Arthur Frommer cautions against user-generated travel Web sites

User-generated travel sites have been a popular topic on Vagablogging lately, so I read with interest two recent columns about them by guidebook guru Arthur Frommer. Turns out, he’s not a fan.

In the first of the two columns, Frommer pans the reviews on user-generated sites by inferring that their authors aren’t travel experts:

You will have to forgive me if I am not blown away by these casual critics, these greenhorn guidesters. The last kind of travel advice that I would ever heed is the judgment of a person who has stayed exactly once at exactly one hotel in the destination that he or she is visiting for the first time.

So it is with the people who provide user-generated comments. They have been to London, let’s say, once. They have stayed at exactly one hotel. Their stay might have been improved or marred by one incident, one staff member behind the front desk treating them with either courtesy or disdain. Based on such fleeting impressions, and with no experience of other London hotels or of the general standards of the city, our one-time travel writer explodes with either enthusiasm or indignation.

Frommer goes on in the second column to warn that some user-generated reviews may have been written by marketers:

In a recent column, I questioned the use of user-generated travel Web sites. I doubted the worth of hotel and cruise recommendations by inexperienced travelers who, in many cases, were basing their advice on the first trip they had ever taken. But I did not question the integrity of the people making those recommendations.

I should have. It turns out that a widespread practice known as “buzz marketing” is raising major doubts about whether the comments you find on these “user-generated” sites are the real thing — or if they are part of a calculated campaign to either promote or destroy the reputation of a particular hotel or cruise ship.

Granted, if you can get travel advice for free from user-generated sites, you’re less inclined to pay Arthur Frommer for it; a good reason for him to slam them. But he’s got a point. If that advice may be coming from inexperienced travelers — or worse, marketers — is it really worth taking?

I think Frommer is both right and over-reacting. His concerns are valid, but he’s underestimating both the savvy and goodwill of today’s traveler, which can make user-generated sites fresh and valuable resources. Still, when browsing user-generated reviews, it’s smart to keep Frommer’s warnings in mind.

But that’s just my opinion. What do you think?

Posted by | Comments (12)  | February 28, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

12 Responses to “Arthur Frommer cautions against user-generated travel Web sites”

  1. Craig McGinty Says:

    If it was just one person’s opinion, about their one time stay, about their one time bad experience, then I’d say fair enough.

    But most often it is more than one opinion, over more than one day, about more than one experience – and that is the strength of these sites.

    You can build up a pretty good picture from the collective, this not only puts the squeeze on the one opinion of Mr Frommer’s reviewer, but also the “buzz marketing” tricks of marketers.

    All the best


    PS – I do think it should be easier for hotel owners to answer critical comments directly beneath said message.

  2. Brian Says:

    Frommer makes a valid point, even if he has a personal stake in blunting the use of these web sites. I examine all reviews with a cynical eye, and generally ignore posts that are too gushy or negative. One potential solution is to change the way the reviews are structured; e.g. forcing posters to give examples of things the liked and things they didn’t. Rarely is an expericence so overwhelmingly postitve or negative that both pros and cons do not exist at the same time. Also, as the previous poster mentioned, hotels, etc. should have the opportunity to respond to poor ratings. Unitl then, don’t believe everything you read. (And this includes artices from Frommer…)

  3. Claude / Les Explorers Says:

    Sometimes, we see some “fake” reviews in user-generated travel Web sites (remember the TripAdvisor story)
    But, we can’t go again Travel 2.0, this big trend of our travel industry.
    I made many interviews of Travel 2.0 CEO in my blog “Les Explorers”. Check to have another point of view
    category : “interview du pro”

    best regards from France

  4. Dan Says:

    Agreed it’s a valid point he makes but not one he can say published travel guides aren’t totally inoccent of eigther, most have advertising\sposorships in them and surely there is a very good market for businesses to be featured in them, are we expected to believe that this doesn’t happen? Even if it only because a few $100 were slipped to one of their contributers and they succumb to a not uncommon human fault.

  5. boris Says:

    i think you shouldn’t underestimate the will of your fellow travellers to help. i mean what’s the difference between you reading a comment about a guesthouse somehwere posted by some guy and you meeting this guy in person and asking if he’s got any recommendations? most people do that. obviously don’t take everything you hear or read for a fact. that’s why you’ve got a brain to judge for yourself.

  6. Alvaro [] Says:

    While Frommer points to an interesting issue I’m far from agreeing with him. Internet is all about free speech, it’s all about empowering consumers, all about free flow of information. And that only means better for consumers, in this case, travellers.

    And while lots of amateur posts on hotels, airlines and destinations may be biased, that’s not my problem, it’s hotels and airlines problem. While they may be ranting on a isolated problem hospitality business is all about regularity, not being great one day and failing the next.

