This is an Opinion-Editorial & Open Letter to the Association of Independent Tour Operators and is based on my personal experience ( * pls see #ZPDisclaimer ) with AITO’s holiday review feedback mechanism at www.aito.com. Sadly, my experience in dealing with this process has led me to question the independence and integrity of the process. As such, I cannot but help feel that this feedback system is nothing more than a marketing tool and in my opinion, it does not have the true interests of the travelling public at heart. As such, whilst the reviews on this site can be considered helpful, it is my opinion that the travelling public should NOT assume that they are getting the full information and therefore they should do more research if they want to make an informed decision when choosing their next holiday or tour operator.
As this is a long Open Letter and Opinion-Editorial, the background is summarised below:
- My husband and I each submitted our feedback about our trip to Central Asia with Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel (the tour operator) to the AITO site;
- [ *** Please note there is another company called “Wild Frontiers” (operating as http://www.wildfrontiers.com) and they are NOT related to the tour operator referred in this piece. I have not travelled with the Adventure Safari specialist www.wildfrontiers.com. For the avoidance of doubt, this letter only refers to the company that is based in the UK and operating as www.wildfrontierstravel.com and www.wildfrontiers.co.uk . **** ]
- Both feedbacks were accepted by AITO and were initially published on the site;
- As a consequence of our feedback, WF’s overall approval rating suffered and went down;
- WF responded to my feedback and provided their counterpoints to issues I’d raised in my review;
- Very soon thereafter, my feedback disappeared — but, my husband’s feedback remained on the site. It looked like WF copied it’s response to my feedback and pasted it to my husband’s feedback.
- ( Given that my husband and I both paid the same price on this trip as everyone else in the group, it would be wrong to say that we are entitled to just 1 feedback because we travelled as 1 unit. If this is the case, then it is saying that my experience does NOT count. As a fully-paid client, my feedback is JUST AS VALID AS my husband’s and is JUST AS VALID AS the other 11 travellers’ feedback. )
- As a result of my feedback deletion, WF’s overall approval rating improved. Thus, instead of having two negative reviews, Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel now has only one negative review. As a result of this deletion, it is my opinion that the negative review could be spun as a ” one-off ” anomaly.
- My feedback was deleted. It was not rejected. This deletion contradicts AITO’s published process. According to AITO:
” When your AITO tour operator receives your review, they have the chance to read it and write a response to your comments – before both are posted live to the www.AITO.com website. Your comments cannot be edited or changed by the tour operator.
If there is something in your review which Wild Frontiers wants to discuss with you, then they will contact you directly prior to sending this feedback live to the AITO site.
In very rare cases your AITO tour operator can choose to ‘reject’ the publication of a review. We know that this will be frustrating for you – but rest assured that the number of reviews that a particular company rejects is very clearly recorded on that company’s profile page. Our site’s readers will then be able to draw their own conclusions about this company’s feedback.”
- After a lengthy email conversation with AITO, AITO declined to re-instate my feedback on what I consider to be very dubious grounds.
This Op-Ed & Open Letter serves to debunk their justification for censoring my feedback. Moreover, this OP-ED serves to illustrate why I think that AITO’s feedback system is arbitrary, discriminatory and why I think that it is nothing more than a marketing tool designed to give an appearance of fair play and to encourage new clients to book their holidays with confidence with AITO’s members. As such, my advice to fellow travellers is that they should continue to do more research to make an informed decision and to not rely solely on AITO’s feedback system to select their tour operator.
Debunking AITO’s excuses used to justify the deletion:
1. One feedback to be posted per booking policy.
This is a new policy that was introduced as a direct result of my email conversation with AITO. At the time my feedback was submitted, this was NOT the policy. (Please see Point 3 below in which I have a screenshot of the Terms and Conditions _before_ it was changed.)
After updating their policy, AITO tried to justify this policy by stating:
” if we had a family of 8 travelling and they all had a good time, it wouldn’t be right for them to all post up rave reviews. Our statistics are done by booking and the rating achieved against that booking and from these results we judge how each member is performing and the Association overall. “
Whilst I can understand the goal of preventing skewed data, I do believe that this policy is unsound based on two major fundamental flaws. First, to achieve balanced data points, AITO should encourage a fair and open forum rather than restrict contributions. In AITO’s hypothetical scenario about the eight family members each providing feedback, if these eight travellers were in a group of twenty travellers, then the eight feedback should be as welcomed as the other twelve feedbacks. Each person on the tour who has paid the same/full price as the others should be treated as an individual contributor and be treated equally. The data isn’t necessarily skewed if all eight family members contribute provided that the other twelve travellers have the same opportunity to contribute as well. (If the other 12 travellers choose not to give feedback, then this is an entirely separate issue. But, the decision of the twelve travellers in this hypothetical scenario should NOT negate the rights of the eight family members.)
