8:43 AM CDT, August 9, 2013
On vacation with my family in a dusty town in off-season Central America last week, I found myself walking past a deserted restaurant with no more than about three tables. The owner appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Three-and-a-half stars! Three-and-a-half stars!" he shouted at us. When you're a cultural critic who gives out stars for a living, it's a pitch that gets your attention.
The owner of the eatery pointed to a newly framed "certificate of excellence," signed by some unknown representative of the website tripadvisor.com. There it was, in graphic form, looking like something from a chart in Consumer Reports. Three-and-a-half stars. In we went.
If you've been away this summer, you've no doubt run into the new dominance of tripadvisor.com, a disruptive peer review site with a portfolio that began with hotels but now includes restaurants, tours, shows, entertainment options, pretty much anything you do when you are not at home. It did not exist in my own backpacking days and it did not have anything like this kind of clout as recently as a couple of years ago. My travels this summer would suggest it has largely supplanted the pull of classic travel guides like Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. It stays more up to date. And it is truly global. That "certificate" was not sitting in Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, just off Times Square. It had found its way to a pretty remote spot; not long before, we'd passed through a checkpoint manned by the Guatemalan military, wherein seemingly callow youths brandished very large rifles.
I have a self-justifying professional interest, of course, in so-called peer review sites. Whenever asked to talk about the future of arts criticism or the like, I generally note that such sites are not much use to me because they tend to be dominated by people who had extreme experiences. Great reviews of restaurants often contain some telling nugget like "we were on our honeymoon," a point at which one is far more forgiving of bad food than when traveling with more, ahem, familiar family members. Bad reviews often result from customer disputes: the promised seat was not granted, or the upgrade was denied. Most cultural experiences in our lives — the meals we have, the shows we see — are somewhere in the amorphous middle, but which end of the middling scale remains of crucial import to me, as it is a determinant of quotidian happiness. I'd rather be advised by someone who knows the industry, not those informed mostly by anger or bliss. Many's the time I've chortled at someone's extreme description of a Hampton Inn — either waxing euphoric about the little pool or raining down venom on the waffles — when really the only line necessary is "it's a Hampton Inn." I stay in a lot of them. They all are pretty much the same.
I asked the barker-owner about Tripadvisor and he rolled his eyes and told me the reviewing site is a huge obsession in his town and crucial to business. He told the story of a rival restaurant down the street that closed down for six months and then mysteriously appeared at the top of the ratings, days after reopening. He insisted that his rival had somehow "found a way" to manipulate the system and to play with the rankings. I told him I doubted that. He laughed, mocking me for believing in the veracity of these reviews. But back out he went to the street with his "three-and-a-half stars." When he came back, I asked him how he got his "certificate of excellence." He told me it had just arrived in the mail.
And then it dawned on me why Tripadvisor seemed much more ubiquitous this summer. Someone there has belatedly figured out that people don't want to page through a lot of peer reviews — they want a pre-consolidated ranking, very much in the mode of traditional restaurant critics. Rankings within categories aren't new on the site, but these certificates never used to be everywhere. By creating a single star rating and amping up the printing of certificates, Tripadvisor had made itself far more powerful.
There is irony: a powerful and disruptive digital channel figuring out that it needs the kind of paper proclamations you can make on your inkjet; a site all about a multiplicity of views figuring out it really needs only one, with an institutional stamp. Joe from Cleveland doesn't get you in the door; three-and-a-half stars from Tripadvisor does. I still say the sausage is only as good as what is inside the case. And, later that day, I saw a lot of these very same certificates of excellence above a lot of restaurant doors.
So what else might you be pondering on the beach this summer? Las Vegas is always an interesting place to spy changes in the culture and leisure business. They tend to hit sooner in Sin City.
One fascinating development there is the rise of the celebrity DJ. The billboards from the airport that used to be filled with names like Donny Osmond or the shows of the Cirque du Soleil are now dominated by resident names like Tiesto (whom Las Vegas Weekly estimated makes $22 million a year), Skrillex ($15 million) and David Guetta ($13.5 million). Donny and Cirque still play their wares, but the DJs are getting the prime spots and paychecks. Perchance they'll be on Broadway next.
But this isn't the biggest change I've noticed there. Vegas has been through many phases: the old-school era, the extravagant era, the family era, the what-happens-stays-here (aka adult) era. So what's the current era?
As a longtime Vegas watcher, I say it's the revenue-chasing era.
All over the Strip, fanciful facades have been drilled into to create bars or shopping opportunities. You might remember the front of the Treasure Island, now T.I., hotel, once a cool re-creation of a Long John Silver-like vista of tall ships, cliffs and little houses on the rocks. Now, big chunks have been removed so the hotel can sell stuff. It's the same at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino: the once pristine white facade has been dotted with eateries designed to catch people from the street. The long gardens of Caesars Palace, a Vegas classic, now are so littered with shops and entertainment you can barely see the front of the great hotel. You've not heard much screaming from architectural critics (even on Tripadvisor), for these always were pastiche buildings, fake facades. But they had a certain aspirational beauty, now sacrificed to economic necessity.
You can extrapolate that development to all kinds of places — there's a good shot your boss is at you to raise revenue, whatever the field of your endeavor. It is, perhaps, a further reminder of how the previous era of consumption over-reached. These days, innovations have to show a revenue stream fast. These days, Christie's is figuring out the value of the city-owned art in the Detroit Institute of the Arts as part of that city's bankruptcy proceedings. These days, airports have to look like malls, and museum stores swallow the prime real estate. Such are the new realities, even if you have a certificate on your wall.
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