Hotel urged 'proactive' operation of fake reviews


A LEADING hotel chain’s insistence it never asked its staff to post fake reviews to the TripAdvisor website has been disputed by a number of current and former employees.

They have provided The Irish Timeswith fresh emails that suggest a widespread campaign aimed at manipulating the review site’s rankings was fully implemented in the summer of 2010.

Earlier this week, this newspaper reported the Carlton Hotel Group, which has properties in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Kinsale, Tralee, Wexford, Kildare and Westport, encouraged dozens of its employees and other nominees to post fake positive reviews of its 10 hotels on TripAdvisor.

An email sent to at least 29 employees that summer by the hotel’s sales and marketing manager Jean O’Connell, and copied to board members including managing director John Varley, called for a “more proactive management of the reviews on TripAdvisor”. The memo said all managers were to nominate five people from their hotel to post fake reviews.

“By pooling TripAdvisor posters, it will give better flexibility and IP addresses will be from across the country,” the memo said, before warning would-be posters not to use company computers for any such posts.

After contacting Carlton, its legal representatives Eversheds warned this newspaper against publishing the story and said that “immediately after the email was sent to the hotel employees, steps were taken by our client to contact the hotel managers to explain that a mistake had occurred and to confirm how hotel online reviews were to be handled”.

The solicitors’ letter went on to say that “insofar as our client is aware, the actions referred to in the email of July 14th, 2010, were never acted upon by any employee”. Eversheds said its client was “unaware of any such posts being made on the TripAdvisor website by employees in the manner suggested”.

However, a number of past and present employees have insisted this response does not tally with the facts. Staff members who expressed concern at the initial attempts to manipulate the reviews after they got Ms O’Connell’s mail were told the policy was being implemented regardless of any concerns they might have.

In late September 2010, all 10 hotel managers and the board of directors received an email described as “This Week’s Trip Advisor Weekly Report”. It included a “TripAdvisor Posting Schedule”.

“To date I have requested 24 TA Posters to write reviews and only 11 have responded to my emails,” the sender of the email, based in the hotel’s head office in Dublin, wrote. “I am currently outstanding 13 TA Posters to respond which I have chased 3 times.”

She asked all hotel managers “as a matter of urgency” to contact the people in their hotels who had been assigned to be TripAdvisor posters, but who had yet to make contact with her, to “respond back to me as soon as possible”.

The email went on to say that “in order for us to have a positive impact on Trip Advisor, we are dependent on each member who has agreed to post to action this. This activity directly benefits your online position.”

On November 1st, 2010, a further email was sent to managers from Ms O’Connell. It contained a revised TripAdvisor policy that made no mention of posts by staff members. Instead, the email asked managers to delete the email she had sent the previous July which had outlined how the fake review plan would work and to also inform both her and Mr Varley when the email had been deleted.

Responding yesterday, the hotel chain said: “The statements made by Carlton Hotel Group on Monday were based on the information available to it at that time. The group has no further comment to make pending investigations, which are ongoing.”