A Hotelier’s Lament

Chris Harvie puts his neck on the line and looks at how TripAdvisor has taken much of the joy out of hospitality to the detriment of both hosts and guests.

HAVE you noticed that we hoteliers have undergone a sinister character-change? Do you see fear in our eyes? A persecuted look? Well, if you aren’t aware of it, you should be. Because you are ruining our lives. Not all of you, admittedly. Only a miniscule percentage of you, but enough people to make a significant change to the way we operate.

More than almost any other industry we give up our entire lives to serve the public. We give up our homes, our marriages, our holidays, our Christmases, in our endeavour to achieve 100% guest satisfaction at all times.

Hospitality is a lifestyle. A calling. It is not a career. We don’t do it for the money, and being ‘nice’ to people is not an easy job.

So what do we get in thanks for our efforts? TripAdvisor.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? There’s no worldwide website called SickAdvisor where ‘millions of members’ crit doctors in over 100 million reviews, is there? Or a RipAdvisor site to attack clothing manufacturers? Or TrickAdvisor to expose second-hand car dealers?

So why pick on us, when we are the ones who are at work when nobody else is? For whom a public holiday is not a day off but an even longer and harder day than usual?

I have been in hotels for more than 30 years, from frequent guest to junior employee, manager and owner, and I am always filled with admiration for my colleagues for what they put up with from some of the more unsavoury members of the public.

I use the word ‘professional’ deliberately because I think we are probably the most professional profession in the world. You trust us with your down-time, your recreation, your secrets, your trysts and your dirty linen. You trust us to feed you, to make your bed, to keep you safe, to wash your clothes and to clean your car whilst you switch off and relax.

And in return, talking of dirty linen, we get internet-wide vilification.

Until the advent of TripAdvisor , we hoteliers took a pride in what we did. You loved us, we loved you. We’d go to bed exhausted but satisfied that we had done our absolute best and believing, realistically, that we had satisfied more than 99% of you. And that the 1% simply wouldn’t come back. After all, if you go to a supermarket that doesn’t sell what you want, you don’t go the media. You go to a different supermarket the next time.

Nowadays, things have changed. We go to bed in fear, we sleep fitfully and we wake up in trepidation. And, believe it or not, our first move over our morning pick-me-up is to log onto TripAdvisor to reassure ourselves that, during the night, some disgruntled whinger (or even worse a bitter rival, rancorous blackmailer or a scorned lover) hasn’t wreaked a worldwide web of retribution, public vilification and personal attacks that will sit and fester in the search engines way beyond any relevance they might ever have had.

We are under attack. And to make it worse, our persecutors are allowed to remain anonymous so we don’t know their names, when they stayed, what room they were in or where they sat in the restaurant. They can attack us, name us, humiliate us but we are not even allowed to know who they are.

Our pride in our art is wilting. The fulsome joy and spontaneous hospitality are on the wane as we find ourselves more and more on the defensive.

If you don’t like my hotel, tell me privately, but don’t emblazon it across the ether. It may not be what you wanted but it might well suit somebody else. Although, like most hotels, we aim to please the maximum number of people, we can’t, realistically, be everybody’s cup of tea or favourite soup, so if we are not what you wanted, don’t blame us alone. You may be equally at fault for choosing the wrong place for your needs and I am not going to waste my heart attack on reading your unreasonable rantings posted on a busybody website.

So what’s the solution to this seemingly intractable issue? Well, firstly, if we must have a TripAdvisor, it should be optional and attractive for hotels to have an entry. The website is well-followed enough, now, surely, for everyone in hospitality to want to be on it and for an absence from the site to raise enough questions on its own? I am all for reasonable and constructive guest feedback, but it should be the hotel’s choice as to how it receives that.

Secondly, reviewers should be obliged to use their real names and not hide behind keyboardwarrior anonymity. Reviewers’ contact details should also be available to hoteliers and restaurateurs on request. In this way, we can find out more details of any complaints and rectify any problems.

