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CALL 6: Manager plans to close Inn following criticism over $350 charge for negative reviews

Ex-operator says policy was to deter false reviews
Posted: 5:42 PM, Dec 20, 2017
Updated: 2017-12-21 03:49:48Z

BROWN COUNTY, Ind.—  As the former operator of a Brown County hotel is responding to allegations his business charged customers for negative reviews, the inn’s new manager says she plans to close the hotel.

Call 6 Investigates’ story about the Abbey Inn charging customer Katrina Arthur $350 for a negative review has prompted reaction from across the country.

READ | Customers charged $350 after leaving negative review for Brown Co. hotel, lawsuit alleges

Andrew Szakaly, the former operator of Abbey Inn and president of Abbey Management, released a statement to Call 6 Investigates on Wednesday in which he said the complaint policy was put in place to protect the inn from false reviews.

Abbey Management is the company named in a lawsuit filed by the Indiana Attorney General, via certified mail on December 15.

“Several years ago the Inn began to experience what has become known in the hospitality industry as ‘social media blackmail,” read the statement. “A guest would complete their stay, leave without making any complaints regarding their stay, then later demand a refund or they would post negative comments regarding the Inn on social media. In an attempt to meet the guest's needs while protecting itself from false reviews, the Inn, between Fall 2015 and Summer 2016, required prospective guests to confirm they had read the Inn's ‘complaint policy’ (published on the Inn's website & repeated on the online booking site) when they booked online and when they arrived for their stay.”

Szakaly said the policy, which ended in the summer of 2016, requested guests notify the Inn staff of any problems during the guest’s stay and allow the staff to address the problem.

“If the guest could not find a staff person, the guest was also given a phone number to call to report any problems,” said Szakaly in a statement to RTV6. “Should the guest fail to do so during their stay, and later published a false statement regarding the Inn and failed to remove the false statement after a request to do so, that guest authorized Abbey Management Inc. to charge that guest no more than $350 as ‘liquidated damages’ for their published false statement.”

Szakaly is an attorney, currently serving a one year term as Brown County chief deputy prosecutor until December 31.

Szakaly’s daughter Amanda Sweet is in the process of buying the hotel, and Sweet assumed management of the Abbey Inn in January 2017.

"We (the Abbey Inn) acknowledge and accept responsibility for the negative experiences guests had at the Abbey Inn in 2016,” read a statement from Sweet provided to Call 6 Investigates. “We were not the managers of the inn at that time and do not support a policy of charging guests for writing negative reviews of our business. While we have several negative reviews online, including on Google and Trip Advisor, we are addressing the concerns of past guests and apologize for their unfortunate experience.”

Sweet told Call 6 Investigates the backlash has been so strong, she plans to close the hotel and reopen under a new name.

“These issues are being taken very seriously and we have already begun taking steps to revive and improve the property to the highest standards,” said Sweet in a statement. “Our new management team is working hard to restore the inn and make it a destination for visitors looking to escape to Southern Indiana.”  

Sweet said she’s working to provide a refund to Katrina Arthur, a consumer who complained to the Indiana Attorney General after the Abbey Inn charged her $350 for a negative review .

 

 

 

The Indiana Attorney General’s office alleges the hotel violated Indiana’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by enforcing a customer review policy that is “unfair, abusive, and deceptive.”

“Guests agree that if guests find any problems with our accommodations, and fail to provide us the opportunity to address those problems while the guest is with us, and/or refuses our exclusive remedy, but then disparages us in any public manner, we will be entitled to charge their credit card an additional $350 damage,” the policy read, according to the lawsuit. “Should the guest refuse to retract any such public statements legal action may be pursued.”

Negative reviews can be tough on hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.

Call 6 Investigates spoke with the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau about how companies should handle bad reviews.

“They’re very powerful,” said Jane Ellis, executive director of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Some suggestions would be to respond to them, don't just let them go.  You don't want to just sweep it under the rug.”

