Hospitality has had to learn to live with amateur online reviewers, but those reviewers don't always play fair, says Y Polyn owner Mark Manson
Criticism: don't we all love it? I suppose I'd better declare an interest right from the outset. I spent the last half of the 1990s inspecting and reviewing hotels for the AA. But for the past eight years I've been running a small pub/restaurant in west Wales.
In my formative years in hospitality, written criticism came largely in three forms: guidebook write-ups, reviews from journalists and disgruntled letters from customers who were seriously unhappy.
The ones that got the publicity, though, they were written by people being paid to do the job. Journalists and food guides polarise opinion, but they have one thing on their side: they do it for a living. They eat in hundreds of restaurants, are paid to be objective and fair, and they've had some training (whether that be in journalism or in how to inspect and assess hospitality businesses).
I've got nothing against amateur critics. Everyone who eats in a restaurant or stays in a hotel is entitled to form and to express an opinion on how their experience was.
The landscape today, however, is quite different. The rise of online review sites, social media and blogging mean that the amateur now has a voice that can be heard much further afield than was ever possible before.
There are always lessons to be learnt from what is written about your business. My advice is to read the reviews, try to be dispassionate about them and act on what makes good sense for your situation.
When I was working for the AA I got myself in trouble a couple of times. I got too chummy with people I should have maintained a bit of distance from. My fault, on each occasion. I'm a gregarious sort of bloke and I was, and still am to an extent, in awe of our industry's big hitters. Herein lies the danger.
We're all aware of Claude Bosi's recent spat with a blogger who had become friendly with him and then who went on to slate his restaurant online. The resulting storm ultimately did no one any favours. The blogger came off looking like the worst sort of freeloader and several big name chefs were accused of bullying. I'm afraid I have to side with Claude on this one. It's simply rude to ingratiate yourself with someone and then to knock them publicly.
There are some great bloggers out there. In Wales we have a couple of excellent ones who understand the golden rules: don't get too close, write your review, form a relationship, don't review a place you're known in again.
Which brings us to the latest and, to my mind, sleaziest product of the online reviewing culture. I noticed on Twitter Jay Rayner had slated the producers of a thing called Reviewer Card. Being a respected reviewer, Jay is usually pretty measured in his opinions, but here's what he had to say:
Jay Rayner @jayrayner1 Meet the schmuck of 2013 (and it's only January). The inventor of the reviewer card. What a toss-pot.
It turns out that Brad Newman, the person who provoked this outburst, has been selling cards to present to hospitality businesses to let them know that you write reviews online, in the presumed hope that the cardholder will receive better treatment. Coupled with this is the implied threat of a bad review for those businesses that don't play ball.
Every hospitality business I know strives to give the same fantastic service to every guest it welcomes. Each one is a potential repeat visitor and reviewer, so should be treated in the same way as the next guest. The industry cannot let itself be held to ransom in this way. I think we all know how we should greet those who want to play this particular game.