Effective Mouse Fights With Big Corporations

When Jacob Reider's written protests about a botched family reunion at Cancun's Moon Palace hotel fell on deaf corporate ears, the Albany, N.Y., physician fought back with a mouse. He aired his gripes on the Internet.

Reider launched his own Web site in December, after returning "disheartened and angry" from a $20,000 December vacation he claimed was marred by rude staff, round-the-clock construction noise, and other woes. Before discontinuing the site two months later, he had posted more than 50 responses, many of which bolstered Reider's opinions.

And he's gotten results that his old-fashioned snail mail missive didn't. "[Hotel officials] are now very clearly making an effort to rectify nearly every single item that we detailed on the Web site," says Reider, who had changed the name of his site from http://moonpalacesucks.associated.com to http://mpcomments.associated.com as "a goodwill gesture."

Reider joins a growing number of computer-savvy travelers using cyberspace as a high-profile way to battle bad service and other vacation ills. Through postings to online bulletin boards and creation of "rogue" Web sites, they're proving that "when a letter sits on a chairman's desk, it's one thing . . . but when a letter sits in a search engine that can easily be retrieved by 40 million people, you're talking some leverage," says James Alexander, director of eWorks!, a company that monitors the Web and counsels targeted companies on how to respond to online criticism.

To be sure, many Internet-based gripes languish in electronic obscurity. A recent check of a newsgroup (discussion area) called alt.flame.airlines revealed nearly as many advertisements for "FREE XXX PICS" and other sexually oriented fare as protests about airline service. And a Web site dubbed "Delta Airlines Complaints, or Why I'm Not Real Crazy About Delta Right Now" consists of two letters--written two years ago. But chronicles of unhappy experiences in such popular forums as America Online's Cruise Critic, which receives an average of 4,000 postings per week, can prompt cancellations from would-be vacationers and online rebuttals from the travel companies the missives criticize.

"Cruisers give a lot of weight to the fact that someone has just gotten off the ship they're considering," says Cruise Critic's moderator, Anne Campbell, "and (negative reports) can have a lot of impact." One of the most visible efforts to chastise a travel company in cyberspace is http://www.untied.com, billed by creator Jeremy Cooperstock as "a Web site that offers frustrated former United Airlines passengers a chance to speak out."

Thousands have done just that since the engineer launched the site last year, complaining about everything from rude flight attendants to snafus with frequent-flier accounts. In a section titled "Yes, United Airlines does pay attention," Cooperstock claims that United headquarters has accessed the site more than 900 times since its inception. And while most of United's comments are negative, Cooperstock lists a handful of success stories that he says prove "a polite, well-phrased letter to United can often achieve effective results."

At Moon Palace, meanwhile, communications director James TerHark says that while management has addressed the problems raised on Reider's site, those problems represent "a small dissatisfied group of people."

"The Internet is a great tool, and it can be a dangerous tool if not properly used," says TerHark. "In the heat of rage an individual can vent his or her anger at someone and click the send button. At that point it is too late to take it back."

As for Reider, the Albany doctor is encouraged by the positive reaction his short-lived effort generated. "It levels the playing field," he says, "and proves the little guys can help each other out."

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is laura.bly@news.latimes.com.

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