Oyster.com shells out for professional hotel reviews

  • Article by: JOE SHARKEY , New York Times
  • Updated: June 28, 2009 - 1:26 PM

The new online service launched last week. Its plan is to have 150 full-time reviewers prowling much of the country by the end of next year.

Thanks to the Internet and its spawns like Facebook and Twitter, everybody's a critic. But not everybody is a good critic.

Take hotel ratings. Like many other travelers, I have devised my own strange system for choosing a hotel, once I have settled on the location and price range. It encompasses word of mouth, hopeful guessing through past experiences with a given brand and wild speculation based on a haphazard sampling of the copious Internet reviews at various websites.

These online reviews, while often entertaining and informative in the aggregate, are typically written by anonymous people -- some of whom, for all I know, could be in a federal penitentiary and just killing time with wistful critiques of places they have never seen.

This is not a great system, but hey, adventure is grist for my little mill. There are, of course, professionally compiled hotel reviews, including those published by Mobil and AAA. Both employ legions of trained reviewers who roam the country with clipboards, anonymously checking into hotels to evaluate them on an exhaustive list of criteria. Their reviews, which assign rankings, are typically short and to the point.

Those guides are useful, as are the avalanche of amateur reviews that appear on Internet travel sites like IgoUgo.com (which even provides reader forums and travel journals) and TripAdvisor.com, which has tens of thousands of user-generated reviews of hotels.

I especially value TripAdvisor because, with practice, you can readily sort out the cranks from the vast majority of earnest reviewers who simply want to share their personal views about a hotel stay.

TripAdvisor does not pull punches. Take just two reviews appearing in recent days of a certain hotel in Times Square that heavily promotes itself to budget-minded tourists. "A body bag was pulled out of the elevator," one unhappy guest related. "To shut the door to the bathroom, we had to unplug the TV," reported another, cryptically.

Anyway, you would think there would be no room for another hotel-rating business. And you would think that would especially be the case now, given the gloom-by-the-room economic conditions in hotels and the slump in travel.

The Oyster opens

But, no. Last week a new company, Oyster Hotel Reviews, opened its doors online, with a stated goal of becoming the premier source for independent, professionally produced and in-depth hotel reviews. It's at www.oyster.com.

The plan, said Elie Seidman, chief executive and co-founder, is to establish a big base of "rigorous and independent" reviews, each about 2,000 words, accompanied by reviewer-produced candid photographs of practically every nook of each hotel.

Right now, the website is limited mostly to reviews of hotels in Miami and the Caribbean. But the New York City hotel section will go live in a week or so, followed by the section on Las Vegas. Others will follow.

Oyster, which has financing from Bain Capital, operates on an interesting journalistic model for the Internet because it hires journalists as full-time employees, not independent contractors. Its reviewers train with a 60-page manual. And each review is heavily illustrated with high-resolution photographs, more than 100 for each review, enough to offer a full view of that lavish lobby as well as the questionable state of the shower stall caulking.

"The reviews are very structured," Seidman said. "Here's the room, here's the location, here's what the food is like, here are the amenities. We verify that the spa is a spa, and not a small room with an old treadmill that they're calling a spa."

He said the site had 15 people on the editorial staff, "all with core journalism backgrounds." Ten of those people "travel, effectively, full time and go to 60 or 70 hotels in a year," he said. "We pay for all the expenses, the plane ticket, taxis, meals, rooms and, of course, salaries and benefits."

And they're hiring. When was the last time you heard that? (Aspiring hotel reviewers need to look up job postings on the Oyster site, and be sure to note the demanding qualifications required of job candidates.)

Big ambitions

"It is my hope that by the end of next year, we'll employ 150 full-time people" as hotel reviewers, Seidman said. In four to five years, he expects to have reviews of 20,000 hotels, most of them in resort spots and big cities around the world.

My own assessment, in this early stage, is that the reviews now online are solid and useful, and the photographs are invaluable. The site is limited right now, as I said. And the company, which depends on advertising on the site, is carrying a big payroll and high travel expenses in a tough time for the travel industry.

On the other hand, standards even at many quality hotels are slipping these days as costs are cut and rooms go unsold. I'm hearing more complaints about hotels now than I have in many years.

So it will be good to have some extra cops walking the beat. With cameras.

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