Hotel charges $500 for negative reviews, gets predictable backlash online: fair?

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Do you guys ever watch Hotel Hell with Gordon Ramsey? I’ve only seen one episode of it, but it reminds me of Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Impossible in that the business owners seem so incompetent that I don’t think they deserve all the help they’re getting. (I have that issue with a lot of those kind of reality shows.) You just know they’re going to run those businesses into the ground again, and that’s what usually happens. I bring up Ramsey because this story reminds me of the worst restaurant, with the most arrogant owners, that he’s ever tried to help, Amy’s Baking Company. Amy and her husband openly argued with customers and they would regularly post nasty attacking comments in response to negative reviews online.

Now there’s news that a New York boutique hotel, The Union Street Guest House in Hudson NY, has tried to shut down negative comments online by threatening to fine all guests $500 for each negative review posted by anyone in their party. It’s part of their written policy. They’ve also tried to sue people who post negative reviews in an attempt to get them removed. (Retailers have done this too, here’s a link to the most egregious example I’ve heard of.) This has of course blown up in the hotel owners’ faces, with countless negative reviews being posted on Yelp in response to their ridiculous policy. Here’s the story, thanks to the NY Post.

The owner of an upstate inn who threatened to impose a $500 fine for each negative online review saw the plan blow up in his face Monday when Page Six exposed the outrageous tactic.
Hundreds of scathing comments drove the rating of Hudson-based Union Street Guest House on review site Yelp down to a measly 1 star — with more than a thousand others removed for violating rules against “harassment,” “lewdness” and “defamatory” postings.

Some of the reviews were clearly attempts at humor, such as the 5-star rave from “Zane E.”

“The concierge has all the best escort services on speed dial. They had an amazing selection of videos. My favorite were the she-male and cuckold ones,” he wrote.

But most attacked the inn’s since-revoked written policy that warned anyone who booked the place for a wedding or other event that “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.”

“Rob S.” of San Luis Obispo, Calif., decried the inn’s “unethical business practices.” “My guess is that they claim that we owe them about $150,000 by now,” he wrote.

“Alex V.” of Los Angeles called the policy “the most despicable practice I have ever read about in the history of modern business.”

“Do we live in a Stalinist autocratic regime?” he added.

And “Nathan S.” of Seattle said of the backlash: “This is what happens when you think you are more intelligent than the Internet.

“Let this be a lesson to those of you who feel that prioritizing customer service is no longer a requirement. If you receive negative feedback, learn from it and move on,” he wrote.

A source at the Union Street Guest House insisted that the policy “was meant to be tongue-in-cheek,” but admitted that the attempt at humor had fallen flat.
“We like to have fun,” the source said. “We’re not trying to screw people over. We have five rooms. It was never meant to be some horrible rule.”

But one Yelp member contacted by The Post said he actually received two e-mails from the inn’s management threatening to impose the fine if he didn’t take down the 1-star review he posted last year.

Rabih Zahnan, 38, of Alexandria, Va., said he stayed at the inn for a friend’s wedding and was stuck in a room that was “musty and had a a bit of mold smell.”

“The reaction that they sent just reinforced my 1-star review,” said Zahnan, who works in private equity.

[From The NY Post]

When I have a problem with a restaurant or service and it seems pretty bad, I will attempt to tell the business owner in person so that they can fix it. It’s not like I complain that much, and I like to think that I’m nice about it. Usually nothing is done and they’re like “oh well.” I still won’t write a negative review at that point unless it’s glaringly bad or unless the owner is super rude to me. It’s hard and can be embarrassing to complain in person, but I think it’s a fairer way to do it, as negative reviews can ruin a small business. Sometimes they deserve it, but some reviews reflect one bad staff member or someone having an off day. However, the business owners can usually respond to a negative review on most sites and apologize or offer to fix it. If I read a nice apology I’m more likely to think favorably about a business with bad reviews. At what point do business owners decide that instead of changing their business and providing better customer service they’re just going to try to control the entire internet? That’s ridiculous, look at how that worked out for Scientology.

This also reminds me about how Yelp is squeezing small businesses to “advertise” with them in exchange for a higher “weighting” for positive reviews. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s very enlightening to read up on. I no longer trust Yelp and use Trip Adviser to look up reviews.

Union Street Guest House’s Facebook page is full of negative comments. My favorite is about their outdoor photo, below. A guy named Ed Z commented “Shoulda charge $800 for bad review so you could have got a decent patio set…or at least a matching set

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64 Responses to “Hotel charges $500 for negative reviews, gets predictable backlash online: fair?”

