Room for improvement: the cheap, cheerful and controversial hotel charged guests for a bad review

The man who pays his way

What price free speech? According to one Blackpool hotel, it turns out to be £100. Along with the room key and Wi-Fi code, guests checking in at the Broadway Hotel received a gagging clause. Buried amid the hotel's terms and conditions was a warning not to post unfavourable comments online: "For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review."

The policy came to light after Tony and Jan Jenkinson of Whitehaven had their credit card charged for describing the hotel on TripAdvisor as a "Filthy, dirty rotten stinking hovel run by muppets!" after an unhappy stay in August.

For a night's stay for two, with breakfast, they had paid £36. That happens to be the same price as English breakfast for one at the Ritz in London. And whether you spend £36 on a kettle, a Ritz breakfast or a hotel room, you are entitled to comment honestly on your purchase in any forum you choose. Being penalised for sharing views about a product is indefensible.

The proprietors now concede they were wrong: "Our policy was not good practice and we are refunding the £100 in full," said a spokesperson for the Broadway. Gary Rycroft, a partner with the Lancashire solicitors Joseph A Jones & Co, told me the penalty was in any case legally unenforceable under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977: "It is therefore right that the negative reviewers in this case have been refunded."

The Broadway Hotel's hard-line opposition to to the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity has inadvertently backfired. Yet I sense the media coverage generated by the "Hovelgate" incident has usefully shone light on the challenge of running a budget hotel in a competitive environment. And it doesn't get more challenging than Blackpool in mid-November.

Rate expectations

The tide was out on Blackpool beach on Wednesday afternoon, but a flood of camera crews, satellite trucks and reporters had engulfed the property at 2 Burlington Road West, abutting the seafront. The front door of the Broadway Hotel was locked due to all the media attention but because I had booked a room for the night, I was let in. The staff were friendly and polite, though they declined to answer questions about the controversy.

Room 10 was clean, tidy and well furnished, apart from a wardrobe that wobbled when you opened it and revealed a Narnia-sized gap at the back. But as I wrote in a three-star review on Trip-Advisor, it was outstanding value for the £22.50 I paid. Of this, the hotel was obliged to pass on one-third in the form of VAT and commission.

Too often, travellers seem to have expectations way out of line with the money they have spent. The Broadway is a family-run budget hotel competing with hundreds of other accommodation providers with an abundance of empty rooms for most of the year. The Broadway seeks customers by charging Youth Hostel prices, as do many other businesses: I had barely stepped from the train before billboards advertising "Rooms for £10 pppn, children half-price" began.

When you are paying no more for your room than the price of a one-way rail ticket from Blackpool to Manchester airport, you can't expect the Ritz. You can expect it to be clean, safe and reasonably comfortable. If it isn't, give the staff a chance to put things right. Online review sites are sometimes used as a substitute for complaining on the spot. In the unlikely scenario that someone left me in charge of a hotel, my first act would be to place a big sign on the front desk reading: "Got a problem? Tell me, and let me try to fix it, before you tell TripAdvisor."

A sign in the bar of the Broadway warns: "Obscene language will not be tolerated." The hotel can enforce that on its premises, but not on the internet. That £100 penalty at the Broadway was an clumsy expression of frustration at the damage and upset online reviews can cause.

No-one in the hospitality industry has publicly defended the Blackpool hotel's stance, but in private there is plenty of sympathy for the bid to hit back against a torrent of unfavourable reviews. Some hoteliers regard travellers' online reviews as instant and valuable customer feedback, and respond courteously to every criticism. Yet many accommodation providers are exasperated by the medium's potential for mischief.

"TripAdvisor is a very powerful forum for promoting hospitality," says the Broadway Hotel spokesperson, "but it is also often misused and abused by disgruntled customers. We have found that customers will threaten us with bad reviews simply to gain a discount."

Could the hotels be about to fight back? The Lancashire solicitor Gary Rycroft reminds users that the law favours hoteliers where unfair or fake reviews are posted: "If 'false or malicious' reviews are published the author of the reviews and those publishing them may be liable to compensate the individual or company who suffers damage to reputation and business." Mr Rycroft urges TripAdvisor contributors to "make sure anything you say is factual and that if necessary you have evidence to back up the facts such as videos or photographs or other witnesses".

TripAdvisor requires users to confirm that postings are based on their own experience, and has "a zero-tolerance policy on fake reviews".

The view from the cab

Before I left the resort, I canvassed local opinion about the Broadway's now-extinct policy on TripAdvisor reviews. A taxi driver, Neil Holker, said: "People have the right to put what they like on Twitter [sic]." But, he added: "There's not a bad hotel in Blackpool."