We all have our hospitality horror stories.
My favourite was on a work trip to Worcestershire 10 years ago when I ended up in Fawlty Towers. Dinner was served between seven and eight, I was informed on arrival by the rigidly coiffed hotel manager through a cloud of perfume and disdain. No, I couldn't have a sandwich in my room any earlier, even though I had to be somewhere at 7.30pm; I'd just have to eat quickly. Oh, and dinner had to be ordered in the lounge, she added with the thinnest of smiles; I couldn't go straight to the dining room and order.
She really meant that, as I discovered later while I was hurriedly trying to finish my meal in the restaurant and an elderly couple walked in and seated themselves. Moments later, the hotelier swept in like a wrathful Mrs Danvers, yanked out the woman's chair, snatched the menus from their hands and frogmarched them back to the lounge where she took their order, as per The Rules. When she marched them back again a couple of minutes later, they looked utterly humiliated.
What a lovely thought it is that she wouldn't get away with that now. Anyone behaving so outrageously today could expect to have their antics exposed online, thanks to the rise and rise of consumer review websites like Tripadvisor, and it's a good thing too. These sites exist, not only for hotels and restaurants, but for visitor attractions, sports venues and local businesses. The latest, firstchoicesalons.com, which aims to review Glasgow's hairdressers, has been nicknamed Snipadvisor. A lot of businesses hate such websites because they fear they are open to abuse and sniffy hard-to-please customers can do damage to good establishments by going over the top with criticisms. I understand those concerns, but I'm all for these sites for one simple reason: in my experience, they work.
If you're going to a new place you've never visited before, you could pick the hotel, B&B or campsite with the prettiest website pictures and hope for the best. You could ask your mates if they have been there and where they stayed. Or you could ask the equivalent of a stadium-full of people on a review site who have all stayed in that town for their views on its accommodation. Which method is likely to be the most reliable? It's pretty obvious, even if the stadium contains a few inveterate whingers and a handful of rival hoteliers prepared to do each other down. For all their faults, well-used consumer review sites tend to be pretty accurate, which is why they are here to stay.
Yes, you have to use your nous: B&Bs with lots of reviews are more likely to give you a realistic impression than ones with just a few because there are more genuine posts to outweigh any bogus ones; plus, if a place has lots of very good reviews and a few bad ones (or vice versa), the out-of-kilter reviews should be treated with extra scepticism. You can never be 100% sure where any review has come from.
Even so, it is possible to place a degree of trust in these sites. Why do I think this? Because, of all the times I've used Tripadvisor, it has never been wrong.
Of course they should be mediated to avoid outright abuse, as newspaper websites like Heraldscotland.com are; of course they have a serious responsibility to act on any suspicions they have and take down posts they suspect to be fake. It must be seriously upsetting for business owners who have been cynically misrepresented online to find they can't do anything about it. I can understand why that would lead some people to conclude these sites should be taken down altogether, but do the negatives really outweigh the positives? It's obvious how punters might miss out, but so would businesses, as the cream would no longer rise so easily; good places would no longer be rewarded with high rankings and little independent establishments lacking large marketing budgets could lose out to the big players.
No, we should make peace with consumer review sites. After all, the people who have most to fear from them are the Sybil Fawltys of this world.