Go to Homepage


Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhy travel poll voting is packed with fun, fraud, fixers and friends doing their bit for a noble cause.


Visit our Fackbook pagePrintE-mail Page

by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

JUMP TO Current columns

Can you really trust travel images online? Beach scene by Tiago Hoisel

In whom do we trust when it comes to holiday idylls? illustration: Tiago Hoisel

EVERYBODY loves polls. And the best thing about polls is the cheating. Why wait for plodders to cast their ballot when you can mobilise a digital army to get the job done? This is no exaggeration. Hotels and airlines hire PR companies that "promise" to deliver a top result - a mysterious and dodgy claim at best. Others enlist the help of students, especially at school holidays, to put eager young wrists to work.

Some set up robot programs to get the job done online and others pay vast sums of money in nominations and advertising to ensure they are No.1. Last year as we headed to Seoul, among other cities, to deliver our annual awards in person to local recipients, many were alarmed and cautioned us not to visit. In one case the company said it had "no more budget to spend on winning". We assured them this was not about taking their money but presenting a handsome award, explaining why our readers picked them, and perhaps arranging a picture together. They relented.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor

Incheon Airport declined our hefty plaque, and a sympathetic and highly apologetic staffer explained the chairman had gone ballistic on learning they had ranked just the No.3 Airport Worldwide, quite an achievement in an open international vote. After an avalanche of carefully placed advertising, they had just received accolades on being ranked No.1 by various magazines. The chairman huffed. And we huffed and puffed around Seoul carefully carrying his burden in case he changed his mind. He didn't. I relate this curious case as it exemplifies the exaggerated expectations that accompany any kind of voting in Asia.

The truth is, many in the travel industry do not really care for reader votes or opinions. They prefer opinions to be determined in advance and based on a system that can be gamed or bought outright through money, or influence. Innumerable times have I been approached by old friends who beg us for a top result as they won their PR job at a hotel based on a "guarantee" of poll rankings. "I promised my GM," they wail. But how can anyone guarantee a “poll” victory?

This is almost in the same league as posting undeniably false pictures on websites showing grand sunsets that simply don't exist, harbour view shots that have been inexpertly Photoshopped into windows - altering perspective to the point where it appears the hotel is keeling over - or crowded street scenes that have been brushed out leaving one property standing tall and proud, surrounded by verdant green and smiling kids.

{And the best thing about polls is the cheating. Why wait for plodders to cast their ballot when you can mobilise a digital army to get the job done?

This is the false trail that has led so many readers into our arms as they try and determine the truth of these Cinemascope sunsets, and all-too-azure seas, and sugar-white beaches where rocks like shark's teeth await to grind up expensive Birkenstocks and hapless sorts that accidentally venture in. These FITs, as the trade terms them, or frequent independent travellers, are a prized commodity. We call them Frustrated Internet Travellers. This is truly what online travel research has been reduced to.

We have sometimes been accused of being too truthful with our photography because the sand is bleached yellow and not Julia Roberts dental white, or the sky has a wisp of monsoon cloud, thereby insulting the sensibility of a general manager whose artistic mind is untrammelled by the vicissitudes of quotidian life - and nature. And then we have had do-gooders and the politically correct lambast us for a bikini-clad woman on the beach. Perhaps they wanted Mahatma Gandhi in a tuxedo.

Our annual Best in Travel Poll has over the past 10 years provided us with a wealth of information on reader habits - your likes and dislikes and your consistent preferences. This is what drives our editorial focus at Smart Travel Asia. In 2004 and 2005 our market research focused purely on airlines and included, along with a Best Airline category, one for the Worst Airline. It made interesting reading. Cathay Pacific steamed in as the favourite overall. The top Small Airline was Bangkok Airways (Air Asia placed fifth) and the Worst Airline was Aeroflot. More interesting was the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring as airlines combined to elevate their rivals on the "worst" list. So we set up poll traps and filters to catch and bounce rogue votes. We still get obscure hotels in Thailand that emerge each year as the "World's Best Airport" and "Best Cabin Service" as armies of staff march out in lockstep filling all voting fields each afternoon. It's easy to catch and fun to spot.

TripAdviser is a wonderful repository of information and a tool for gauging public sentiment on hotels and, now, just about everything, but at the same time it can be random and misleading. Comments are placed by kids, business travellers and people blackmailing hotels to get a free night. It is what I call a "bus stop test". Ask 20 people at a bus stop for their opinion on your headache and you'll get 20 responses. Fair enough. Perhaps two of them are doctors and offer you a professional opinion and an Aspirin, while 18 are strangers who proffer random advice. Someone smart enough to read the crowd can benefit from this exercise. Conversely, someone smarter can game the system and stack the crowd in favour of his own product. Come sundown, every hotel GM dons his Spiderman costume and fights for justice (ie: typing positive reviews for his own hotel) and fighting evil (typing in negative comments about rivals). Crime fighting is a nonstop and tiring business.