In my opinion, the second flaw of this policy is that it is d i s c r i m i n a t o r y. In my case, I paid the same price as the other 12 travellers in my group. My husband and I did not receive a discount for ‘group travel’ and therefore, why should my experience and feedback be discounted? Whilst AITO has invited me to submit a new joint-feedback (in place of the one that is currently online and written by my husband), I’d declined. By forcing me to lump my ratings and feedback with my husband’s feedback, AITO is treating me d i f f e r e n t l y because I am travelling as a unit with my husband. In other words, under the new policy, any married couples, families, or friends who travel together and booked their trip as a unit will NOT have the same right to provide feedback as those travelling as single travellers.
In this Open Letter to AITO, I would like to highlight to AITO that I think this policy is a direct violation of the European Human Rights Act as ‘martial status’ is a protected status. Common sense would suggest that most married travellers booked their travels as one unit (for ease of logistics) and thus, married travellers would be ineligible to register their individual feedback.
2. The feedback site is “not designed to house long standing regrets which may have been aired extensively in the past.”
Well according to AITO’s guidelines, it states: “We wish to hear the good, the bad and the ugly, so please include relevant details about your holiday which you believe others would want to know.” So, I’d assumed that AITO is looking for honest, informative and sometimes critical feedback so that prospective clients can make informed decisions. I guess I’d assumed incorrectly. I would also add that my feedback is not mindless airing of grievances; instead, it is based on my first hand experience and I’m very careful to write that my reviews are opinions. Fellow travellers are welcomed to use my perspectives to form their own informed decisions.
Furthermore, why should it matter if the feedback is “long standing regrets”? And, why should it matter if these sentiments have been “aired extensively in the past”? If I had previously and extensively aired gushy and glowing feedback about a tour company on Twitter, Facebook, and/or on my own blog site, then would AITO object if I then aired the same gushy and glowing reviews on the AITO site? I think not. Based on this experience, it would seem that AITO only objected because the feedback was too painfully honest for the comfort to an AITO’s member.
In addition, if AITO declined to publish my comments because I’ve written about my experience on my personal blog, then to ensure fairness, AITO needs to remove any (and all) feedback for all tour operators that ALSO contravenes the above policy statement. If not and otherwise, then in my opinion, this demonstrates that both the policy and the enforcement are a r b i t r a r y and that the deletion of just my feedback smacks of marketing manipulation and censorship.
3. The feedback is too old — site is designed for more recent travel experiences (i.e. from the last 6 months).
If this site is intended to capture feedback from recent travels only, then the site was not set up correctly as it allows for ‘older’ travel experience. Looking at the site today, the site still accepts feedback from the past 4 years. My (deleted) submission was from Dec 2013 and the trip was from August 2010. So, my feedback was well within the timeframe set by the AITO site.
In addition, I can see that this “6 months” clause is a newly introduced clause as it was NOT in the T&C as of May 7, 2014. As such, AITO should do the honourable thing and ‘grandfather’ any submissions made before this new policy went live. If, however, AITO decides not to ‘grandfather’ existing submissions (including mine), then to ensure fairness, AITO will need to remove any and all feedback on the site that ALSO contravenes this new policy. Otherwise, in my opinion, the enforcement of this policy looks very a r b i t r a r y.
Speaking of fairness, if I give AITO the benefit of the doubt and accept the assertion at face value that the original intent of the feedback site is to capture only recent feedback, then it would seem that this 4-years submission window was not well known to management as AITO expressed surprise when I pointed out that my feedback was well within the AITO submission timeline.
4. Finally, my feedback violated their no expletives rule as per the T&C.
Sorry — but this is simply not true as there are NO expletives in my feedback. First and foremost, the Terms & Conditions simply states: ” do not include anything derogatory, abusive or racially offensive. ” There is nothing derogatory, abusive or racially offensive in my feedback. For your reference, my deleted comments are available for inspection at this link. Digging deeper, it would seem that AITO objected to my use of “WTF”. WTF is an abbreviation. It is not an expletive. Regardless, it would seem that AITO is quite determined to find any possible fault with my feedback to justify not publishing it.
In summary. . .
It has been a painful process to submit my travel feedback to AITO. My very first submission was done in August 2013! Long story short, the version submitted in Dec 2013 was the version submitted, accepted, published, responded to, and then censored.
Time will tell how long hubby’s feedback will remain on their site. In my opinion, AITO is already trying to lay the ground work to justify removing _his_ feedback. AITO writes:
- June 3rd: ” I note your husband’s comment is on the site which is a fair and frank overview and Wild Frontiers have responded”
- June 5th: ” . . . . however, so far we remain minded to make an exception for your feedback and allow it to go live. Please don’t force us to reconsider this policy.”
( * ) Notice: this OP-ED & Open Letter is to highlight my personal experience with the process. But, it is up to each reader to make up his/her own informed decision about the merits of this blog. As such, if the reader is researching any of the named parties, then it is advisable that the reader continues his/her research to form a more robust finding. This blog is purely an OPINION based on actual personal experience which may or may not be applicable to others. Whilst every effort is made to be accurate and honest, @ZombifiedPixie makes no claim that all details in this blog are complete, factual and/or representative.
Anyone who has questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.