Using TripAdvisor: Uig

Breakfast and dinner was far above average – salmon with the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever tasted and beautiful, fresh, local vegetables. However, at $65Cdn, not worth it. We thought, at least, the dinner price might include a glass of wine; especially when we entered the dining room and saw quite a selection. We were quickly told the price of the bottles and that we were welcome to them, if only we added the price to our bill. The dining room decor was distateful to us – filled with war memorabilia. As far as dining, if you stay here, you are pretty restricted to eating here, as it is very isolated: thus, the exorbidant price.

TripAdvisor, if you’ve not found it already, is a handy reviews website for checking out hotels, guest houses – and restaurants – before you book, based on the actual experience of previous guests.

When I was visiting Perth earlier in the year with a friend, wanting to find somewhere for lunch, I cross-referenced the international guide to vegan/vegetarian eating, The Happy Cow, with restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor, and we had a fantastic lunch in Tabla. When I was writing about the Maldives I found I could track the changes in tourist experience from genuine TripAdvisor reviews (and also, realised that there was an increasing number of reviewers who’d left just one review and who had uniformly reported that everything was excellent: the fake reviews problem exists on TripAdvisor as elsewhere).

Like most people, I check out the Terrible reviews first. It’s a good sign when they occur years apart and when the hotel manager has responded to identifiable problems in the review. (“I’m really sorry there were aliens under the bed. We have exterminated them all and guarantee the problem will not recur.”)

Then I scan up through the reviews from worst to best. It’s a bad sign when the same problems mentioned in the Terrible reviews recur as a problem in the Excellent and Very Good reviews – (the “I noticed this as a possible issue, but it didn’t spoil my stay because I like blue fuzzy aliens” kind of comment).

I have no idea how rife the problem of deliberately bad/malicious reviews is, but short of an actual campaign on the same lines as the fake-positive reviews which some establishments may be guilty of, a Terrible review is not by itself going to put me off booking a room or a table.

TripAdvisor has just lost a claim that it’s based in Massachusetts and not subject to the UK legal system. Given they have an office in London, this seems fair. But the case is something odd, to say the least.

There is a 6-bedroom guesthouse at Uig, on the west coast of Lewis, which is ranked #1 of 1 Timsgarry B&B and Inns on Tripadvisor. This is Baile-na-Cille, a guesthouse owned by Richard Gollin. Gollin is praised as a host by Ed Brenegar in these terms:

Richard is what I look for in a host.

 Baile-na-Cille on LewisBaile-na-Cille is an old 18th century parson’s manse in Timsgarry, Isle of Lewis on what is called Uig Sands. It is an idyllic setting for a relaxing holiday away from the rest of the world. It is not an easy place to get to, and a place not easy to leave. Richard Gollin has run this guest house for almost three decades. It’s his place, filled with books about all sorts of things, from mountains to race cars, and filled with the sounds of blues. He invites you into his home and he cares for you like you are guest.

Many places you go, you feel that you are a customer. There is a certain formality that makes the place a hotel instead of a place more like a home.

Ed Brenegar is an American “leadership consultant”, and appears to be a right-wing Christian, but though I doubt I would take any note of his views on leadership, religious freedom, abortion, or gay marriage, I think he’s as likely to be a good judge of what makes a good guest house as the next person. And I think that’s a great review: it tells me that Brenegar enjoyed staying there, and it warns me that if I prefer to be a customer in a hotel rather than a paying guest in someone’s private home, quite conscious that it’s his space, I should go elsewhere.

Richard Gollin is sueing TripAdvisor for “negative criticism posted about his business” which he claims is false and should be removed:

He has alleged the website has hurt business through lost bookings worth around £2000, arguing that it is rife with inaccurate or false guest reviews.

This is odd, because there are only four Terrible reviews about Baile-na-Cille – 11 August 2005, left by arbour from Calgary, Alberta, 31 August 2007, left by JEMCambridgeshire, 5 July 2010, left by mrsmacgreggory from Aberdeen, and 21 June 2012, left by Susan EE of Flint, UK.

That’s a pretty good record. The only really damning one out of the four is JEMCambridgeshire from 2007, who didn’t get to stay there because Richard Gollin had lost her booking and Baile-na-Cille was full up:

To be fair to Richard he didn’t try to deny the booking (although i did have a copy of one of many e-mails back and forth to prove the booking had it been necessary). Also he arranged for us to stay at a B+B down the road and he paid for this – however if we had wanted to stay in a B+B down the road we would have booked it in the first place. As I said money was not the issue.

After the initial disappointment we probably would have adjusted our expectations of the next few days and moved on – everybody can make the odd mistake. BUT there in lies the problem it seems it wasn’t that unusual. Over the next few days I got the distinct impression that this was far from the first time this has happened. No wonder Richard didn’t seem too surprised that he had got it wrong.

There are some complaints about cleanliness, but over several years any guest house will have the odd failure to clean a room as perfectly as you’d like: and obviously that failure will come up in a negative review.

Almost all of the reviews mention that the food is great if expensive, that Richard Gollin is the guesthouse’s cook. (Expensive is entirely understandable given the location.)

Many of the negative reviews – and I have just read all of the Terrible, Very Bad, and Average reviews – mention Richard Gollin’s inescapable personality as one of the drawbacks. As Ed Brenegar notes (he evidently got on very well with Richard Gollin) you are staying in his home and he makes sure you know that. Some people enjoyed that: some people didn’t.

Gollin’s complaint in the small claims court is:

one writer criticised the food at Baile-na-Cille guesthouse, and claimed the portions were small.

He said the individual gave the wrong date for his stay to “cover his tracks”, adding: “I believe that one lie should disqualify his entry.

“TripAdvisor is in dereliction of duty in failing to have proper supervision of what goes on its website. All across the country people should stand up to TripAdvisor. Anyone can go on the site and within two minutes could post a fake review.”

He claimed the company ignored him when he asked it to remove some postings, which also criticise the host himself, the beds and the age of the beachside building. The guesthouse, officially rated on Trip­Advisor as “number one of one guesthouses” in Timsgarry, Lewis, has 50 reviews, 29 of which rate it as “excellent” and five as “terrible”.

My guess is Gollin’s particular complaint is a review from September 2011, posted by stubby_galavant from San Antonio, Texas, who complains that besides being expensive, the dinner meal “ran out of vegetable sides”.

Richard Gollin complains:

fake reviews create a lot of damage when they attack small guesthouses compared to a hotel chain because “this is our livelihood – we are just a small B&B.”

He took the action over what was “clearly a malicious review for the guest who wanted to get his own back because he didn’t want to pay his phone bill.”

I don’t like the idea that the proprietor of a hotel or a guest house could get TripAdvisor to take negative reviews down. I have slightly more sympathy for Richard Gollin that I would for J.W. Marriott, but the principle’s the same – I want to be able to read people’s honest reactions to where they stayed, and the value of TripAdvisor is always that it lets you do just that, unedited by the owner: you then have to make your own mind up.

Fake reviews may be a problem, but I don’t see any evidence that the negative reviews are being posted by a single individual with a grudge against Richard Gollin. It’s apparently easy enough to create fake accounts on TA and post multiple times using different free email addresses, but the thing a reviewer doing this can’t fake is the date. If the reviews are dated months or years apart, if the reviewer has a long-term track record on TripAdvisor, then it’s probably someone’s honest reaction.

And while Richard Gollin may not like hearing that a guest who was quelled enough by Gollin’s personality not to complain, who stayed the booked days and paid the bill without complaint, nonetheless wasn’t having a particularly good time, well: that’s the hospitality industry for you.

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