganitis said, “just in case she followed through on her threats.”
A bad review can have the greatest impact on a small hotel or an Airbnb property because it is likely to have fewer other reviews for potential guests to read.
Chris K. Anderson, the director of the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, suggests that smaller hotels ask all guests to submit reviews to online travel sites like TripAdvisor. The hotel can make that easier by sending email requests or surveys to guests that are automatically posted to those sites.
The larger review pool will “be more representative of guests in general,” Mr. Anderson said, and not be as heavily weighted by the more extreme responses.
Most negative reviews, of course, are meant to warn other travelers rather than shake down lodging managers.
When Lisa Slivka of Seattle checked into a Long Island hotel one Saturday last summer, she discovered it was a popular location for wedding parties. Music thumped from below and loud guests roamed by her room at all hours, she said.
Unable to sleep, she wrote a scathing Yelp review at 3 a.m. The hotel gave her a 50 percent refund when she checked out. But Ms. Slivka said she thought she should still warn other guests and submitted a review on Expedia.
Seeing the Expedia review, the hotel manager called personally to apologize and offered her a free stay in the future.
“I appreciated the call and the certificate,’’ she said. “But if the hotel won’t warn people about the noise potential on a summer weekend, I thought I should do it.”