Thirdly, as with a number of similar sites, TripAdvisor should approach hotels for comment before publication in the case of an aggressive or negative review, instead of allowing the industry a limited (and heavily censored) opportunity to reply after the event, by which time the damage is done. We hoteliers are not allowed a website where we can complain or warn our colleagues about difficult or immoral guests — it has been tried but was ironically declared defamatory — so it is only right that we should have a veto or at least a right of reply to any attacks on us before they go public. (TripAdvisor is not alone here. Booking.com causes similar problems by asking for both positives and negatives when soliciting reviews from users, which has the disadvantage of asking people to scratch their heads and find a negative, even when they might not previously have been bothered by one.)

Hoteliers hate TripAdvisor. Full stop. It’s not a watchdog. It is potentially the hotelier’s enemy in the way that no other industry has one.

Certainly it provides a great opportunity for good feedback and positive promotion through genuine rave reviews, but it is also a potential vehicle for systematic persecution, and is easily used by the unscrupulous to threaten and blackmail hoteliers into providing more than has been paid for and to seek out special favours.

For now, the hotelier’s best option still seems to be to ignore TripAdvisor and not to court reviews.

We hospitality folk want you to be happy, because if you’re happy, we are happy. Then we can put the joy back into hospitality. It will be to everybody’s benefit.

Relieve me

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim or you may find yourself smuggling strange goods

We’d driven the pile of nappies over hill and dale, lake and mountain, gravel and pothole and through four countries. Now we had finally reached Zimbabwe and could dump them. So to speak.

I’d originally agreed to carry a small parcel to Bulawayo. Six boxes had turned up. Six vast boxes, unsubtly labelled Dis-Chem and containing a hundred and fifty adult nappies. Half a bakkie-load. And there was a blanket too. But not just any blanket. One of those giant blankets that comes with its own zip-up carrying bag. A blanket large enough, in fact, to make a sizeable bivouac.

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim.

We cunningly buried the boxes under our camping equipment and agreed to tell any inquisitive officials that they were for my personal use. In my fiftieth year I was obviously about to lose control of my faculties and liable to urinate or, heaven forbid, defecate uncontrollably at any moment. The disposable contents of the boxes would allow these actions to be carried out discreetly. I suggested, when crossing borders, that I should perhaps wear a pair of absorbent briefs over my shorts, superman-style, to reinforce the situation, as it were, but it was agreed that this strategy would come into play in emergencies only.

Our padded contraband passed unnoticed out of South Africa and through Mozambique, unsullied even after a dodgy prawn in Inhambane. We had established, in case explanation was required, established that the local word for nappy is fralda and that incontinent, not surprisingly, isincontinente in Portuguese. So far so good.

On reaching the Zòbué border between Mozambique and Malawi, however, things got a bit, erm, stickier.

We declared ourselves to be carrying ‘camping equipment’ but officialdom wasn’t having it. A sturdy woman in a tight-fitting uniform into which you couldn’t have squeezed a small tissue, let alone an absorbent pad, insisted that we provide a detailed list or unpack the vehicle. And no amount if jolly humour on our part was going to talk her out of it.

Item by item, we slowly removed bicycles, tents, sleeping bags and mats, food boxes, a braai grille, kit bags, charcoal, a tool kit, a 40-litre water tank, two pairs of muddy hiking boots and then our secret weapon – an open bag full of dirty laundry. At this point she quailed. No smuggled discovery was worth the discomfort of dealing with soiled clothing. Little did she know what else was lurking deeper under the canopy …

The nappies passed unchallenged through Malawi and unnoticed into Zambia where they spent four happy nappy days in South Luangwa before pushing south-west and unsprayed over the bridge at Victoria Falls. And now here they were in Bulawayo.

We called the number we’d been given to arrange delivery. In Hope Foundation Road – how apt, we thought. Look for a nurse in a pink T-shirt.

We drove up and down the road. No nurse. No pink T-shirt. We called again.

Next to the Greenhouses? Green houses? Or greenhouses? Just past the Sunlight bus stop.

We asked a blue-overalled passer-by, pushing a bicycle. “I don’t know, boss, I am new here, sorry, from Masvingo, but, please boss, I need job.”

Still no pink T-shirt. Stymied at the last. We’d driven these oversized pampers 8000 kilometres around Africa. Now we couldn’t deliver them where they were so sorely needed. Giving up reluctantly, we left them at a spaza shop with a gentle dollar-bribed guard.

I heard later that afternoon that the nurse had taken delivery. Mission accomplished. Just in time, according to Nurse. I was so relieved I almost wet myself.