Ellis said businesses should apologize for the experience and message the guest directly to try to rectify the situation.

Ellis said she’s never heard of guests using social media to blackmail hotels.

"We've never experienced that," said Ellis.

It’s hard for business owners to keep their cool when they receive negative feedback posted on social media for all to see.

“It’s hard because it's personal,” said Ellis. “It’s your business and when someone says something bad you immediately get defensive on it. Try to be objective, try to look at it from other people's standpoint.”

If you have a problem with a business, Ellis said you can contact management while on site and try to resolve the issue.

If you go online to gripe, make sure you know the terms and conditions of the site you’re using.

"Be honest. If you give a review, be objective,” said Ellis. “Remember that it's someone's business."

Ellis said businesses need to realize that for many consumers, social media is a form of communicating with business owners.

“It’s instant now,” said Ellis. “It gives the business the opportunity to catch something right away, and maybe they didn’t know had happened and be able to correct problems.’

FULL STATEMENT:

I am the President and sole shareholder of Abbey Management Inc. an Indiana corporation. Abbey Management Inc. operated the Abbey Inn, a small 14 room hotel until January 2017 when new management assumed control.

All Inn reservations are made online. Several years ago the Inn began to experience what has become known in the hospitality industry as "social media blackmail". A guest would complete their stay, leave without making any complaints regarding their stay, then later demand a refund or they would post negative comments regarding the Inn on social media. In an attempt to meet the guest's needs while protecting itself from false reviews, the Inn, between Fall 2015 and Summer 2016, required prospective guests to confirm they had read the Inn's "complaint policy" (published on the Inn's website & repeated on the online booking site) when they booked online and when they arrived for their stay. This policy requested the guest to notify the Inn staff of any problems during the guest's stay, allowing staff to address the problem at that time. If the guest could not find a staff person, the guest was also given a phone number to call to report any problems. Should the guest fail to do so during their stay, and later published a false statement regarding the Inn and failed to remove the false statement after a request to do so, that guest authorized Abbey Management Inc. to charge that guest no more than $350 as "liquidated damages" for their published false statement. That policy ended in Summer 2016.

Andrew Szakaly

 

"We (the Abbey Inn) acknowledge and accept responsibility for the negative experiences guests had at the Abbey Inn in 2016. We were not the managers of the inn at that time and do not support a policy of charging guests for writing negative reviews of our business. While we have several negative reviews online, including on Google and Trip Advisor, we are addressing the concerns of past guests and apologize for their unfortunate experience. These issues are being taken very seriously and we have already begun taking steps to revive and improve the property to the highest standards. Our new management team is working hard to restore the inn and make it a destination for visitors looking to escape to Southern Indiana.”  

Thanks,

Amanda Sweet

The Indiana Attorney General is asking anyone who believes they may have been penalized for posting truthful reviews online to contact his office by going online to indianaconsumer.com or by calling 1-900-382-5516.

Attorney General Curtis Hill today advised consumers to contact his office if they have been penalized for posting truthful online reviews of goods or services they have received.

The advice comes on the heels of a Dec. 15, 2017, lawsuit filed in Brown County by the Office of the Attorney General against Abbey Management Inc., a business that maintained a written policy of charging consumers an additional $350 and threatening them with legal action in the event they posted negative reviews. At least one consumer was charged this additional fee after posting a negative review. The defendant’s actions in maintaining and enforcing this policy were unfair, abusive and deceptive – and they violated Indiana’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act.

“People have the right to truthfully complain about bad service,” Attorney General Hill said. “They certainly should not be afraid they might be penalized for exercising this right. If you believe you have suffered retaliation or been threatened as a result of posting a truthful review, please contact our office and we will investigate your complaint.”

In Indiana, individuals may file consumer complaints with the Office of the Attorney General by going online to indianaconsumer.com or by calling 1-800-382-5516.

Attached are two documents connected to the Brown County case – a copy of the lawsuit and the original consumer complaint.