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  1. word says:

    I like reading reviews of hotels and restaurants before I decide to spend my money there. I like HONEST reviews. How can you charge someone money for giving their honest opinion? If the “bad reviews” are fake and submitted by competitors, then that’s a different story.

    • Bluebear says:

      I’m being SUED for $10,000 because someone posted a negative review and the business owner believes it is me! This is nothing! A $500 fine? Right, try a $10,000 lawsuit!!!!

      • Tiffany :) says:

        What? How is that legal?

      • Jarredsgirl says:

        What the???

        It should be pretty easy to prove that you did not post the review, right?
        Internet records?? IP addresses?? And anyway, if the negative review was true, it is not slander (is that correct? any lawyers in the house?)

  2. GoodNamesAllTaken says:

    What a stupid move.

    • Lady Macbeth (Hiddles F.) says:

      It doesn’t make any sense, business-wise. They had so much bad publicity with this stunt that they will probably shut their hotel down soon. Totally ridiculous!
      For instance, I’m going to share the NYPost link on my twitter and FB page. Silly people.

      re: Trip advisor, I use it constantly, if the reviews are bad I don’t even bother to see if they have available rooms. I never used Yelp.

      • Snazzy says:

        Agree! I always use trip advisor too – never head of Yelp until now. And I like honest reviews, and also leave honest reviews. Like if the problem was just one staff member and not the entire hotel, will say so.

  3. eliza says:

    Humor or not, it was stupid to do that, period.

    I am also one to politely take my complaints to a manager or owner directly at that time. I have never gone specifically to a web site to post a review unless an email from the business has contacted me to do so and often I will comment about the pros and cons and my overall satisfaction BUT that is when I have been requested to do .

    • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

      Me, too. We stayed in a beach house that didn’t have beach towels, which I thought was odd, but I only put nice things in my review and told the owner about the towel situation. They were very polite, and gave us $100 towards our next stay. They said they gave up on the towels because people took them, which I still consider a cost of doing business, but at least they were nice about it.

      • ozmom says:

        People taking beach towels from a vacation rental should not be considered a cost of running a business. Its theft.

  4. Eleonor says:

    even crazier is when owners sue their customers for defamation and WIN: I’ve read about the owner of a restaurant, in France, who sued a blogger who complained about the “the bad attitude” (not about the food, she complained about how poorly she was treated by the staff) and the blogger was forced to pay around 5000 euros for damages.
    Mind that this girl did not have a food blog.

    • Lady Macbeth (Hiddles F.) says:

      Maybe because in France clients are always wrong lol (it is not a shade to French people, it is a line from ‘A good year’).

      • Eleonor says:

        no no that’s true !
        A couple of weeks ago I was “antiquing”, how Swifty of me, in a library shop (ancient books) and I asked to see a book they have, the lovely owner said ” unless you are going to buy it I’ll not show you”.
        It was a book not even that rare (about 250 euro, not cheap but I could touch and see other thiings way more expansieve) the lady was quite unpleasant. I am still puzzled about this behaviour. I wish I was smart enough to have the right answer.

    • Snazzy says:

      LoL I’m not even surprised at that :)

    • Jedi says:

      In a similar sort of story, i remember hearing about this one case from Canada where a woman left a bad review for a restaurant and the owner went on this crazy campaign to distroy the woman’s life. Signed her up for freaky dating sites, sent a horrible letter or something to her boss to get her fired. it was on the news when the police arrested the nutty restaurant owner. all over a bad review!

    • FrenchLily says:

      I “know” this blogger, we’re part of the same blogosphere, we talk mostly about books… Her condemnation was a real shock among us book bloggers !

      • Eleonor says:

        I was shocked too, I used to have a blog, and her blog is similar to mine: talk aboout your stuff, books, life, restos, and that was a freaking opinion. “I went there the staff was rude”. Am I not allowed to say so?

    • rrabbit says:

      That’s a bit misleading.
      The blogger did not hire a lawyer to represent her – unfortunately, if you are trying to defend yourself, you are likely to lose regardless of merits of the case.
      And she had to pay 1,500, not 5,000.

  5. Linn says:

    “We like to have fun,” the source said. “We’re not trying to screw people over. We have five rooms. It was never meant to be some horrible rule.”

    Yeah right. Too late to try to save face now.

    Personally I wouldn’t book a place with such a policy in the first place, though.