    I just give you one example, I don’t trust travel agency photos anymore, when choosing an hotel I look for “amateur” photos at Flickr first.

  7. Michael Says:

    I disagree with A. Frommer. The disadvantages of guidebooks are so numerous – many are poorly researched, writers poorly paid, covering only bits of a country, linear, out of date before publication, no immediate feedback, content based on editorial whims.

    While Web 2.0 has problems as A. Frommer mentioned, its new and clearly improving. While only some of these sites will survive, the ones that can, will have proved themselves trustworthy.

  8. Joseph Ehrlich Says:

    Frommer has made some good points: If someone gives advice based upon their one and only visit to a place, it it important to take that advice with a grain of salt.

    In addition, “buzz marketing” is a real problem, and is especially rampant (and obvious) with a certain bus company that takes the 18-35 set around Europe.

    My feelings are that Frommer and his ilk (being chained to the ‘dead tree’ method of publishing) are going the way of the dinosaur. They cannot update as quickly as users of the internet can.

  9. Karen Bryan Says:

    I think that Frommer displays a very pompous attitude to “amateur” reviews. I think that Frommer is perhaps writing more from a US perspective. I live in the UK and all my family and friends have travelled abroad many times over the years enabling them to have a yardstick against which to evaluate their accommodation in context. My personal view is that a review even from an “expert” is still subjective, as they say one man’s meat is another’s poison.

    I am aware that there are problems with establishing veracity of user generated reviews and the system can be manipulated. However this doesn’t mean that you should throw out the baby with the bathwater. I agree with Craig when he says that you can get a good picture from the collective.

    I have a general problem with a lot of guidebooks in that they are too prescriptive. However I suppose that’s what some travellers desire, to be told exactly where to stay, where to eat and what to do when they are on a trip. Part of travel, and life, is that you can’t always be sure of everything. You can take a chance and end up in wonderful accommodation or do a lot of research and still end up being disappointed.

  10. Billy Gray Says:

    I reckon that if a user-generated review of some place or service is presented as just one piece of info on their personal site, you can use that as context for judging whether or not the person is a travel expert, or whether they’ve only just gone on one trip in their whole lives, and that’s what they’re writing about.

    I run a blog where anyone can submit reviews of music and such, and we try to exercise a similar context-based judgement. Sometimes promotion companies will hire people to go out and write “indie” reviews for whatever hot new act is trying to make it out of Brooklyn, and we’ve definitely canned a few of them because they were obviously promo copy (and had even appeared elsewhere!)

  11. Mark Says:

    Interestingly I just saw A.Frommer and his daughter Pauline talk at the NYC Travel Show. During the talk he referred to the a bomb going off in Kuta and shouldn’t scare folks. Pauline chimed in, no there have actually been two. There have actually been 4….2 in Kuta in 2002 and then another in Kuta in 2005 as well as an upscale beach area. I spoke with a travel writer friend who said they were pushing travel to Bali probably because they have advertising dollars given to them to support the articles. interestingly, after writing to pauline, here was her response:He misspoke at the
    travel show as did I (I was not planning on speaking about Bali, but there
    you have it). I haven’t been to Bali this year, but I have since the
    bombings and had a very different experience than you (that’s what makes
    travel journalism a subjective art). Neither of us have had anything to do
    with Budget Travel magazine for years, thanks to a hostile takeover. As for
    the guidebooks: you’ll find errors in every guidebook ever written. It’s
    the nature of..well, human nature and the delay between when the books are
    written and when they appear on bookstore shelves.

    If it’s your undying ambition to be a fact checker, I’d suggest you contact
    any travel magazine. They use them, but it’s a poorly paid desk job, with
    no travel whatsoever.

    Good luck to you and please don’t contact me again.


    Pauline Frommer

  12. Amy Nicolai Says:

    I have been exploring your blog, finding it very interesting. This particular posting is especially thought-provoking. All I can do is answer from my experience. I am a regular poster on both TripAdvisor and Flickr, and embrace completely the idea of the strengh of a community. Flickr has encouraged me in my photographic efforts. And TripAdvisor seems to me to be a brilliantly managed tight-rope walk between censorship and a free-for-all. I can easily distinguish between the biased postings of a closed-minded traveler or the self-promotion of a tourguide or small hotel. TripAdvisor does seem to actually review the postings, and most of the time the truly bad stuff doesn’t get through. Policing is also part of being in the community so when I see such things I do report them. The postings of my fellow travelers (and photographers) are vital to my trip planning, and it is hard to imagine traveling now without either resource.

    Finally – I’m totally appalled at Pauline Frommer’s response. How rude – she did not have to answer that way!