Tip advisor: Or what I learned from visiting the worst-ranked restaurant on Vancouver Island

Commentary: Online reviews increasingly becoming the lifeblood of the hospitality industry

Consumers are increasingly turning to online reviews for insight into what might be under the platter before they ever set foot in the door.

I’ll admit it. There have been moments in my life where I’ve felt that broken-guitar-string twang of anxiety travelling along Highway 4.

Will my little economy wagon be leading a frustrated 18-vehicle bumper-to-bumper caravan as it painfully wheezes its way, every piston straining, over the last few metres of the Hump?

Is that freaking moron really going to try and pass me along the snake-bellied descent to Kennedy Lake?

Are the kids going to make it all the way to Long Beach without a bathroom break?

Never, ever before have I been scared of the food.

And it seemed like such a great idea at the time.

***

They call it clickbait for a reason.

There I was, all focused on an important journalistic research safari with the help of my faithful sherpa Google (it’s OK, they pay me to do stuff like this) when the link leapt off the screen and smacked me hard, right on my mousing finger.

It was the TripAdvisor rating page for a restaurant in Tofino called “The Pacific Breeze Fishermans Net.”

It had no less than 26 reviews.

And every single one — EVERY SINGLE ONE — had the exact same bottom line: “Terrible.”

The headlines speak the message better than I.

“There are no words” “Run when you can” “Beware!” “AVOID THIS PLACE AT ALL COSTS” “The worst restaurant in Canada” “Dear god no.” “We survived! Do not go!” and “Think of the Bates Motel”

These are just the first eight that popped up. The more detailed content gets worse.

I know online restaurant reviews can have their flaws, between owners planting false praise and vested interests indulging in a little over-the-top attack posting.

But this seemed different.

I mean, I scoured TripAdvisor’s restaurant reviews for every community from Mill Bay to Port Hardy. The only other place that even came close to the abysmal ratings of the Fishermans Net was a strip club in Campbell River.

And even with comments like “filthy outside, filthy inside” and “absolutely gross,” two reviewers had the heart to give that place a “poor” and one more an “average.”

How does somebody — anybody — go oh-for-26?

I knew what I had to do.

I quickly banged out the above prose and fired it off as an email to my oh-so-lovely, incredibly understanding wife.

“Honey,” I said. “How would you like to go out for dinner this weekend? Just the two of us?”

***

TripAdvisor doesn’t usually inspire much fear and loathing. Or such morbid curiosity.

“Intimate Cozy Bistro” “Best filet mignon EVER” “Seafood Crepes to Die For”: these review headlines are more what folks are used to seeing — not to mention looking for — when they head to their phones looking for a great hospitality experience.

These are also the review headlines for Bistro 694, TripAdvisor’s top-ranked restaurant in Qualicum Beach and among the highest-ranked north of the Malahat. It has been reviewed 252 times and received the highest possible “excellent” rating 200 times.

The folks at Bistro 694 believe in the effectiveness of the TripAdvisor system enough that they trumpet their status on their own website.

Research backs up that belief.

A brand-new study by the Oxford school of economics found that TripAdvisor influenced 13.2 per cent of all international and 7.7 per cent of all domestic travel decisions worldwide. About 22 million trips and 352 million overnight stays occurred in 2014 that would not have happened without TripAdvisor. Website content generated $478 billion in travel spending that same year.

The number of listings on TripAdvisor globally has increased more than five-fold — from 535,000 in 2009 to 3.59 million in 2014. At the same time, the number of reviews rose more than 16-fold, to nearly 110 million reviews compared to about six million as recently as 2009.

And while there have been documented cases of fake reviews on such sites, Oxford found that the consumer, by and large, places a huge amount of trust in what they say,

“Travellers are emboldened by additional transparency and trusted reviews provided by TripAdvisor as the internet has become a key source in the travel decision-making process,” the report states. “Additional trips are taken with clear benefits for the consumer.

“Industry benefits from increased revenue as well as clearer channels of communication with travellers, allowing some smaller operators to compete more easily.”

Tourism Vancouver Island CEO David Petryk said everyone in the hospitality industry has to be exceptionally aware of their online profile. Review posts, particularly on places like TripAdvisor, matter.

“Absolutely it’s something the industry has to monitor — all social media,” he said. “(Businesses) should respond to all comments, positive and negative. The vast majority of them respect a response. It’s reputation management.”

He said consumers appreciate the guidance of online reviews. They like to pay it forward with reviews of their own. He said serious businesses appreciate the insight into how consumers really feel.

“I think it’s really positive for the industry to know there is a place they can comment,” he said. “I think I can comfortably say the majority of businesses are finding it very positive. It’s huge and it’s growing exponentially.”

There is a point to all this: when a respected reviewer like tripsterVancouver_Bc is one of a litany of people on TripAdvisor saying things like “this place should be closed” readers should pay attention, not drive four hours out to the West Coast to check it out.

ordersI kept these thoughts to myself as I flashed my wife a nervous smile.

She lowered her eyebrows as my hands clenched tighter on the steering wheel.

***

I missed the The Pacific Breeze Fishermans Net on my first pass.

I was trundling blissfully toward downtown Tofino when my wife spotted a “wir sprechen deutsch” sign she remembered from the reviews. A woman had reported that when her husband and six-year-old daughter tried to speak to their server in German, he just looked at them strangely and grunted.

I wheeled the car around and parked.

It was a haggard complex that included a hotel and not one, but two restaurants. One appeared to be a coffee shop, the other a dining room. Each looked deserted.

A faded sign that at one time must have been backlit rested above the dining room door. I could still read the word “Net.” A sunroofed patio adjacent a row of booths in the coffee shop matched the photo on TripAdvisor.

I peered through the dingy windows and spotted an empty aquarium pushed up against a tiled wall. I couldn’t tell if the tile was grimy or if it was just the window. Further in, tables and chairs appeared to be stacked, but it was dark and the view was partially blocked. I couldn’t really be sure.

I tried to imagine how it might have looked 40 years ago, or how it could look after a week’s worth of restoration work from the set decorators of Mad Men. Through that lens, it looked OK.

I had considerably less difficulty imagining the torn seats, sticky countertops, slovenly service and bad food described in the reviews.

This was definitely the right place. It looked like it hadn’t been open for quite some time.

Finding it closed didn’t come as a huge surprise. The most recent reviews on TripAdvisor were from the late summer of 2015, but there weren’t any between August 2013 and June 2015. A scouring of Island Health reports revealed a facility at the same address called the Clayoquot Seaview Inn Ltd. had closed in the summer of 2013 after being in violation of health standards. Island Health cleared it to re-open in January of 2015.

I wasn’t going to get my dinner there as planned. And, I must admit, I wasn’t too upset about that fact.

As I walked back to my car, I thought about what Petryk had said about the necessity of hospitality businesses staying on top of social media and using the consumer feedback to massage their operations.

And it occurred to me that — whether through agency or circumstance — I could see no evidence that the operators of the The Pacific Breeze Fishermans Net gave a damn about what TripAdvisor readers and posters thought.

It helped cement my opinion that consumer expectations and a changing Tofino had simply passed them by.

*****

About 24 hours later, I was rolling east, past the foot of Sproat Lake.

I glanced at my wife snoozing peacefully in the passenger seat after a restful evening spent at the Terrace Beach Resort (TripAdvisor’s number-two ranked Ucluelet hotel). I realized I never did give her that dinner out I promised.

I made myself a pledge: when I get home, I’m going to make reservations for Bistro 694.

Just the two of us.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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