TripAdvisor's Dirtiest Hotels List Raises Questions

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TripAdvisor, the popular reader-generated travel review website, released its annual list of America's Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels. ABC's Good Morning America promoted the annoucement by releasing the names of the top three hotels. But a closer look at the ranking calls into question how current or fair the TripAdvisor ratings really are.

The "worst" hotel on its list, The Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has a TripAdvisor review page that's a virtual torrent of appalled one-star reviews. But in fact, in Pigeon Forge, TripAdvisor's site lists another property, the Family Inns of America West, as being a notch worse than the Grand Resort on its popularity list, at 89 and 88 respectively.

TripAdvisor ranks all its hotels by popularity in each city. Despite the fact it was named America's Dirtiest, in terms of popularity, Grand Resort is only number 88 of 95 in Pigeon Forge, which presumably means that although there are 7 hotels that are potentially dirtier in Pigeon Forge, the Grand Resort is the one that was singled out for public shaming.
How to Detect a Fake TripAdvisor Review

User-generated travel review sites are notoriously unreliable. Learn how to read between the lines of the big travel review sites such as TripAdvisor.com:

• Read as many reviews for a each place as you can and throw out the most effusive and most venomous postings, which could have been written either by the proprietors or their competition.

• Post regular reviews of your own on the sites you like. The more honest people post, the more the effect of phony write-ups will be diluted, and the more useful these resources will become.

• If a hotel's management consistently responds to negative reviews, it is probably a promising sign that they are equally as attentive on the premises.

• If an entry reads like it was written by someone with a vested interest (overly ecstatic, wording that reads like a brochure, details that no casual guest would observe), it just might have been.

• Sometimes fake reviews will toss a few minor complaints in to make it seem more legit.

• The more professional a photo looks, the less trustworthy it becomes.

• Always consider the source and account for cultural differences. For example, American tourists often complain about European hotels rooms without air conditioning, but, culturally speaking, AC is not a standard amenity there.

• Just as scientists need lots of data to prove their hypotheses, you can't reach solid conclusions -- either positive or negative -- about hotels with only a few reviews.

• For some destinations with hordes of fans, such as Walt Disney World, read carefully to determine whether the reviewer is delivering a fair appraisal or merely chiming in based on their devotion

• Balance what you read with descriptions from newspapers or guide books, but remember that most publications only publish recommendations. If a place is bad, it won't usually warrant coverage.

A closer look at TripAdvisor's website shows that none of those 7 hotels have been reviewed at all, so there is no comparative data on them.

A TripAdvisor rep explains the discrepancy: "The #1 worst hotel doesn't rank at the bottom of the Popularity Index in its city, as the list is based on candid traveler feedback specifically rating the category of hotel cleanliness from 1-5 (1 being lowest, 5 highest) in the hotel review form on the site. So, the top 10 dirtiest hotels had the very lowest cleanliness ratings on TripAdvisor in 2010."

TripAdvisor's "Dirtiest" list also didn't account for the fact the Grand Resort Hotel's management had recently changed. "We (The Grand Resort Hotel Group) acknowledge and accept full responsibility for the current situation," said a hotel statement following its dubious award. "We ... have recently come under new management and have already begun taking the proper steps necessary to restore this once great property, which has played host to tens of thousands of satisfied customers every year for its 30 years of existence."

The most recent one-star review for the property was placed on January 18.

The second worst hotel in America, TripAdvisor has announced, is the Jack London Inn in Oakland, Calif.. Its management didn't defend itself from the accusation.

But the third-nastiest hotel, Daytona Beach's Desert Inn Resort, claimed that "between 70-80%" of its customers were return guests, implying that its quality therefore couldn't be that bad.

The Desert Inn was even more pointed in its objections to being used for TripAdvisor's publicity campaign. Its statement claimed that TripAdvisor had approached the property to advertise on the site and was turned down, and that other hotels in the same city had ratings equal to or lower than its own.

It was the 98th most popular out of 108 in its city, with the bottom 10 never having been reviewed on TripAdvisor.

That these hotels have amassed a horrific track record isn't in dispute. But TripAdvisor's methodology, which holds these properties up for national ridicule in an annual promotional campaign, can be questioned when its own site lists other hotels as worse, acknowledges that a percentage of properties has not been reviewed at all, and doesn't account for recent improvements such as management changes.

There's also the larger issue of how TripAdvisor's reviews are collected to begin with. The site has long been accused of being an easily manipulated battleground for sabotage-minded rivals and public relations puffery. The site claims it has the means to catch "the vast majority" of bogus reviews, but the fact is that no human or algorithm can infallibly separate lies from truth.

Many hotels also gently pressure guests to lodge positive reviews after their stays in order to bump up their rankings. Hotels that make no such effort are placed at a disadvantage.

TripAdvisor's Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels 2011: United States
1. Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
2. Jack London Inn, Oakland, California
3. Desert Inn Resort, Daytona Beach, Florida
4. Hotel Carter, New York City (the home of the mattress pictured above)
5. Polynesian Beach & Golf Resort, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
6. Atlantic Beach Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
7. Rodeway Inn, Williamsville, New York
8. Super 8 Estes Park, Estes Park, Colorado
9. Palm Grove Hotel and Suites, Virginia Beach, Virginia
10. Econo Lodge Newark International Airport, Elizabeth, New Jersey






Photo by Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images
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