    • Seapharris7 says:

      There’s just no way to say this was joking around or “having fun” – I have yet to hear anyone say being charged any amount if extra money AFTER you already had a bad experience is “fun”.

  6. Seapharris7 says:

    Wow, I find this appalling & I cannot believe it isn’t illegal or the BBB hasn’t put a stop to it. It’s one thing to pay or get people to write fake positive reviews, but to charge & threaten someone over honesty… That’s just dirty & dishonest

    • Celebitchy says:

      The BBB is a joke, at least it was when I had a HUGE issue with a moving company holding our stuff hostage about eight years ago. All the business owner had to do at that time was write an explanation, not solve the problem, and the BBB would consider the matter “resolved.”

      • Seapharris7 says:

        Oh I know. I worked for a builder & when anyone would write something bad about us to the BBB, all we had to do was respond to the BBB. As long as we kept responding we were at an “A” & any issues were “resolved”. We basically just beat the homeowners into submission or tired them out. They were only 1 person, maybe 2 – we had an entire staff, we could write letters all day if need be.

      • T.Fanty says:

        Yes to this. And their notification is horrible. By the time I discovered that the issue had been “resolved” with a builder I had complained about, it was too late to do anything to change the “resolved” status.

      • Mixtape says:

        Agreed. The BBB was the original Yelp, and is a business in its own right. Just as Yelp makes money off the companies who subscribe to certain advertising packages, the BBB makes its money off its “accredited” members, not the complaining public, so you can imagine who they favor.

  7. TheOriginalKitten says:

    I have such a love/hate relationship with Yelp. I think a lot of Yelpers are just power-hungry aholes who love to complain, yet I still use Yelp as a resource, mainly because in-between all the aholes, there’s a healthy dose of fair reviewers.

    I’m like you though, Celebitchy, I think a lot of people who leave reviews don’t take the time to consider how much their reviews can affect that livelihood of a small business. I never leave reviews and sometimes I feel guilty for not contributing but if I have a bad experience somewhere, I just won’t go back. I see no need to trash the place online.

    • eliza says:

      On Yelp, I happened upon a review of the veterinary hospital I have used for 22yrs. EXCELLENT PLACE. My vet is THE BEST.

      Anyway, I read this review and was horrified at the out and out lies this foolish person was saying in their review. They were mainly bitching about the boarding services and describing the place and the staff. I had to chime in and post how false the review was because the stuff that was described and the staff names were all lies. The kennel they described did not exist. The s names they posted were not on staff. So you are right. Power hungry and a lot of lies. I know this vet hospital and the staff like a second home and family (lots of pets over the years) so I had to call out the lies.

      • TheOriginalKitten says:

        SO ODD that you said that because as I was writing this I was actually reminded about how I meant to leave a positive review (which would be my first) about my vet clinic. They’re new and already have 5-stars but I still wanted to show how much I appreciate them.

        Oh wow..that is INSANE. That’s the problem with sites like Yelp–it leaves the door open for crazy people to write slanderous reviews for no reason, and the businesses that are affected don’t seem to have much recourse (besides a reply) to battle back or have the made-up review removed. Awful for your vet. Glad you stuck up for them and set the record straight.

      • nicole says:

        it was probably a competing vet office

      • sigh((s)) says:

        I usually dismiss the 5 star and 1 star reviews outright and read the rest. It seems to be a closer approximation of the truth.

    • littlestar says:

      I think Yelp is bigger in the States than in Canada, there never seems to be many Canadian businesses on there when I’ve looked on it, or there are few reviews. I usually just use Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon. I actually really like Urban Spoon, thanks to that app I have discovered so many incredible restaurants I don’t think I would have otherwise! Trip Advisor is fantastic too – have found many great hotels on there.

    • Tiffany :) says:

      I was all for Yelp, until two of my friends who are small business owners started getting the “shake down” from Yelp.

      Yelp would call offering advertising services, and when it was declined, good reviews that were previously posted disappeared and bad reviews started showing up in huge numbers. Then they got calls back from Yelp saying, “Hey! Notice your reviews have taken a turn for the worse, are you SURE you don’t want to buy ad space?” It was a complete and total shakedown. Yelp actually has their own reviewers, people who are not voluntarily writing reviews and are paid.

      The fact that two businesses, whose owners don’t know each other (but they both know me) were treated the EXACT same way by Yelp makes me think it is not just a one of thing, but that is how they operate on a larger scale.

