If we want ethical hotels and sustainable tourism, it’s time the online travel industry was made accountable for its tricking and trapping, says journalist Juliet Kinsman, founder of Bouteco, an arbiter of boutique eco hotels.
When TripAdvisor first started in 2000, it represented everything we loved about the democratising powers of the world wide web. It gave everyone a voice and it proposed a meritocracy which would expose under-par properties and let the best stand out. And even now, years on, most of us still think of it as a useful, user-generated review site that’s on the side of the consumer. But can it really be trusted?
You probably think I’m having a dig at those glowing reviews in fact written by a hotel owner about his own establishment? Or the damning one-starrers from a bogus account of someone who’s never even visited a property? No. What I’m talking about is TripAdvisor’s whole modus operandi, which is much more manipulative.
There are probably review-farm factories full of people paid to hammer away on keyboards to write fake five-star endorsements. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the very deliberate hoodwinking of hotel bookers — and that it’s time that the online travel industry was made more accountable for their tricking and trapping.
TripAdvisor not only feeds this culture of monopolisation, but actively dupes customers by stealing business that would naturally be heading to small independent hotels. It then siphons some of the profits away from local economies to a bank account abroad. The Competition and Markets Authority recently launched an investigation into hotel booking websites as allegations emerged that they mislead customers and actively prevent them from getting the best deals — surely breaking the law.
‘TripAdvisor’s corporate financial report shows most of their revenue comes from click-through ads with booking site partners’, says Louise Oldfield, owner of an award-winning three-bedroom boutique bed and breakfast in Kent, England called The Reading Rooms.
Hotel owners like Louise are under massive pressure to pay huge fees to TripAdvisor, and pay more for marketing and prominence on sites — often with phoney, paid-for ranking classifications which have nothing to do with how many honest, positive reviews hotels have received from the public. If they don’t pay, it’s a full-time job as an independent hotel to try to keep your occupancy up when the Online Travel Agency (OTA) bullies are so deceptive.
Start your search for a room at The Reading Rooms with Google, for example, and chances are a TripAdvisor result appears near the top with the insinuation they can help you check availability for dates at this stylish stay in Margate. The third-party’s calendar results then imply the B&B is fully booked — but it’s not that the B&B that doesn’t have vacancies, it’s that they don’t share their inventory with anyone. ‘As a hotelier, if you don’t allocate rooms to the booking sites, you are effectively promoting spare commission-based rooms in your area on that day,’ says Louise. OTA’s algorithms don’t work for quality hotels or popular places that book up. They want to sell rooms — any rooms — that day. This has forced down room rates, and meant there are increasingly limited resources for wage increases and investment in the businesses themselves.
Different travel brands, hotel-booking platforms and price-comparison sites suggest there is lots of choice, as though that’s all good news for the consumer — but it’s a monopoly with Expedia (which owns Hotels.com, Travelocity, Trivago) and Priceline (the company behind Bookings.com, Agoda, Kayak), who between them are in control of a whopping 80% of the market share.
‘Little businesses don’t have the search-engine optimisation capability of the likes of Booking.com and so they’re fighting a losing battle to get direct sales. I’ve spent two years cleaning up our Google results,’ says Louise. ‘And it’s only possible because we don’t allow ANY rooms on ANY booking site, because booking sites sell your listing to other sites such as Trivago, Travel Republic and so on.’
Often it comes down to who’s most aggressive at making the consumer think they offer the best deal, and most Google results lead back to the booking sites. As consumers, we need to remember that you get what you pay for. Can the hotel you’re staying in afford to pay their staff properly and invest in their business, or are they being squeezed and squeezed so they can sell their rooms through the OTAs at bargain-basement prices and not be as ethical a business as they’d like to be?