Yesterday, the Union Street Guest House, located in Hudson Valley, New York, received some of the worst reviews in its 184-year history.
The dozens of one-star Yelp reviews – including one from a disgruntled "Adolf H." – stemmed from an article in the New York Post that claimed the hotel had a policy of charging customers $500 for each negative online review posted by their wedding guests after staying at the hotel.
Hundreds of angry reviews also flooded the inn's Facebook page.
"Beware of any hotel (or any business for that matter) that threatens retaliation for expressing an honest opinion," wrote one Facebook user.
"You won't have to worry about bad reviews because no one will be there," wrote another.
As of early yesterday morning, the historic hotel's website had the following policy statement posted in its wedding section:
"If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review. (Please NOTE we will not charge this fee &/or will refund this fee once the review is taken down)."
The hotel explained that this policy only applied to wedding parties.
Negative reviews poured in — from people who've stayed there and from others vowing to never visit — attacking the establishment.
"If you don't want bad reviews, provide amazing service. Having a policy that fines people for expressing their opinion of the service is unbelievable," wrote Marty B. from Chicago on Yelp. "The Internet is not controlled by your organization. Any guest willing to stay here with this policy in place is ignorant of the policy or stupid."
By the end of the day, the policy was removed and the hotel was doing major damage-control.
"The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced," the Union Street Guest House said in an email to CNBC.
"Honestly we never actually charged anyone despite what … any reviews might suggest from the past. We never had to," the establishment further explained on its Facebook page.
According to an email obtained by Engadget, this doesn't appear to be the case. A former guest received an email from the hotel in 2013 stating that his negative online review cost the wedding party $500.
"Your bride & groom guaranteed us financially that they were in love with our Inn and we would face NO NEGATIVE reviews from their guests when they left their deposit with us."
A month later, the inn threatened to charge the newlyweds another $500 for another critical review.
According to Engadget:
"Eventually, the hotel owner personally joined the fray and apologized to the guests for a less-than-optimal stay. He explained that although he was saddened by the situation, the staff wouldn't issue a refund unless the negative reviews were pulled from the web. They weren't. In the end though, the hotel was sort of telling the truth: According to the guest, the couple was never actually charged the $500 fine, so the hotel didn't actually enforce its paranoid edict."
Yelp reviewer and former Union Street Guest House guest Rabih Z. posted the following in 2013:
The management of this hotel had the gall to email us twice to threaten us financially about the negative review! Here is an excerpt from their first email:
"please note that your recent on-line review of our Inn will cost the wedding party that left us a deposit $500. This money be charged via the deposit they have left us unless/until it is removed. Any other or future reviews will also be charged to the wedding party (bride & groom) from the guarantee they have provided us. "
Even with the "tongue-in-cheek" bad-review fine now gone, the hotel still expects brides and grooms to defend the building to their guests:
"Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our Inn, your friends and families may not. This is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer — therefore we expect you to explain that to them. USGH & Hudson are historic," management writes in the inn's "reviews" section.
Forbes' Micah Solomon offers a better strategy to establishments facing bad reviews. Most important: "determine why you're getting bad reviews, and how to avoid them in the future."
The Union Street Guest House's current cancellation policy, which begins with "CANCEL AT YOUR OWN RISK," doesn't read any friendlier than its reviews section:
"If we ACCEPT your cancellation request, there will be a $35 charge (per room). Cancellation of a reservation must be made at least 61 days prior to your arrival date for any type of wedding reservation to receive a refund of any kind ... We do not give credits for future stays and we RESPECTFULLY ask that you please do not ask us to do so."
"We reserve the right to cancel a reservation at any time for any reason," the hotel states.
Customers, of course, don't have that right: "If you cancel your entire wedding event we do not refund your deposit."
On Google Maps, the inn has been flagged as "permanently closed" — even though it's still open for business.
Don't mess with the Internet.
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