I have recently had a spate of emails from people complaining about a trekking company. It wasn’t their service that had got them upset. (Though that was, by all accounts, rather poor too.) But it seems they were artificially manipulating the reviews of their service. Reviews that appear on such popular websites as TripAdvisor etc.
I reprint just a couple of these emails here (with the name of the company redacted, unfortunately, for legal reasons) in order to remind people that even those websites that claim to have 100% honest, legit reviews can still be very easily manipulated:
“Dear Climb Mount Kilimanjaro authors,
I understand from reading your website that you can recommend Kilimanjaro trek organizers. I climbed Kilimanjaro in February with a group of friends, and would like to provide you with feedback about the company we used and explain why you should NOT recommend them.
The company’s name is [company name removed].
My husband and I selected them as our tour organizer for a Mount Kilimanjaro hike based on their outstanding reviews and classification on Safari bookings and Trip Advisor. We also chose them because they were very reactive and had a nice website. But our main selection criteria was their ranking on Safari Bookings (number 1) and on TA (number 10).
Our tour turned out not to be as good as expected, and there were a lot of “small” details that added together gave us the overall unpleasant feeling that we had somehow been “cheated” by [company name removed]. The main issues were:
1. The hotel in Arusha which was sold to us as part of the package, and included in our contract, was changed at the last minute without us being informed or forewarned. When I checked the rating on TA, I realized that the hotel that [company name removed] put us in had a much lower rating than the hotel that had been sold to us. When reading other traveler reviews posted after our trip (and since then disappeared from Trip Advisor), I realized that we were not the only customers surprised in this way…..
2. As part of the contract, [company name removed] was supposed to supply us with duvet liners and pillows – we never saw them
3. My husband was victim of food poisoning and he was so sick that he had to turn back and be evacuated from the mountain. The doctor that we saw when we returned to Joburg confirmed that his disease had nothing to do with altitude sickness but was food poisoning (most likely due to the chicken we were served during 3 consecutive days by the [company name removed] cook)
4. From the beginning of the trip, until the very last day, we were under constant pressure from the chief guides (and from the tour manager on the first day), to leave generous tips to the guides and porters. This gave us the unpleasant feeling that the porters, guides, cooks, etc are so poorly paid by [company name removed], that they rely on customers’ tips to keep their staff happy. The documents sent to us before the trip gave clear guidelines about the tipping amounts to be given out and we all know how to read – so why be so insistent during the entire trip? It really made us feel as if we were a bunch of dishonest people who would walk away from our responsibilities, and impacted our relationship with the guides and porters.
5. The number of porters/guides/cooks, etc accompanying us during the trip was never clearly stated to us before the trip. We found out on the first day of the hike that 31 people would be accompanying our group of 7. I’m not against employing a large number of people, but I believe that [company name removed] should have been transparent about this before we signed the contract – as this has an impact on the total amount of the trip (tips are substantial).
6. When we were done with the trip, we were put under a lot of pressure by [company name removed] to write good reviews on the spot for them, with them looking over our shoulders. I refused to do it and said I would do it later, as I don’t like being pressured in such a way.
Two people in our party also did a Ngorongoro tour with [company name removed] the week before we came. And they also had some unpleasant adventures with them: the high quality binoculars which were supposedly supplied for the tour turned out to be useless cheap Chinese crap; they were charged 100 USD for a 10 minute walk around Ngorongoro crater with a guide who spoke no English; one of the two spare tires for the [company name removed] 4-wheel-drive was burst; as they were doing their tour they encountered another [company name removed] car with a burst tire and no spares (so they had to sort the other group out), etc.
Maybe our group was the only unlucky group ever to use [company name removed]. But I find it strange that we would be the only ones to encounter such problems. Statistically it seems virtually impossible. But when reading the Trip Advisor and Safari Bookings reviews, it seems that we were the only unlucky ones….
