Recently I saw a post (on a blog that I won’t embarrass the author of by mentioning) about how it is unethical to ask for freebies when one is reviewing a hotel, a tour, or an airline. The post was directed at me and pointed out to me by friends who recognized that.
I couldn’t disagree more. Now, there are certainly some ethics involved in using your blogging/writing credentials – but the reality is that one of the perks of being a travel writer or blogger has always been that sometimes you get some freebies. Whether it’s when a company invites you to review them, when a third-party offers to send you on a trip, or just when you let someone know that you are reviewing them.
In essence, a review is a service to not only the readers, but also to the person that is being reviewed – assuming that their product or service is actually good.
Personally, I always like to let people know that I am reviewing them. To me, it’s common courtesy to let a hotel, tour provider, or airline know that I will be writing about them so that they can show me the things that I might have otherwise missed and yes, sometimes those things are provided for free as a way to not only show their gratitude for the free publicity, but also to sway the review in their favor.
This, to me, is where the ethics come in. I am always very clear about the fact that my reviews are going to be completely honest based on discussions with other guests, the services I experience, and the on the ground reality of the situation versus the ‘as advertised’ appearance.
One thing that I never do is to lie about who I am reviewing for. Even though most of the posts from this blog are picked up and syndicated by Lonely Planet, AllTop, and other Travel Sites – I never make the claim that I am writing FOR those publications. To do so would be completely unethical and a blatant lie.
Instead, I tell hosts or tour providers that I am writing for Vagobond.com, airline magazines like al-Nawras, Southwest Airlines, or Pegasus Airlines – but only if I am actually contracted to write a review for them.
There is a big misconception that every review should be written in the manner of New York Times food critics and that we should sneak in, experience the product, and then write about it. In fact, this is just one kind of review called a ‘blind review’ or sometimes known as ‘secret shopping.’ While there is a place for this – generally these reviews are very well paid by the sponsoring publication and all expenses are paid so that the reviewer doesn’t need to foot the bill. I’ve written these before and they can be fun but often they turn out to be a completely unfair review because of the way that life works. Maybe a waiter is having a bad day, maybe the owner is out-of-town, maybe a new cook screwed up the soup they are known for. It happens, but it’s not fair. It’s like someone judging your hairdo and they happen to pick a bad hair day.
Most of the time, reviews, like those you find at this site are by regular writers or travelers who are paid from $0 to $50 for the review without including expenses. We at Vagobond have a policy of letting companies and hotels know they are going to be reviewed and that the review is going to be honest and fair – that means fair on both sides. When I review a hotel, I usually have to pay the bill and often when I tell the owner or manager that I will be reviewing their property they take the extra time to show me their amenities, let me look through the guestbook, and take the time to explain any bad reviews I might point out from sites like TripAdvisor or Restaurants.com. Sometimes they even give me a discount or they offer to let me try something that would otherwise be outside of my budget.
While Lonely Planet may claim to have a policy where their writers don’t accept freebies – this is a stated policy that in fact is broken by nearly every Lonely Planet writer I’ve known (and I’ve known quite a few of them). Guidebook writers, travel writers, and travel bloggers may exist who never except perks or freebies, but I’ve never met any of them that I’m aware.
The funny thing is that the writer who accused me of being unethical is known take free meals in the restaurants he frequents since his blog provides advertising and reviews (which by the way, I don’t have any problem with.) While I don’t know if he gets free accommodation, I would guess that the answer is most certainly yes. The review he was referring to was for a third party that also has a policy of letting those being reviewed know they are being reviewed – but his insinuation was that I had broken some sort of ethical code. He might want to ask Arthur Frommer or Tom Brosnian about that…of course, that didn’t seem to be his motivation at all.
Instead, the motivation seemed to be to discredit me since much of my writing is concerned with views and sites within the Fez, Morocco region and both of our blogs are listed as favorite Morocco Blogs by the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa program. While he didn’t name me, he did put a quote from my review that is easily searchable and then accused the unnamed author of violating the terms of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa program. Since his bread and butter is charging Riads, Restaurants, and Hotels in Morocco for ads on his blogspot blog – the motivation seems quite obvious. By getting Vagobond kicked out of the favorite blogs – he becomes top dog with his advertisers and can claim Lonely Planet exclusivity in Morocco.
In terms of ethics, here is what I would suggest:
1) Be upfront about the fact that you are reviewing someone unless you are contracted to write a blind review
2) Accepting cash to write a review is over the top and falls into unethical behavior unless you disclose that you were paid for it in the review. By the same token if you accept free or discounted lodging, free tours, or free meals – make that known in your review.
3) There is NOTHING wrong with accepting the perks of being a travel writer or travel blogger – just be honest about it.
4) If you accept a free meal or coffee – be sure to tip the staff (something which I am told my Fez critic friend neglects every time)
5) Finally, if you are going to write a wikipedia entry about yourself – you might want to write it in the correct style – the gushing third person from the first person pretty much reads like a trashy detective novel