• Evelyne

The Manti Te’o “Catfishing” Scandal – Lessons for Hoteliers

I don’t know about you, but I never heard of “Catfishing” before a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I’d heard the word; but I thought it meant fishing for catfish.

But it also has another definition: Pretending to be someone you’re not, using facebook or other social media outlets to create a false identity, usually for the purpose of making yourself more attractive to someone in order to entice them into a relationship.

Hmmm… sounds like some hotels I know.

Who hasn’t routinely “fluffed” descriptions of properties, rooms and amenities on brochures in an effort to show off appealing images of rooms, lobby, facilities and food outlets? In day to day life women often wear makeup and slip into their Spanx™ when going out on the town.  Not exactly creating a false persona… it’s putting “our best foot forward”. But what some hotels are doing now is just plain… well … Catfishing.

In the hospitality realm, what is done largely tend to be innocent attempts to just clean up the look.  There’s nothing wrong with “staging” a room by adding flowers or photography of a table at the restaurant with impeccable linens and gorgeous couple served by handsome waiter instead of the stained table cloth and a waitress with underarm stains and dreadlocks; nor is it wrong to use fit, sexy models posing by the pool.

But just as fashion magazines are vilified for using airbrushed photos with models who look unrealistically thin, boast 2 inch or longer lush eyelashes, are blessed with amazing hair that never saw a split end and eyes that never knew a laugh line, “creative” cropping or using lenses that make rooms and facilities look much larger is just as wrong.  Adding a view that isn’t really there, airbrushing or cropping out unsightly obstacles or buildings nearby, or conveniently NOT mentioning the expressway only 200 yards from the guestroom balcony is just as misleading.

Another term we need to know about is sockpuppet.  While this may bring to mind Shari Lewis’s Lambchop … or not (I may be aging myself here…) the term sockpuppet is used to mean a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community in order to praise, defend or support a third party or organization, or to circumvent a suspension or ban from a website. The key difference between a pseudonym and a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet poses as an independent third-party unaffiliated with the site.  In the hotel industry a sockpuppet can be a paid PR person (or the GM or marketing director’s staff and family) who writes amazing reviews of fictitious stays for social media and review sites in order to increase hotel scores.

But the introduction of user generated content (aka Reviews and images by guests) has thrown sock puppets into the coi pond.  In other words hotels are … well … Catfishing and they are using a sock puppet to reel ‘em in!!

The proliferation of these practices is so great, there has developed a cottage industry to lay bare catfishing and sockpuppeting within the hospitality community. Oyster.com brings you “Photo Fake-outs” comparing the property’s site pictures alongside their reviewers’ images; TripAdvisor is full of travelers shots shown next to the professional (retouched) photo – in fact they now routinely label whether the image is a “professional photo” or a “traveler’s photo”. Professors and students at Cornell University recently developed software that can detect fake reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp.com (BTW it is estimated that between 6-8% of reviews are professionally written – i.e. fake).

So I have to ask…

In this digital age, how far is too far? Are hotels risking their credibility with by catfishing and sockpuppeting? Will the actions of a few affect the credibility of us all in hospitality?

We hear a lot of stories and want to hear yours…

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