When it comes to hotel reviews, suddenly everyone's a critic. And that can be a problem.
One citizen reviewer on Tripadvisor.com warned that the walls at the Talbott -- a three-star downtown Chicago property -- are so thin that guests can hear everything going on in the halls and the next room. Another, on Epinions.com, complained that service at the deluxe Renaissance Mayflower in Washington sags on weekends, after business travelers have checked out. A critic from Santa Barbara wrote on Wheretostay.com that the grime in a guest room at SuperClubs Breezes in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was so thick that a message written on a glass window said, "Clean me, I'm dirty." Not all the commentaries are so brutal. Some drip with syrupy praise; others are thoughtful and nuanced.
With the increased prevalence of hotel-review sites that publish critiques by guests, any traveler with an urge to share his or her views on the quality of linens, the firmness of mattresses or other aspects of a place of lodging can be transformed into a critic. "Hotel public relations people and professional writers have their ways of getting out their word on properties," said Josh Feuerstein, vice president of hotels at Travelocity.com, one of the first sites to include user reviews. "This is the public's chance to express its views on the quality of a place and the service it delivers."
Whether they rant or rave, the reviews are often so subjective that they work best when supplemented by guidebook, magazine or newspaper recommendations and ratings from AAA, Mobil, etc.
Until recently, critiques by guests were mostly a curiosity, the travel equivalent of Reality TV. Now more travelers are using them for advice on where to stay -- or avoid -- and for sharing their own views on properties they have patronized. Tripadvisor, the biggest and most frequently used site, includes 2.7 million user reviews of hotels worldwide -- up from a million just seven months ago. The Aventura Spa Palace in Mexico has drawn more than 1,000 reviews. By Feuerstein's account, the number of guest-written reviews on Travelocity doubled -- to 50,000 -- in the past year.
The popularity of user reviews has spawned a slew of new sites offering them. Besides Tripadvisor and Travelocity, the most widely used are Igo-ugo.com, Hotelshark.com, Whereto- stay.com, Epinions.com, Ricksteves- .com, Expedia.com, Fodors.com and Zoomandgo.com. Each offers a slightly different format, focus or tone (see chart). Travelers can navigate the sites and find reviews for thousands of properties across the globe, ranging from the $595-a-night Four Seasons in New York to the $23-a-night Friends Hostel in Paris. Kayak.com, an online travel aggregator, includes with its hotel listings links to guest-written reviews from several Internet sites.
Besides the sites where users can post reviews, a handful offer those who log in the chance to post and answer questions about specific hotels. They include Hotelchatter.com, Flyertalk.com and Lonelyplanet.com's Thorn Tree.
In the era of travel blogs and online chats, when more and more vacationers regularly log on to research trips and make reservations, the appeal of user reviews is logical. For one, they offer up-to-date information. Sometimes they are available within hours of a guest's visit. The critiques posted on Travelocity and several other sites are removed after a year. The listings on hotels in many guidebooks, by comparison, can be a couple of years old.
But the biggest attraction of the reviews is their raw candor. The writers often take a refreshingly undiplomatic approach, and most of the sites edit or censor the views lightly, if at all.
Some reviewers are well-traveled professionals who critique hotels -- and other travel services -- as an avocation. Jim Rosenberg of Wausau, Wisc., is a 49-year-old public utility official who stays in hotels more than 40 nights a year. He has written reviews on dozens of properties for Tripadvisor and Igougo.
"I have often used reviews by other travelers for advice," Rosenberg said in an interview. "And the results have almost always been good. I figure offering my own comments about hotels is a way of repaying my debtedness to other travelers."
His write-up of the Holiday Inn St. Germain des Pres in Paris, published earlier this year on Igougo, typifies the no-nonsense approach many of the reviewers take. "Some refurbishing would be welcome," he wrote of the three-star property. "Finding a room with a view would be a challenge," he added, even though the hotel is in a historic nighborhood. His conclusion: "It has a low to nonexistent charm factor that may leave you wondering whether you might have been better off going with one of the area's many two- or three-star properties that would provide comparable or better accommodations at a lower rate."
Others are even more blunt. Several guests at the Radisson Lexington Avenue in New York complained on Tripadvisor that the guest rooms were tinier than bathrooms in Manhattan apartments. "Rather depressing" is how Antoinette Gurney of San Diego described the Aston Kaanapali Shores on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Wheretostay. It has "old decor and dark, echoing hallways," she added. "We had to change rooms several times because of bad odors or faulty air conditioning."
Like the hotels they cover, the user-review sites have their flaws, too. Among them:
* They are too often based on a single negative experience. What might have been a fluke incident -- a frazzled desk clerk, dirty socks overlooked by housekeeping, a plate dropped by a room service attendant -- is used as black mark against a hotel.
* Different reviews of a property on the same site are sometimes grossly inconsistent or contradictory. The Hotelshark entry on the Fountainebleau, a popular four-star property in Miami, contains two entries. "My family just stayed . . . and found it delightful," one says. "Stay away," warns the other. "Our mini-vacation turned out to be a nightmare at this so-called resort."
"The inconsistences of the reviews make it hard for me to rely on them," said John Wolf, a media official for Marriott International. "When one person dumps on a place and another praises it, who do you believe?"
* The credibility and motivation of the reviewers can be questionable. Since most sites do not require critics to post identifying information -- only the Graffiti Wall at Ricksteves requires full names and contact information -- it's unclear who the reviewers are. Travelocity requires user reviewers to register but not to include their contact information online. To hedge against hotel managers or their friends writing hyped reviews of properties, Expedia only allows those who book a hotel room through the site to write a review. On Igougo, most of the reviews are written by registered members; many include names, contact information and even photos of the reviewers. The majority of Tripadvisor reviews list the writer's home town but are otherwise anonymous.
"We have tools in place to detect fraudulent reviews," according to Tripadvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik. "In addition to scrutinizing all reviews prior to posting, we pay particular attention to those whom we have reason to suspect."
* The sites rarely give hoteliers the opportunity to respond to negative reviews. We contacted the hotels criticized by user reviewers in comments quoted above. In reaction to the charge on Epinions that service at Washington's Mayflower is better during the week than on weekends, Chris Madoo, the hotel's director of marketing, said, "We make every effort seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to make sure that every guest is 100 percent comfortable."
Responding to the Wheretostay critique of SuperClubs Breezes, spokeswoman Jennifer Sparrow said reviews on other sites were more positive.
To learn who writes the reviews and why, we contacted several critics who included their names and e-mails with their comments. They included a dot-com entrepreneur from San Francisco, a computer executive from Cleveland and a Dallas homemaker.
After her stay last year at the Daphne Inn Veneto in Rome, Cathy Decenzo, an office employee from Ashburn, Va., wrote a glowing commentary on Tripadvisor.
"I've had great luck with hotels, restaurants, shopping and just about everything else that reviewers on Trip-advisor recommended," she explained. "So when I came across this fantastic hotel, I naturally thought the rest of the world should know about it."