The row between celebrity hotelier Duncan Bannatyne and TripAdvisor escalated last night when the reviews website accused the Dragons' Den star of attempting to intimidate customers.
Bannatyne's dispute with the website began last December when a guest submitted a disparaging review comparing his Charlton House spa resort in Somerset to Fawlty Towers. He claims TripAdvisor did not allow him to respond to the review "with the truth".
Bannatyne, who told Caterer in December he was considering legal action against TripAdvisor, revisited the row this week, describing the website as "a despicable and cowardly organisation, which is bullying small hotel owners all over the United Kingdom".
"They have tried to bully me, they have sent threatening letters and e-mails, they have urged me to shut up, but they won't speak to me directly," he said.
TripAdvisor has now hit back at Bannatyne, in what is a highly unusual step as the website's usual policy is to not comment on individual cases.
"We offer hoteliers the opportunity to respond to every review written on TripAdvisor," a spokeswoman said.
"This allows individual travellers the opportunity to give their views and the hotel the right to reply and the final say. On rare occasions hotels choose to respond less productively and in these cases we do everything possible to protect the consumers' rights of free speech.
"However, in the case of Bannatyne's hotels we have had several worrying examples of individuals being intimidated by Bannatyne and his hotel representatives," the spokeswoman continued.
"For example, where Bannatyne posted the personal mobile number and email address of one reviewer and accused them of being the ‘Most dishonest person of 2010' to his some 250,000 Twitter followers."
"TripAdvisor has a zero tolerance approach on bullying as we defend the freedom of speech, hence why we duly sent a letter to the Bannatyne's Charlton House Spa Hotel manager stating that we do not condone this behaviour. We also take fraud very seriously and will investigate these occasions thoroughly and unverified reviews can be removed from the site, as has been the case with reviews on Bannatyne hotels."
A spokesman for Bannatyne refuted the claims of bullying, saying it was TripAdvisor that was bullying small UK hotel owners.
He told the Financial Times that Bannatyne had only retweeted a Twitter post that detailed the phone number of a negative reviewer, adding that TripAdvisor had refused to speak to him directly.
By Daniel Thomas