You’re excited! You’re planning a trip to Asia. Maybe it’s one of many you’ve made. Perhaps it’s your first. You’ve saved up for months and your mind continually wanders thinking of all those beautiful Asian guys, the beaches, cocktails at sunset, the bars and the fun times you will have. But you need a place to stay. Old hands will have their own favourites. If you’re new to the continent, how do you make a decision?
One is to check accommodation review sites. The lingering question then, though, is: how genuine are these reviews? Well, booking engine sites like agoda.com or hotels.com have a clear policy. They only permit reviews if you booked through their sites. Still, different strokes for different folks. You really have to take reviews with a liberal pinch of salt.
The most regularly visited site is probably TripAdvisor with extensive reviews for a huge selection of accommodations and restaurants in Asia and it doles out hosts of awards each year. If you are not used to TripAdviser, you may think it sounds great. Think again!
Personally, I hate being conned. In my view TripAdvisor is close to becoming one of the biggest travel cons of all. I first noticed it some years ago when taking part in a Conference in Singapore. I had a free room at the stunning-looking 5-star Marina Bay Sands with its rooftop infinity pool. I’ll not relate the experience in detail here, other than to say if you think a 40-minute queue on arrival, multiple cigarette burns in a non-smoking room and a 30-minute queue for breakfast acceptable, then you’ll love it. I will never stay there again. And I wrote a Tripadvisor review accordingly.
As it was posted I noticed the hotel was #63 in the rankings for Singapore – by far the worst of the city’s 5-star hotels, the next highest being in the mid-30s. This clearly posed a problem for both the hotel and the Singapore government, because the Marina Bay Sands is a flagship project with at least some government backing. It must have been galling for those behind the hotel to see it languishing so low in the rankings.
Around the time of my bad review, a flood of 2-line 5-star reviews by one-time posters had started to appear. So I made a list of 17. I wrote to each requesting one simple piece of advice as, I claimed, I was thinking of staying at the hotel. I received not one reply. And I have not the slightest doubt that every single review was fake, written by people connected in some way or other to the hotel and the Sands Empire – and therefore dependent on the hotel. I also wrote to TripAdvisor with my findings, only to receive a standard reply. “We have systems in place to weed out… blah, blah, blah.” Yet miraculously, about half of these fake reviews suddenly disappeared! So much for TripAdvisor’s “systems”!
Visiting Bangkok a few months back, a friend invited me to a buffet dinner at the Coffee Shop in a 5-star hotel. Our dining experience was close to the worst I have experienced at almost any major hotel – anywhere. So my friend wrote an extensive 1-star review on TripAdvisor. We noticed this café had a very high ranking at #95 out of 9,132 dining establishments in the city. Then we noticed once again a large number of 2-line 5-star raves from first-time reviewers, this being one –
“High quality of tasty food, excellent atmosphere and great service. We would definitely come back here again and again!”
Remarkably, this review that says virtually nothing useful had gained two “Helpful” votes! Can someone explain to me how this is in any way “helpful”? So again I wrote to a dozen reviewers. And yet again I received not one response. So once more I wrote to Tripadviser, this time giving them what I considered good advice: take a leaf out of the Skytrax airline/airport review site. To prove that travellers are genuine, Skytrax has introduced a new “Verified Review” status. This requires a copy of your boarding pass. It is not published, but it proves you really took the flight you reviewed. Three months later, total silence from TripAdvisor.
There is, though, another reason for being suspicious of TripAdvisor reviews. Look closely at reviews for some establishments. At the end there is a little line item – “Review collected in partnership with this restaurant” followed by a little “i” logo. Click that “i” and the real reason for the reviews being all but useless becomes perfectly clear – “This business uses tools provided by TripAdvisor (or one of its official Review Collection Partners) to encourage and collect guest reviews, including this one.”
In other words, most of these reviewers had a comments form thrust in front of them with a request they complete it and leave it on payment of their bill. In such circumstances how many diners have any desire to complete forms but do so merely to be helpful. Knowing that hotel staff will read them, will most people give anything less than a 3- or 4-star review even if they had found the experience disappointing?
So, is TripAdvisor really just one big con? Despite what I have written, the answer can only be “well, not quite”. The site does include a lot of genuine reviews. It’s just that too many are highly suspect or obviously fake as was confirmed in a major article in Business Traveller magazine about a year ago. Thus the rankings for each establishment are especially suspect. The only way to get a reasonable idea of quality is to wade through a stack of recent reviews and pick out those from people who have made at least a couple of dozen other reviews, each with a decent amount of detail.
In a future article AsiaGuys.NET will give suggestions for finding the best price for your preferred accommodation. In the meantime, where does the disappointing Marina Bay Sands now rank? Guess what? Within a year of my stay its ranking had reached the low 50s! And amazingly it has kept soaring up. As I write it stands at #31. Clearly this hotel achieved its TripAdvisor objective. Ironically, though, one recent review from a first-time reviewer gives it only 1-star. The review starts, “This hotel is a total joke!!!!”
What’s your experience been like with Travel Review Sites? Please post your comments below
Contribution by Daniel Bentley who is a Gay Travel Writer and Photographer who has traveled throughout and lives in Asia.