Hotel Sues Guest for 95K over Bad Review, Bedbugs

You can bet this Montreal man regrets his short stay at the the Hotel Quebec: bit by bed bugs in the night, he reviewed his negative experience the next day on Trip Advisor, and when he refused to take it down, the chain of hotels sued him for $95,000.

The night of April 26th, Laurent Azoulay stayed with his son and entire sports team at the Hotel Quebec, one in a popular chain on the avenues des Hôtels. In the middle of the night, Laurent woke with a startle as he felt bed bugs biting his leg. He had the presence of mind to trap a few of the perpetrators in a glass for proof before migrating down to the front desk.

Bedbugs

As the particular hotel was full for the night, the managers offered him $40 for the inconvenience and to move him to an available room in a nearby hotel, also in the Jaro chain, promising that tomorrow a clean room would be available at the Hotel Quebec. Mr. Azoulay refused to relocate, and the next afternoon settled up and quit the chain entirely - though not before telling guests he passed about the bugs, convincing them they should pack up as well. Notably, he told the director of the hotel that she should "get on her knees and beg him not to tell this story to anyone."

But he did tell the story: the next day, he wrote a scathing review on the hugely popular website, Trip Advisor, which features prominently the presence of bed bugs.  And he was right that Jaro Hotels should have begged: travelers hearing about the potential infestation don't want to risk their personal belongings and health; the review is an objective deterrent. Since Mr. Azoulay's stay and subsequent critique, Jaro Hotels has been inundated with calls assessing the issue and reports a real dip in business. The hotel does not dispute the presence of bed bugs that night but vehemently asserts Mr. Azoulay's room was the only one affected in the hotel and chain at large. No other incidents of the kind have been reported at least in recent history, and the hotel has vowed to do everything it can to avoid a recurrence of the issue.

Despite entreaties, the review remains; Mr. Azoulay refuses to take it down, and now, for the reputation damage and lost profits it has caused, the hotel's GM Jacques Robitaille has filed a lawsuit against Mr. Azoulay for $95,000. Sigh. A lot of lessons here.

The episode presents another classic example of why the customer is always right, especially in the digital age. It is not worth getting your business locked into a blow-out; you maximize the issue and attract further publicity, the "Streisand Effect" at work. No matter what happened behind the scenes, in the spotlight of the media, first they were the hotel with bed bugs and now they're the hotel suing their guests. Now it's been decided the matter is worth 95K, the possibility of going back in time and settling probably looks pretty attractive to both parties; perhaps now the hotel would consider more than $40 to compensate for the inconvenience. While in some cases any buzz is good buzz, here not so much, and in hospitality, we imagine it's difficult to bounce back from this kind of stigma.

Interestingly, this case raises legitimate questions about establishment/reviewer relationships as we find equilibrium in this new democratic, user-oriented system. On the one hand, what right do customers have to post reviews that negatively affect the business of the establishment? One has learned to be wary of the narrative that casts negative reviewers as Robin Hoods, getting the truth out as the corporation tries to smooth over glitches with a paid-for profile. As we saw earlier this week with Andy Johnston, Area Sales Manager for Groupon, this kind of negative attention around reviews has the power to make or break you and customers are not afraid to use it. We want to believe that critics use their reviewing power for good but that's hardly the case, especially when the majority of unsolicited reviews are written by unhappy customers. When your business is threatened, shouldn't you be able to protect yourself? Is filing a lawsuit for lost business your best option, a way to adopt even more strongly the position that you are an upstanding business?

On the other hand, what right does the corporation have to silence legitimate criticism on threat of a law suit? This guy from Montreal trapped the very bed bugs in a glass; he caught them in the act and no one's denying it. When he was woken in the night by a bug bite, doesn't he have the right to share his opinion with fellow customers as they evaluate how to spend their money? What are reviews supposed to be if not real accounts of customer experiences?

If the incident this April is anomalous, then we can feel sorry for the hotel; if standards are lax, however, we applaud their comeuppance. Either way, the press and lawsuit seem like a lot of hubbub over one night's stay, and let this be a lesson to your business to settle with disgruntled customers before they alert the media.