TripAdvisor CEO goes on the defensive after scathing foodie and travel writer column
A recent Guardian column poured scorn on TripAdvisor and its apparent mishandling of reviews and misrepresentation of local businesses. However, TripAdvisor CEO said the power of community and the scale of TripAdvisor’s global reach helps make travel for everyone better in the long term.
A recent Guardian column poured scorn on TripAdvisor and its apparent mishandling of reviews and misrepresentation of local businesses.
There is nothing new in the mainstream media tearing strips off a company such as TripAdvisor, whether it has fallen foul of regulators over its brand message or on the end of question marks over the reliability of its reviews.
But something clearly irked CEO Steve Kaufer in the column by food and travel critic Marina O’Loughlin last week – in that it has triggered a 1,400-word rebuttal and robust defence of the company in response.
Maybe it was O’Loughlin’s reference to Kaufer’s eye-watering salary (apparently $39 million a year in 2013- “TripAdvisor has convinced its contributors that it is ‘one of us’, like a digital version of Nigel Farage or Donald Trump”), or just that the Guardian has a large, global readership and the columnist is considered to be quite a mover and shaker in the world of covering what to do in a destination.
“I don’t hate it [TripAdvisor] because it enables reviews of and tickets for cruel animal attractions, or for its climate of blackmail-enabling entitlement. I hate it because it’s shit.”
In particular, she despairs over its listings of top restaurants or hotels, claiming some are “utterly fictitious”, or how awards are handed out to hotels that are no longer in business, such as the property in Tunisia at the centre of a terrorist attack in the summer of 2015.
After outlining various episodes involving TripAdvisor and how some are trying to fight back, she concludes:
“Please don’t mistake this for the frustrated bleatings of a dead tree media fossil threatened by the mighty onslaught of citizen journalism.
“For one thing, I am writing this from the perspective of a punter, not a pundit. For another, while I welcome many voices, this internet clamour isn’t turning us into a democratic utopia, but rather something that resembles the film Idiocracy, in which a man wakes up after 500 years in a world of, well, idiots.
“I’m not against the idea of a source of unbiased, fact-checked, crowd-sourced wisdom. But TripAdvisor ain’t that.”
Kaufer, who will happily defend the company at trade events and on investor calls but rarely hits back so vehemently in public, says he disagrees with “almost all” of O’Loughlin’s points.
Referring back to the company’s foundation in the early-2000s, he says:
“There were certainly plenty of skeptics at the time who thought only those with an axe to grind would post reviews. Or that regular customers couldn’t really offer the same level of helpful insight as the paid ‘experts’.”
Kaufer says the invention of TripAdvisor and its role in the travel ecosystem has given small businesses worldwide an opportunity to reach a wider audience, with the reviewing concept allowing companies to reap the rewards of “quality of their product and the service they offer, not the size of their budgets or savviness of their marketing efforts”.
Despite the “help” that TripAdvisor gives to travel businesses, Kaufer says he still hears “some people question whether a model that is built around transparency and democratizing opinion can really work”.
“What is interesting is that the criticisms I hear often come from two opposite ends of the debate. On the one hand, there are those who say we should engage in greater levels of censorship to counter fraudulent reviews.
“On the other hand, we are critiqued that our guideline process is too stringent. Both viewpoints are flawed in their own unique ways.”
Kaufer says the travel industry is one of the few that which still often argues that a proof of purchase is required “before a customer would be allowed to express their opinion”.
Although he claims TripAdvisor has a robust system in place to help prevent fraudulent reviews or other untoward behaviour (using similar technology to that in the banking sector, Kaufer says), there is a concession that sometimes things don’t work out right straight away (“we don’t claim to be perfect”).
“Ultimately, the power of community and the scale of TripAdvisor’s global reach helps make travel for everyone better in the long term.”
Travellers are the “self-regulating force that helps good businesses rise and gives poor performers the feedback they need to improve”, in a nod back to the TripAdvisor adage of its early days around the wisdom of the crowd.
Still, Kaufer aims one final shot back at the critic(s):
“By giving customers a voice we have helped millions of travelers take better trips.
“Professional critics are free to disagree, but I am going to stand by the hundreds of millions of travelers and millions of business owners who also know from their own experience that TripAdvisor is a force for good for both the traveler community and for the global travel industry.”
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