  8. kibbles says:

    I have posted many reviews on TripAdvisor and use other people’s reviews in deciding where to stay on vacation. I rarely use Yelp. I find that most people are honest and accurate in their assessment of a restaurant or hotel. There really is no reason for people to write a dishonest review unless they work for a competitor. I think it is important for people to write honest reviews even if it is a bad one to help other people from having a similarly bad experience.

  9. FingerBinger says:

    Whether it was a joke or not that was really silly of them to do that. Now everyone knows to never go to The Union Street Guest House in Hudson NY.

  10. T.Fanty says:

    Freaky! I live right by Hudson this summer. Maybe I’ll swing by this afternoon, and report back.

  11. Lindy79 says:

    I enjoy reading online reviews for hotels if they’re honest and fair however you can spot the serial complainers a mile off. They piss me off but unfortunately, how do you stop it?

    I remember reading one about a hotel we had visited for our honeymoon, it’s not a package resort so you can’t do flights and hotel when booking yet the rant started off complaining about the entire journey out there, airport by airport and because it wasn’t a direct flight…how exactly is that the hotels fault if you chose to go there knowing this you dumbass? People like that should be forced to stay at home for life.

    • Seapharris7 says:

      My FIL is like that in real life. A 60 something y/o that throws full blown tantrums when everything isn’t perfect. And he’s very loud about it as well as threatening… We’ve given up taking him places.

  12. smn1985 says:

    You should read the trip advisor reviews and the management’s responses for this place, even before this all blew up. Holy cow I’ve never seen such rude and dismissive responses by management in my life. It is a wonder this place is still in business. And no, the whole “tongue in cheek” comment is absolute bs–18 months ago someone posted an email they received from the management warning them to take down their negative review or be fined $500.

  13. smn1985 says:

    Yelp is utter shit. If you look carefully at the bottom of an establishment’s yelp page, you’ll see a tiny grey link for “filtered reviews not currently recommended” by yelp. The yoga place I go has an average rating of 1.5 stars based on 5 reviews, but currently has 35 5-star reviews “filtered.” If you want to use yelp, make sure you look at those reviews too in order to get the full story.

    • Hissyfit says:

      This. I don’t trust Yelp reviews either. There were a couple of times I tried restaurants that have over the roof thumbs up rating from yelp and ended up hating the place or the food. And vice versa.

    • Tiffany :) says:

      Wow, good to know!
      I wrote above about my experience with Yelp. Two of my friends who are small business owners (car repair and a restaurant) started getting the “shake down” from Yelp.

      Yelp would call offering advertising services, and when it was declined, good reviews that were previously posted disappeared and bad reviews started showing up in huge numbers. Then they got calls back from Yelp saying, “Hey! Notice your reviews have taken a turn for the worse, are you SURE you don’t want to buy ad space?” It was a complete and total shakedown.

      The fact that two businesses, whose owners don’t know each other (but they both know me) were treated the EXACT same way by Yelp makes me think it is not just a one of thing, but that is how they operate on a larger scale.

      • Kristin says:

        That’s awful about your friends and I completely believe it. There have been a couple class-action lawsuits filed against Yelp for extortion by small business owners who have alleged the exact same thing happened to them. As far as I know, one of the suits is still tied up in a federal court of appeals. And a recently filed Freedom of Information Act request filed with the FCC revealed more than 700 formal complaints have been filed against Yelp in the last 4 years alone. That is VERY telling. People need to spread the word and encourage business owners NOT to use Yelp. It’s the only way they’ll get shut down or be forced to change their mafia-like policies.

  14. Deniz says:

    I currently manage a hotel in Montauk and just came across this article and almost spit my coffee out lol. I can understand that they’re probably really desperate to get those negative reviews taken off but charging guests $500 is ridiculous. The only way to get your rating up is to receive positive reviews. If you work hard every day to make your guests happy, you’ll get your rating up. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I think it’s very nice of you to at least let the restaurant manager/owner know of an issue before writing a negative review. It makes a big difference. What really bugs me though is when people write negative reviews based on something silly like the weather or the fact that the silverware in the room doesn’t match. Sorry we can’t control the weather! And if your plate doesn’t match your cup, it’s not the end of the world! Sorry for my little rant lol.

    • Seapharris7 says:

      This! And for those customers you know you satisfied, ENCOURAGE them to write a positive review. Like many have mentioned they don’t usually write a review unless asked – so ask! Otherwise the complainers will always go out of their way & be the majority.

