Stephen Jardine: Trip Advisor claims leave a bad taste

Restaurant owners in Edinburgh say they have been threatened with negative reviews online unless they offer diners a discount.
Restaurant owners in Edinburgh say they have been threatened with negative reviews online unless they offer diners a discount.
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My favourite episode of Fawlty Towers is the one when the hotel inspector comes to call. His visit coincides with the escape of a pet mouse belonging to hapless waiter Manuel. Inevitably it ends up in the kitchen, then in the dining room. The customers are used to the chaos but the presence of the hotel inspector holds out the possibility that Basil might get his just deserts.

When the series was made, eating out meant putting up with what you were given. Unless you were a critic confronted with a rodent, the only negative feedback you could give was by taking your business elsewhere. At the start of the new millennium, all that changed. Trip Advisor shifted the balance from the restaurant to the customer but has it gone too far?

This week it emerged several prominent restaurant owners in Edinburgh have been threatened with negative online reviews unless they offered free food and drink to so-called blaggers. One told The Scotsman of a diner actually drafting a bad review in the restaurant and threatening to post it unless they received a substantial discount. The chief executive of the B&B association David Weston confirms demands for discounts for good reviews are a growing problem.

In the new sharing digital environment, online reviews can make or break a restaurant. A new restaurant opened near me ten days ago. It already has half a dozen good reviews so I’m planning a visit. If they had all been negative I probably wouldn’t have bothered. While guides like Michelin or the AA reflect the best of the sector, most people eat most of the time in mid price standard restaurants. The easiest way to find out if that is actually on offer is to turn to Trip Advisor. However that only works if everyone plays fair.

The Habitat Café in Aberfeldy has a long list of glowing five-star reviews on it’s Trip Advisor page but it wasn’t always like that. A couple of years ago it endured 45 negative reviews in an 18-month period following the departure of a member of staff. Eventually the bad reviews were deleted but the owner said they had damaged his business and his mental health.

Safeguarding reputation is particularly difficult if the people posting negative reviews hide behind false online identities. A few years ago the owners of Tigh na Cheo guest house in Kinlochleven failed in a court bid to force Trip Advisor to review the true identity of people who had posted negative online reviews.

The court ruled it had no jurisdiction over a worldwide organisation based in the United States.

However, there is hope. With new review platforms now available, the influence of Trip Advisor could be in decline. For every guest threatening a bad review if they don’t receive a discount you can be sure there are chefs writing good things online about their own food. That is the reality of what Trip Advisor has become. It started with the best of intentions but has been subverted by good old fashioned human nature.

If it had been around back in the day you can be sure Basil would have forever been posting positive reviews of the mouse mousse at Fawlty Towers.