Australia’s largest residential apartment developer is being taken to the federal court over claims it has been preventing guests from lodging negative reviews on the influential travel website TripAdvisor.
The ABC last year revealed employees at Harry Triguboff’s Meriton Serviced Apartments had been instructed to use a technique called “masking” so guests are not given the opportunity to complain on TripAdvisor.
A former hotel manager, who requested anonymity, explained the process involved adding the letters “MSA” to the email addresses of guests who complained to the front desk, ensuring a TripAdvisor feedback from — which is supposed to be sent to every guest — bounces.
Screenshots provided to the ABC suggest this tactic was used on several occasions when guests reported problems with the service provided, including having no hot water or functioning lifts.
After a year-long investigation, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) today launched legal proceedings in the Federal Court, accusing Meriton Serviced Apartments of misleading and deceptive conduct.
“We allege that Meriton’s conduct was a deliberate practice, undertaken at the direction of Meriton’s senior management, aimed at minimising the number of negative reviews,” ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said in a statement.
“This practice was likely to create a more positive or favourable impression of the standard, quality, or suitability of accommodation services provided by Meriton.”
In a statement, Meriton Serviced Apartments said it would fight the claims.
“In every Meriton Serviced Apartment there is a notice inviting all guests to review their stay on TripAdvisor,” group general counsel Joseph Callaghan said.
“Meriton does not agree that the public has ever been deceived or misled. The proceedings will be defended.”
‘This should definitely be masked’
The former hotel manager who spoke to the ABC last year said staff would “mask” negative reviews sometimes dozens of times a day and were criticised by their superiors when they failed to do so.
Emails obtained by the ABC appeared to support the claim.
“I have gone through the duty log for the past few days and a couple of accounts were not masked,” a Sydney hotel manager said in an email to staff.
“This guest was stuck in their shower and then had to pull the door off to get out. This should definitely be masked.
“I need each of you to ensure that you are being proactive to prevent these comments reaching TA [TripAdvisor].”
Claims staff bribing guests to remove negative reviews
The ABC’s source also raised allegations staff were bribing guests to remove negative reviews from the website.
“If you ever do change your mind in regards to removing your review,” writes an employee to a guest, “please allow to [sic] compensate you $100.00 off your whole stay, which is a little over 10 per cent in total.”
In a separate exchange, a guest reacts angrily to a similar offer.
“No, I am not happy to readjust my review. This is the rating that I think it should receive,” the guest wrote. TripAdvisor released a statement last year, insisting “we fight fraud aggressively” but a spokesperson would not comment on this particular case.
According to the ACCC’s website, the manipulation of review results and the offering of incentives in exchange for reviews can attract a penalty of up to $1.1 million.
Online Source: ABC.net.au.