CPLPortfolio Guidebook

, "17":"Online reviews In this feature l media attention l unfair terms l raising awareness Towering injustice Cumbria Trading Standards recently found itself at the centre of a global media storm, thanks to a couple who were charged 100 by a Blackpool hotel for writing a negative online review. John Greenbank gives TS Today an insiders perspective on the affair I t all started when Tony and Jan Jenkinson, of Whitehaven, Cumbria, chose the Broadway Hotel for their stay in Blackpool. They found themselves less than satisfied with the service, so like many other frustrated hotel guests up and down the country they left a frank review on TripAdvisor.co.uk, describing the Broadway as a filthy stinking hovel. The hotel promptly fined the couple 100 for falling foul of its no bad reviews policy, which was to be found in the small print on the booking form (see box out, Was the fine illegal?). The money was deducted straight from their credit card. The couple initially wrote to the hotel requesting a refund of their 100. The response, which was far from sympathetic, included the sentence: We are happy to take this matter to court, where we will provide our legally binding contract with your signature. They added that if the Jenkinsons put another bad review on TripAdvisor they would deduct a further 100 from their credit card. The couple complained to trading standards about the fine and the matter was referred to our colleagues in Blackpool, who paid the hotel a visit. The officers from Blackpool Trading Standards advised the hoteliers that the no bad reviews policy breached the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, and advised them to remove it from their booking-in form. Happily for any future guests of the hotel, after finding out that it was illegal, the Broadway immediately removed the term from the form and scrapped its no bad reviews policy. Management told trading standards that the hotel had only levied the fine a few times however, officers have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case, or what the fines amounted to. I would imagine, though, that other former guests will have come forward to make a claim after all the publicity this case has received. Media circus It sounded outrageous to me that the hotel management would arbitrarily issue a penalty for a bad review, and I thought the case would make an interesting item for our internal communications weeklybriefing. It was then picked up by Councillor John McCreesh, member for trading standards, and a press release went out late on the Tuesday afternoon. We knew that this story was newsworthy, because it was very unusual, with shades of Fawlty Towers. I thought the local papers might pick up on it; instead it blew up completely. Within minutes of their name being released, the Jenkinsons had been contacted by the BBC. That evening they were on a train to Manchesters Media City for an overnight stay, ready for their live interview on BBC Breakfast the following morning. Even before their interview the story had made all the national newspaper websites and, by lunchtime, had gone international, with features on the USAs CNBC and CNN. As well as various American sites, it appeared on the Tanzania-based In2EastAfrica and Hotelier Middle East, in Dubai then finally made it to Australia. We knew that this story was newsworthy, because it was very unusual, with shades of Fawlty Towers. I thought the local papers might pick up on it; instead, it blew up completely Hear the Jenkinsons speak about their ordeal here, in a BBC News interview The Daily Mail Online carried the story, and thousands of outraged members of the public left comments. By lunchtime on the Wednesday I had given five radio interviews and the major television and radio stations were running the story. The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 made it the main topic for the phone-in, and ITVs Loose Women debated it on their programme. The Jenkinsons, meanwhile, were completely caught up in the media circus. After BBC Breakfast and various radio interviews they were claimed by ITV for its nightly news programme; then they were taken back to the Broadway Hotel by Sky News, where other media companies were waiting. Days later, the story continued to rumble on. The Daily Mail, Independent, Guardian and Times all dispatched reporters to the hotel to spend a night and judge whether it was as bad as the Jenkinsons and many other unhappy reviewers had said. How to recognise the big story It is unusual for a trading standards consumer story to get so big, so quickly, and our media team is confident this is the most-read story involving Cumbria County Council in its history. I have worked for trading standards for 33 years, and I have never seen anything like this level of publicity for a trading standards issue. It owes a lot to the times in which we live with the growth of social media and the internet, and the speed of communication but it goes deeper than that. Most of us stay in hotels, and many of us use TripAdvisor, so I think the story struck a chord with the public. TripAdvisor is a global brand, and that must have helped the story spread. Also, the sheer audacity of the hotel management in taking 100 seemed to shock people, and they identified with this down-to-earth-couple from Whitehaven. I spoke to the Jenkinsons when they returned home, and Tony had this to say of his new-found fame: Its like being a lottery winner without the money. The phones still keep ringing. We have been offered a luxury hotel break, and a magazine wants to interview us. It was a great experience, and we are grateful trading standards got involved. For Cumbria Trading Standards, its been a fantastic way to raise awareness of trading standards and what we do. Usually, trading standards stories amount to a few minutes on the consumer spot of weekend breakfast television but this time we took centre stage. Because of the nature of the story it was of interest to people of all ages, and I like to think that younger consumers perhaps the very people who enjoy stag and hen parties in Blackpool will now know what trading standards does, and how we can help them. At a time when trading standards budgets are being cut, this is no bad thing. WAS THE FINE ILLEGAL? The hotel was in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulation 1999. Under civil law, a term in a contract is deemed unfair if it gives the trader an unfair advantage over the consumer, or takes away their The aftermath legal rights. Will this case form the basis of a campaign? I dont think so Cumbrian hotels, in my opinion, trade honestly in a very competitive market. However, I think the publicity was as good if not better than any campaign we could have organised. The extent of the media interest was unexpected at first; trading standards has a good media profile, but this certainly raised it to levels not seen for a long time, especially with the national and international coverage the case attracted. An important realisation was that, because we talk to the media on a fairly regular basis, we were able to capitalise on the attention, rise to the challenge, and engage well with television, radio and various print media. It was exhausting, but we enjoyed our few days in the spotlight much like the Jenkinsons. Cumbria Trading Standards has been liaising with management at the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool, and has arranged a refund for the Jenkinsons. The furore over this story will hopefully serve as a lesson totraders that they cannot penalise consumers in this way, and any hotels thinking of deviating from their legal obligations will, hopefully, think again. The Broadway Hotels booking-in form contained the following: No Bad Review Policy: Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not. For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum 100 per review. This term certainly gave the trader an unfair advantage. Credits Published You might also like: John Greenbank is north area manager for Tuesday 6 January 2015 How The Guardian covered the story Cumbria Trading Standards. Images: Pefkos / Shutterstock How the Daily Mail covered the story To share this page, click on in the toolbar "