A classic example of the power social media wields over businesses involves an incident with the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York. Recent media coverage revealed that the hotel fines couples $500 for every negative review posted any where online by one of their guests.
Since a negative review on websites like Yelp could possibly cause permanent damage to a business, even if the customer review is unfair and lacks objectivity, the Union Street Guest House reasoned that the best way to keep negative reviews off Yelp and other sites was to simply fine guests $500 for writing a bad review. The hotel claimed they would will also fine you $500 if you’re staying there to attend a wedding at another venue, but leave a negative review about your stay.
The hotel included the following policy on its website, which has since been removed:
“Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our inn, your friends and families may not. If you have booked the inn for a wedding or other type of event […] and given us a deposit of any kind […] there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review […] placed on any Internet site by anyone in your party.”
And although the hotel agreed to refund the money if the negative review was taken offline, the Union Street Guest House’s Yelp page is currently full of one-star reviews for dreadful service and intimidation tactics.
One reviewer wrote: “I stayed here for a wedding in May. Let’s just say this was the worst experience I’ve ever had at a hotel… The staff rubbed both myself and my gf the wrong way with their unhelpful, rude and inhospitable manor. The bed felt lumpy and the rooms were way to hipster for my tastes. I ultimately had to sleep in a sleeping bag to avoid the lumps. Heck I would have had a better experience if I just camped out on the lawn outside. The worst part, however, was the ‘hotel’ policy about reviews. So in an effort to ensure that the bride and groom (whom are two of my best friends) don’t get charged I felt it best to whip out my rarely used 2nd yelp account.”
Since the media backlash, the Union Street Guest House quickly recanted their claim in a pathetic attempt at damage control. According to Ars Technica, the hotel posted the following statement on its Facebook page:
“The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced.”
But as Ars Technica points out, no amount of Facebook spin is going to fix the damage, which is now irreparable, and once the news leaked, the Union Street Guest House’s Yelp page became a war zone. Other businesses have also tried to repress bad reviews, but Ars notes the harder a business tries to crack down, the angrier the masses get.
“You’re In It Whether You Want To Be Or Not”
San Francisco chef Jeff Mason characterized the Yelp review situation this way — “You’re in it whether you want to be or not, and that’s what’s so frustrating.”
Calls placed by Ars to the Union Street Guest House’s main phone number went unanswered. As Lee Hutchinson, Senior Reviews Editor at Ars, so aptly explains:
“Even a minuscule number of negative reviews can have a disproportionately large detrimental effect on a business’s margins, and it’s easy to see why the Union Street Guest House might want to try to be proactive in preventing negative reviews from happening in the first place.”
But the Union Street Guest House clearly made a grave error in judgement by fining guests $500 for negative reviews, which can hardly be seen as “proactive.” It should be clear to anyone that the most appropriate proactive move on the hotel’s part would be to address and correct specific criticisms.
Yelp is as Much Savior as Antagonist
The irony is, as San Francisco Magazine’s Rebecca Flint Marx notes, that many restaurants also owe their success to sites like Yelp. “As Charles Bililies, the owner of Souvla, a modestly hip four-month-old souvlaki joint in Hayes Valley, says, ‘You want some feedback, but don’t want to necessarily empower people so they are controlling you.’ Psychologically, he says, ‘it’s a very, very fine line to walk.’”
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