Hospitality industry deals with struggle of threats to slander business on platforms

For The Republic

The Abbey Inn is not the only hotel in Brown County that claims to have experienced “social media blackmail.”

“Every lodging establishment has to deal with it,” said Bruce Gould, owner of one of the highest-rated lodging establishments in Brown County, the Cornerstone Inn. “It’s a chronic problem.”

Hills O’Brown Vacation Rentals has been renting homes and cabins to Brown County guests for more than 20 years. Its inventory now tops 120. General Manager Patty Frensemeier said guests will threaten to post negative online reviews if they are not refunded their money or receive a reduction on the price of their stay.

Some guests have asked for a refund for leaving a cabin early because it was too far out in the country. Or they saw a mouse, or a water heater quit working.

“When we don’t give them a refund because there was nothing wrong with the cabin, we will get slammed on social media,” Frensemeier said.

“The biggest thing is bugs. The biggest thing is Brown County’s Mother Nature problems that I get complaints on,” she said.

She tells them to post a review if that’s what they want to do. “I always say, ‘That is absolutely within your prerogative, absolutely — as long as you tell both sides of the story.”

The other side often includes Hills O’Brown maintenance workers and contractors “out at all hours of the night” responding to repair or service calls, even on holidays, or showing up the next morning to address problems, she said.

“We try everything we can to fix it, and we give discounts when we don’t normally do discounts. We give some refunds when we don’t usually give refunds, just to try to have good customer service,” Frensemeier said.

The company’s refund policy states that there will be no refunds or price reductions given to guests for events they cannot control, like the power going out, or inclement weather.

Frensemeier said that when guests book online, they are asked to agree to the company’s policy page before continuing with the reservation. If the reservation is being made over the phone or in person, it is noted in the computer that the employee explained the policy to the guests.

When a guest posts a review on Google or Facebook, Hills O’Brown staff respond. “The majority of them are fives and we still say, ‘We’re glad you had a wonderful stay, and please come back and see us again.’ The ones that say a complaint, we try to be very nice. We say, ‘I’m very sorry you had a problem with your stay. Did you by chance get a hold of anybody when you were here?’ The answer is almost always no,” Frensemeier said.

Negative reviews may pop up when a guest is charged for damaging a home, or when extra cleaning is required after their stay. Under their policy, Hills O’Brown can charge credit or debit cards on file for issues like damages, theft, phone charges, excessive cleanup and keys that are not returned.

If a fee is charged, Hills O’Brown will contact the guest via email or letter. If the guest disputes the charges, Frensemeier said Hills O’Brown can charge the guest with vandalism and pursue a collection in court.

When negative reviews make Facebook, Frensemeier said she will leave them up because past guests will often come to their defense.

Guests will sometimes post about bad experiences in homes without notifying Hills O’Brown of any issues, Frensemeier said.

“Sometimes they say, ‘I didn’t want to leave a message,’ or ‘I didn’t want to be bothered. I was only here two days. I didn’t want to be bothered.’ Well, it must have been a problem or you wouldn’t be posting this review. But it wasn’t a problem enough to leave, or problem enough to leave a message?” Frensemeier said.

“It’s just the way people are, and I think it’s all about getting money back. It’s about getting a refund.”

Visitors to TripAdvisor will see that the Cornerstone Inn is the only hotel in Nashville to have a five-star rating.

But even it had four guests rate it as “terrible,” while the vast majority of the 467 reviewers called it “excellent.”

Gould said almost all of those negative reviews came from guests who weren’t able to back out of their reservations. But he said the inn will refund guests’ money if they are able to rent the room to someone else, or allow them to pick a different time to visit if they can’t make their reservation.

“It’s not our fault. We shouldn’t have to eat the expense of losing that money just because they have some problem and can’t come,” he said.

Gould, the president of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau board, looks at TripAdvisor for every lodging establishment in Brown County each week.

“Everyone looks at reviews. That’s what drives peoples’ decisions,” he said.

“When you have repeat issues for any lodging establishment, you’ve got to figure that’s probably the way it is.”

When guests have complaints, Gould’s question for them is: “What would it take to make you happy?”

“They’ll go away happy. Maybe not happy-happy, but they will feel like maybe they didn’t get ripped off.”

Asking guests to name their price instead of immediately offering a refund amount — such as $25 — is intentional, Gould said.

“If they’re not happy with that $25, you’ve wasted $25, because they are still going away unhappy and they’re still going to write the bad review, and they are still going to tell their friends they had an issue,” he said.

“There’s a dollar figure in mind. They’ve already figured out what it will take. Usually, they know what they are wanting.”

Gould said it’s worth it to pay the guest what they think is appropriate to avoid having negative reviews posted online.

“TripAdvisor, it’s amazing the control they have,” Gould said. “People read that. I do.”