August 4th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Business isn’t always black and white–there are gray areas everywhere, and the ethical line between customer persuasion and manipulation can sometimes become blurred. In the case of the Union Street Guest House, a boutique hotel in upstate New York, however, the line is crystal clear. The just chose to cross it anyway.

According to the hotel company policy, which has now gone viral, guests that stay at the hotel for a wedding or other event are strongly discouraged from leaving any negative reviews on Web sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. If any are found, the event hosts would lose $500 of their deposit per review (yup, per review!). Just imagine it: you’re a newlywed, and your new wife’s uncle from Wisconsin didn’t like the salmon at your reception. He gave the Union Street Guest House a bad review, and boom! There goes $500 bucks. But there’s a silver lining! If you call your wife’s uncle and convince him to take the review down, you’ll get your money back. All’s well that ends well, right? I don’t think so either.

Here’s the hotel’s policy, verbatim:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. 

Sounds crazy enough, right? Well, there’s more! In a not-entirely-unexpected plot twist, the hotel responded to the sudden outrage over its practices on Facebook today, claiming that the policy was a “tongue-in-cheek” response to a debacle at a wedding several years ago and was never actually enforced. But, alas, a bodacious bunch of Facebook commenters didn’t let the company get away with that explanation–many pointed to a 2013 Yelp post from a customer who was being threatened with financial repercussions that alluded to the very policy in question. And then in response to all the hubbub, the Union Street Guest House took down their Facebook post. Drama, drama, drama.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, this whole thing is just absurd. Is there really no better way to leverage customer reviews? Plenty of great businesses have negative reviews here and there–negative brand impressions are inevitable, and attempting to stomp them out completely will undoubtedly reflect poorly on the brand. Instead, brands should encourage reviews–good and bad–but strive to deliver experiences that will lead to outstanding evaluations. And a little incentive doesn’t hurt either. My favorite hair salon in New York City, Fox and Jane Salon, for example, is a major presence on Yelp.

When the brand was just starting out, stylists encouraged customers to write reviews and share photos, with the promise of a discount at the next appointment. It didn’t have to be a good review necessarily, but the reasoning was probably that customers wouldn’t be too eager to leave a horrible review since they had to show it to their stylist to redeem a discount. Still, I’ve personally seen them give a discount to someone whose review wasn’t all that flattering. The salon’s been around for only a few years, but now has 5 locations in NY and California, and boasts 128 5-star reviews on Yelp. Actually, it’s one of the top rated NYC hair salons on Yelp, last time I checked. They’re transparent, and that’s why they’re successful. As for the Union Street Guest House, it looks like the entire Internet is giving them one giant bad review today. Guess we should all get our wallets ready, right?

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