Meriton apartment chain manipulated TripAdviser reviews, ACCC claims
The serviced apartments had no hot water, broken phone lines and out-of-order lifts, but, the consumer watchdog says, the owner had a sneaky trick to sidetrack guests who might write disparaging online reviews.
This alleged attempt to stop customers writing bad online reviews has landed Australia's biggest residential apartment developer in court.
On Thursday the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched proceedings in the Federal Court against Meriton Serviced Apartments for alleged misleading or deceptive conduct.
The ACCC alleges Meriton stopped reminders to send reviews to TripAdvisor – a tremendously influential travel review website – from being emailed to guests who had had a bad experience.
More than 800 guests who stayed in a Bondi Meriton apartment building that had no hot water, broken phone lines and out-of-order lifts had their email addresses manipulated, so they did not receive review-reminders, or their details were not passed on at all, the ACCC alleges.
At another property, guests on one level had to be evacuated due to a damaged gas line.
The property also suffered from a hot water failure. Again Meriton stopped customers getting review reminders, the commission alleges.
The consumer watchdog is calling for the company to be fined. Meriton denies the claims, and plans to fight the allegations in court.
Almost all of the Meriton complexes listed on TripAdvisor are rated above 4 out of 5.
Meriton traded heavily on its TripAdvisor reviews and called itself "the most awarded hotel brand in Australia", the commission's statement of claim says.
An image from Meriton's website Photo: Meriton
TripAdvisor automatically emails customers of hotels who have signed up to its Review Express service, asking them to review their stay when they check out.
The ACCC alleges that when Meriton suspected customers would leave a bad review, staff would add the letters 'MSA' in front of their email address stored on the Meriton booking sysem.
The small change was enough to make TripAdvisor's review-email bounce.
Meriton also "masked" customers who had made a complaint during their stay, the ACCC alleges.
"We allege that Meriton's conduct was a deliberate practice, undertaken at the direction of Meriton's senior management, aimed at minimising the number of negative reviews," ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said in a statement.
The ACCC says Meriton's staff were using the tactic between November 2014 and October 2015.
During that time the company operated serviced apartment accommodation in at least 13 properties in New South Wales and Queensland.
Meriton said it would fight the claims.
"In every Meriton Serviced Apartment there is a notice inviting all guests to review their stay on TripAdvisor," group general counsel Joseph Callaghan told the ABC.
"Meriton does not agree that the public has ever been deceived or misled. The proceedings will be defended."
The story Meriton apartment chain manipulated TripAdviser reviews, ACCC claims first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.