Well, there is another explanation, and here it is:
[Company name removed] are paying reviewers who post reviews that are unfavorable to them or less than 4 stars to remove or upgrade their reviews. Attached is the proof of this. When I posted my first review, which I had rated as “average”, [name removed], the [company name removed] happiness manager, sent my husband and email asking us to remove our review or upgrade it to 4 stars. And he offered us [amount removed] USD to do so.
When I refused, I received another email from [name removed], offering [amount removed] USD negotiable over the phone. I never replied to this email, and my Trip Advisor review was forcibly removed from TA after [name removed] indicated that I had reviewed the wrong company. I wrote to Trip Advisor to inform them of the fraud, and posted another review explaining how [name removed] tried to bribe me. Then [name removed] sent me a third email, offering [amount removed] USD, again asking me to remove my review. I did not respond to his email, and again, my review was forcibly removed by TA. I’ve been trying ever since to post my review back, but am getting emails from Trip Advisor telling me that my review is against the Trip Advisor guidelines and cannot be published as such. There is nothing against the guidelines in my review! On the contrary, I am just stating at the end of my review that I was offered money to remove it.
One of the friends in our group also posted a review. And he was offered [amount removed] USD by [name removed] to remove his review from Trip Advisor (see attached email). Which he refused to do as well.
I also noticed that when I posted my first review, there were two other “average” reviews about [company name removed] which had been written a couple of hours before mine. Well, guess what? They disappeared from the website the next day. I can’t help but wonder whether the reviewers were paid to remove them, or whether their reviews were forcibly removed from TA using the same tactics as for mine….
I systematically read reviews and recommendations on Trip Advisor and on websites such as yours before I choose a hotel or a tour organizer. I therefore believe that it is of utmost importance that travelers who post reviews on these websites do it honestly, as others rely on them to make decisions and chose their tour operator, hotels, restaurants, etc. I could have accepted [name removed]’s [amount removed] USD and left it at that, letting other travelers believe that [company name removed] provide the top class service they brag about and that they are the best. Maybe they are great for a large number of travelers. But not for me, and I believe that it is unfair to other travelers to keep quiet about what is going on. [company name removed]’s business practices are unfair and detrimental to all of the tourism industry professionals who work hard and with integrity to please their customers. [company name removed] and businesses like them who get away with poor service by bribing and corrupting individuals and organizations are the plague of Africa. This is why I have decided to email you copies of the emails that [name removed], of [company name removed],sent to me (as well as my reply to his first email). I will leave it with you to do what you want regarding recommending this company to travelers. But at least you will know what happened in at least one case (mine). Maybe I’m an exception…. But maybe not….
You are more than welcome to use my testimony on your website if you wish.
And here’s a second email, again about the same company:
I had previously complained on the Tripadvisor forums about the awful experience I had with [company name removed], and their attempt to bribe me to take down my bad review, followed by Tripadvisor mysteriously making it disappear.
I can provide proof of my payment to ISIA, photos of my safari, and forward a copy of the correspondence between myself and Joao.I didn’t take the money because I felt that fair and honest reviews were more important to me than the cash. It’s a shame that Tripadvisor didn’t feel the same way.
Let me know if you have any specific questions, and I’d be happy to share my experience.
Like I say, we removed the company’s name for legal reasons. We know there are plenty of bad companies out there run by people with limited experience of Kilimanjaro and Tanzania, offering poor and dangerous service with inferior guides, inadequate food, dirty hotels – all to make a quick buck.
But as you know we’re not here to condemn the bad companies – there are just too many of them, and we think they’ll get their comeuppance in time. Instead, we’ll just continue what we’re doing and recommend those companies that we know and trust, and who we have come to value over the years for their fine service and expertise on the mountain. So just email us and we’ll let you know which companies we think would be best for your particular circumstances – and we’ll do our best to help match your wishes with the right company. And all free of charge, with absolutely no obligation to contact the company we recommend.