JOHN McGURK: BEWARE ONLINE MONSTERS MAKING OR BREAKING BUSINESSES

JOHN McGURK

So here we are, roaming around the eastern Mediterranean, looking forward to some of our favourite restaurants only to discover that they’re not what they used to be. The service and the standard of food are going down while the prices are going up.

It happened again last night on the north west coast of Crete in what was once a romantic hideaway at the bottom of a long and winding road where the seafood and salads were probably among the best anywhere in the world.  But not any more.

The place has been overrun by tourists who bring their screaming children and even their barking dogs.  What used to be a view of lapping waves is now spoiled by an overcrowded car park. But the most serious consequence was the tummy bug which followed an hour or so later. Oh dear.

What’s gone wrong?… simple: the place just can’t cope anymore thanks to Trip Advisor.

Those online reviewers have made it so popular that it’s been ruined.  The very nice lady who runs it clearly can’t cope with the daily invasion.

We waited 45 minutes for our supper only to discover that the order had mysteriously disappeared. If we hadn’t gently protested, it may never have arrived.  They had run out of a particular request and presented a poorer substitute. One order didn’t contain the proper combination of ingredients.

A favourite white wine could only be served warm and it took 15 minutes to bring a bottle of beer. When the bill arrived, it was probably 20% more than expected.

Trip Advisor may well have started 15 years ago with the right intention, to signal to the traveller what’s good and what’s bad. But now it makes or breaks businesses.

Apparently, there are 20 online reviews a minute.  Many are from well-intentioned visitors who try and give an honest and accurate account of their experience:  “Great food, great place, we recommend it!.”

But others are from the not-so-impressed who don’t hold back: “This hotel’s a dump.  Avoid it. There was even poo in the kettle!”

While some places try and boost their trade by posting the most wonderful comments themselves, competitors attempt to drive rivals out of business by posting the opposite. It’s got to the stage where it’s impossible to tell fact from fiction.

Then there are the reviewers who threaten to post shocking statements unless they get their money back.  Apparently, even the best places get blackmailed by guests making all sorts of defamatory accusations.

In the case of our little paradise restaurant, there have been so many glowing reports that it’s now a destination of choice.  But, going by last night’s experience, it won’t be long before the shine wears off and it becomes a victim of its own success.  What a shame.

Trip Advisor, just like that other online travel monster Airbnb, has become a menace.

Airbnb was started in 2008 by three friends in San Francisco who decided to rent out a loft filled with air beds.  You will know the rest of the story.

Now it’s a $6 billion empire which has spawned many thousands of micro entrepreneurs across the world. In Britain, thanks to George Osborne, as many as 700,000 landlords earn their first £7,500 a year in rent without paying income tax.

During the recent Edinburgh Festival, spare rooms in the city centre were being let for a bargain £100 a night netting their owners more than £2000 over the period.

Naturally, hoteliers and bed and breakfast proprietors are moaning that they’re being unfairly undercut. Cities like Barcelona have had to introduce rigid tourism laws as a result.

Airbnb deals have caused all sorts of issues over safety, security and insurance and there are many cases of simple transactions which have ended up as complex legal wrangles because of injury and theft.

But perhaps the most major consequence is a shortage of quality long-term rented accommodation in major cities because owners can now make much more by offering short term lets to visitors.

Then there are those online comments again.  While guests can praise or decry their landlord: “He’s a Rachman!”… the landlord can rate the guests: “They wrecked the place”… so that both future guests and owners are warned.

Just as those other monsters Facebook and Google are rapidly seeing off paid-for journalism by aggregating, condensing and re-presenting it, Trip Advisor and Airbnb have taken over the travel business and are turning very good places into bad ones.

Today for a late lunch we decided to take no chances and headed high into the mountains and the winding hair-pin bends where the tourist buses can’t pass.

There, with panoramic views across the Aegean to the south and the mountains to the west, we enjoyed the finest Greek cuisine without screaming children and the barking dogs.

Yes, you’re perfectly correct: the taverna has not signed up to Trip Advisor…yet!

 

 

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