    • lucy2 says:

      I agree. I would never write a negative review without bringing the issue to the attention of the manager or whoever – that’s simply not fair. Give them the opportunity to try to help, at least.

  15. FLORC says:

    I am a fan of those shows because they don’t always just hand out helpwithout first rehabing the owners and staff. Bar Rescue is a fair example of bad owners and not giving help, unless they’re willing to work hard for it. The lagging party or co owner will have to leave the business while staff stays up all night scrubbing the business clean before actual help it offered.

    Yes, sometimes the owners return to their terrible ways, but that seems to be the minority of situations. Even though those episodes do get the better ratings turnout.

    I knew about Yelp doing this. I went to a terrible salon that had great ratings using catchphrases in their slogan. Those were the most liked and helpful comments while the larger number of comments were negative with about a 20/5 ratio of bad to good.
    Tripadvisor is far better, but not as well known and used imo.

    Overall this practice is hilarious. Censorship only starts a riot, not contains.

    • Tiffany :) says:

      We also need to keep in mind, the “bar/hotel/restaurant rescue” shows aren’t entirely truthful. They are edited and soft scripted for dramatic purposes. My buddy is a camera guy, and has filmed quite a few of these. Sometimes they ARE that bad, and sometimes they need to exaggerate to create an episode.

  16. Amanda says:

    Why is Gordon Ramsey doing a show about hotels?? It’s a direct ripoff from the show Hotel Impossible on the travel channel, which is actually done some by a guy who has been on the hotel biz for years. Which came first Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible?

  17. bettyrose says:

    Why didn’t they just discretely pay people $500 to write good reviews?

  18. MyHiddles says:

    These idiots completely deserve every ounce of backlash they’re getting.

  19. Triple Cardinal says:

    I’m not following: if you pay your bill and check out, you owe the hotel nothing. You’re free to go home and write any review you want. How are they gonna bill the $500? Charge your credit card? Send an invoice to your home?

    If they charge your card, you can refuse to pay and dispute it. That takes months. And involves mediation. I’m not following how they expected to get $500 out of a customer as a “fine” after the bill has been paid.

    • lucy2 says:

      That’s what I’m wondering too! They can’t just randomly charge your credit card like that, after your agreed upon transaction has been completed. Plus many reviews are anonymous – how would they know for sure they were charging the right account?

    • Size Does Matter says:

      I was wondering the same. The article says something about taking it out of the “deposit” but I don’t remember ever leaving a “deposit” for a hotel room. Maybe when I’ve rented a beach house but never for a hotel room. Is it different for a bed and breakfast type place?

      • Kristin says:

        The policy doesn’t apply to regular guests, only to wedding parties whose guests write negative reviews. The hotel’s backward logic is that guests of wedding parties don’t have a choice in where they stay so their review apparently doesn’t count as much as someone who was traveling on their own and went out of the way to book a room themselves (I know, makes ZERO sense but whatever). And wedding parties do place a deposit down when they reserve a block of rooms for their guests, so I’m assuming that’s what deposit they’re referring to.

    • Tania2 says:

      They are probably tracking ISPs of the people who leave negative reviews; which, really is sort of an invasion of privacy.

  20. Slim Charles says:

    Celebitchy – Good for you for talking to the owners/management in person. You know, like an adult would :)

  21. holly hobby says:

    I’m pretty sure they are backtracking due to the negative publicity plus what they are doing is considered extortion and illegal. If they were smart they should have checked with an attorney before posting this ridiculous policy. I don’t think they were joking about it either because someone on Yahoo said that they went after them after one of their wedding guests posted a bad review.

    You really have to take the reviews with a grain of salt. If one person says something bad then you shouldn’t believe them. If the whole Yelp page is studded with bad reviews, then that should give you pause.

    I have used Yelp for family vacations and event planning. All the recommendations worked out wonderfully. I’m not going to knock it.

  22. Tania2 says:

    People have a right to make negative comments about a business. If a business owner doesn’t like that, then perhaps the owner needs to work on better customer service.

    Just because you own a business doesn’t give you carte blanche to walk all over the public and get away with it.

  23. Jarredsgirl says:

    So, hang on, let me get this straight.

    You go to a hotel, stay there, pay for your time there. You leave the hotel, write a bad review, which they find out about, and then because they still have your credit card details, they fine you?? Is that how it works??? If so, that is horrible!! And unfair that they can charge you for something you do after you leave the hotel. People have a right to tell their experience, and businesses should not be able to censor that. Isn’t this an issue of free speech, really??