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ACCC takes action against Meriton over TripAdvisor review controversy

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against Meriton Serviced Apartments.

The ACCC has alleged that Meriton engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in connection with the posting of reviews of its properties on the TripAdvisor website.

TripAdvisor offers a service called ‘Review Express’ where participating businesses provide TripAdvisor with email addresses of recent customers who have consented to passing on their details. TripAdvisor then emails the customers, prompting them to submit a review of their recent experience with that business.

The ACCC alleged that from November 2014 to October 2015, Meriton took steps to prevent guests it suspected would give a negative review from receiving TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ email to avoid them posting potentially negative reviews.

It is alleged that this was done by inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses provided to TripAdvisor so that the email addresses were ineffective, and not sending other guest email addresses to TripAdvisor.

According to ACCC, on several occasions, Meriton engaged in this conduct in respect of the majority of guests that stayed at one of its hotels during periods where infrastructure or services failed, such as no hot water or a lift not working, in an attempt to ensure that guests would not receive TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ prompt email in case they left an unfavourable review.

“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. This practice was likely to create a more positive or favourable impression of the standard, quality or suitability of accommodation services provided by Meriton,” ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said.

“Consumers rely on independent review platforms like TripAdvisor when making purchasing decisions.  If reviews are manipulated to falsely create a more favourable impression about a provider, consumers may choose that provider on the basis of that falsehood over another accommodation provider who has not engaged in misleading conduct.”

In a statement, Meriton insisted it has been cooperating with the ACCC since the issue was first brought to its attention in October 2015. The company noted: “The masking of emails is a critical business tool intended to be used to ensure marketing paraphernalia is not sent to guests which were ‘blacklisted’ from Meriton. Reasons for blacklisting include fraudulent, illegal or anti-social behaviour towards other guests or staff.

“When it was discovered that the system had been overused or improperly used, Meriton took immediate steps to revise its internal procedures. In every Meriton Serviced Apartment there is a notice inviting all guests to review their stay on TripAdvisor. Meriton has over 1,000,000 guests stay at its Serviced Apartments per year. The number of incidents of concern is comparatively low.

“Meriton denies that the public has ever been deceived or misled. The proceedings will be defended.”

The ACCC is seeking pecuniary penalties, declarations, injunctions, corrective publication orders, orders for the implementation of a consumer law compliance program and costs.

accomnews has approached a variety of industry bodies for comment. Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. A related question: should online review sites be stricter about who is able to leave online reviews, or is there enough protocol put in place already?

 

Rosie Clarke

Rosie Clarke is managing editor at Multimedia Publishing.

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3 Comments

  1. It’s all very well to jump on a company for over stepping the mark, but the ACCC could also do some constructive work by ensuring that TripAdvisor vets the reviews and only publishes reviews where the commentator has actually stayed at the property.
    It is far too easy for people to make comment without having stayed at a property. There are plenty of other reasons for TripAdvisor to monitor more closely the reviews to ensure a balanced, objective opinion about a property from a guest who stayed.

  2. It’s up to an individual property to use Trip Advisor Review. Its not compulsory. Sending an email list to them to do Express Reviews is a properties choice. They could simply chooses not to send them. The emailed recipients don’t even have to reply. Its a voluntary system and the Meriton Apartments should not have to endure this rubbish. Does that mean we are no longer able to ask a guest to review us in case we forget to ask someone who has been a difficult guest.

    The ACCC would be better off dealing with the unconscionable conduct of the two major OTA’s. Booking.com and Expedia that affects all accommodation players and AIRBNB that is bastardizing the legally compliant holiday apartment industry. We cannot offer a lower rate on one site without the other ranking us lower. Unless you pay, by giving them more commission or spend big dollars as a sponsor, you get ranked lower on the site so arn’t even seen by prospective bookers. Thats not fair trade and unjust. Leave the Merriton Alone.

  3. I hope the ACCC lose out on this one. If anything it might be a breach of terms between the apartment company and Tripadvisor. Information supplied by the apartment company to Tripadvisor is of no concern of the ACCC. If Tripadvisor are not happy they can simply terminate this ‘review express’ product. End of Story.

    It’s important for those over paid desk workers at the ACCC to note that Tripadvisor do NOT CARE about reviews, truth or have any official authority of accommodation businesses.

    Perhaps the ACCC should get out and have a chat to accommodation providers FIRST and see the FRAUD, LIES and SPAMMY behaviour of Tripadvisor and put THEM on notice. – All Tripadvisor want is advertising revenue and popularity at the expense of real hard working businesses.

    It’s an embarrassment that our tax payers money are being wasted on something that as I mentioned is an internal issue.

    The ACCC should allow businesses to be removed from the entire ‘Tripadvisor’ system if they wish. As others have mentioned, it’s all well and good for a guest to not even stay at the establishment and or blow everything out of proportion with lies, slander etc. All the business can do is ‘reply’ and pretend to appoligise or act defensive, in the end, it makes the business look silly and the review sticks around for ever.

    The ACCC is bored, it should start working on removing rate parity from OTA agreements. They should not allow forward dating of room rates, which they are starting to do now. – ie a guest books a room on a date for a price then if the price goes down the guest can dispute this and expect the new rate. This is like buying a TV then a week later the shop dropped the price, then you taking the TV back in to get the difference.

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