Moral of the story? If you are ill, visit a doctor. If you want a professional opinion, visit a professional magazine. There's not much point in argle-bargle with random strangers. Despite the wonderful sounding term, "crowd sourcing", crowds are not a sensible measure of quality. A crowd means lowest common denominator and not highest common factor. More people listen to elevator music than Rachmaninoff. And where does that leave us? Would we fork out millions to spend a night in a mall elevator because that is what the "crowd" wants?

A traveller's best companion and tool, is common sense. Use it. Do not let it get replaced by some app, or clever tool that "guarantees" results. Many apps are devised by smart school kids. Penthouse Suites house sexagenarian moguls. There's space in the world for the brilliance of both. Do cast your ballot and tell us your travel brand preferences. We'd like to hear from you.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor

▲ top

Previous Columns

Bottoms up for goldShanghai surpriseNow, fake festivalsWhy ghetto is goodFrequently flummoxed flyersLaughing to the exitsA matter of prideSpeak and it shall be understoodLet's go phishingAsia's best travel brandsBad scrambled eggsHow to pick a happy flightThe Wild Waist aloftClicks come a clatteringBrand on the runThe unfair fares affairSafe on cloud nine?Man-eaters of MumbaiThe fine art of goodbyeStay fit or fake itMore than wordsWhy hotels and pigs can’t flyTo B or not to B737Are you being hacked?Snap-happy hounds bewareDelhi daze in springtimeLet's celebrate with KittyHide your prying eyesPilot project for beginnersGreen flights of fancy?The art of arriving lateWhen life drives you pottyAirports, awards, and alarmA fright for sore eyesDry skin wet eyesBack to the Tunnel of LoveWhy fearless flyers won't flee feesMore wind in the hairTravel tremors after JapanThe case of the intact bagsEnd of the OTA-man empire?A picture says a thousand wordsOnly Engrish spoken hereVoices in the skyA tale of three airportsWhat's in a brandA big bite of a bad AppleNow haste to the hustingsJust 400 homicides and all's wellNo sex please, we're BritishSome minor details aloftHighway to the heavensYou look radiant darlingGood info a needle in a haystackPlease watch that safety drillA classic cycle folderolUtterly eggcentric behaviourThe price is rightFlashing in public is a crime[Offset] my kingdom for a horseYour cash or I'll sneezeThe greening of the worldDo broccoli need passports?Could I see your profile?Great Scott! Empty seatsTravel in an age of terrorThere is no free lunchAnother Night in BangkokBeatings on the beachTravelling with Teenage KidsWhither Wi-Fi at 30,000ft?Are you locked in the toilet?Charge of the Flight BrigadeAcross the UniverseBaby it's cold outsideWhy I'm dying to travelA key questionGorillas in the mistConfounding customsWhen blackmail worksBy taxi through AsiaA really cheap dateMake a meal of itTales of two teethPutting curbs on carbsDial R for rip-offThe New Math aloftWhy boutique is bestAre you terminally mad?Heavy question, ladiesThe secret of good sleepJust bring Pluto backA fluid situation aloftWhy Friday's the bestNothing but the truthGone in 60 secondsJust use your imaginationFree flights for allIs your travel in vein?Pet peeves and solutionsViral travellers welcomeYes it's safe to step outA passage to IndiaIt is a "brand" new AsiaThe show must go onCriminally good holidaysThe accidental touristIt's a free rideSleep tips for the roadI'll follow the sunA good pillow fightA bridge too far?World's safest spotsThe need for speedSmall is beautiful, sometimesBumming around AsiaSamsonite and DelilahJust one good bookSpace, the final frontierExtreme Travel for Real MenJust grin and bare itUnfazed by phraseHoney, I Shrunk My BrainMiss World to the RescueWhen things go bumpTo catch a croc, in HongkongA thrilla in ManilaThe Steamy truth about SpasAre Travel Agents Dinosaurs?The Hub of the MatterWin a second wife - free!Forget inflight TV, try DVTAdventures of the Green ManHongkong's Masked BallTravels in War and PeaceAdvice on travel advisoriesPound of flesh
NOTE: Telephone and fax numbers, e-mails, website addresses, rates and other details may change or get dated. Please check with your dealer/agent/service-provider or directly with the parties concerned. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for any inadvertent inaccuracies in this article. Links to websites are provided for the viewer's convenience. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for content on linked websites or any viruses or malicious programs that may reside therein. Linked website content is neither vetted nor endorsed by SmartTravelAsia. Please read our Terms & Conditions.