The Michelin Guide takes its fair share of criticism for its archaic standards. It took criticism in some quarters for having the California tourism industry subsidize a guide for the state. We did not think was an actual conflict of interest and that the controversy was a tempest in a teapot. An announcement this past week is far more disturbing. With one move Michelin has gutted its claim to independence. Even more strange is that no one seems to care.
The Michelin Guide is entering into a deal with Trip Advisor and an online booking site called The Fork. Here is the key graph from the press release:
“Michelin and TripAdvisor, with its subsidiary TheFork, have entered into a content and licensing partnership to combine the gastronomic selection expertise of the Michelin Guide with the power of TripAdvisor’s large customer audience and TheFork’s advanced booking service.”
Let us take that apart piece by piece. First, they have “entered into a content and licensing partnership.” At a minimum it lends the Michelin brand to an unreliable platform. It is lending its credibility to a crowd-sourced rating system that has proven susceptible to manipulation. It is selling its reputation for independence for more clicks. We, and others, have criticized Michelin for being lazy and dumb. Now their independence is at risk as well. A look at the top places on Trip Advisor for D.C. will give you a sense of how impossible it is to reconcile these two guides.
Now we move on to the second key clause: “TheFork’s advanced booking service.” If you thought Yelp was a corrupt business practice (and we do), then Michelin seems to be coming closer to that model. The press release does not say how Michelin will be compensated, but traffic and/or bookings seem to be a logical basis. We didn’t realize Michelin was already compromised by an association with a booking site. Instead of spinning it off to restore credibility, it is doubling down. Furthermore, for those concerned by the California subsidy scheme, being associated with a booking platform that operates in specific countries will put pressure on Michelin to do ratings for those countries and for those restaurants that are on that platform. Imagine if Michelin was in a business deal with Resy but not Opentable. Which restaurants do you think it would prioritize for reviews? (Note: Michelin is already making decisions about what to prioritize; it lists about half the places in DC that we do). There is obvious pressure to rate those on the affiliated website higher. In a worst case scenario, Michelin engages in Yelp-like shakedown practices using its brand power.
Put together, it is a cracked credibility sundae with conflict of interest sprinkles.
The most surprising thing about the announcement is that it got no coverage, except cut-and-paste, deferential business journalist (?) treatment. So maybe we are reading this wrong and/or overreacting. Or the low-key press release did the trick to not draw attention.
In totally unrelated news Founding Farmers remains the most booked restaurant in DC on Opentable.
There is a solution to this problem: support those independent, passionate voices like this plucky website. As we wrote earlier this year:
“In the marketplace of ideas, stupid can drown out smart but smart shines brighter. Even when we may disagree and fling the Post Sunday Magazine across the room, professional critics like Tom Sietsema, Tim Carman, the Washingtonian crew, and those at Eater are important reference points to sort this mess out. Zagat and Michelin are less-reliable in D.C. than in places like New York, but they can be helpful. Those running personal pages and blogs, like DonRockwell.com, Lori Gardner at beenthereeatenthat.net, Rick Chessen at rickeatsdc.com, and others are great resources for those willing to dig deeper. Time spent there is infinitely more rewarding than any time on Yelp. When swimming in the muck, look for these lighthouses to lead you to safety. We hope that 17 Degrees will be one of those lighthouses to navigate you to a great place.”
Now, after railing against conflict of interest and deception, we will make a shameless plug for our dining guide, which has more than 200 places that you can sort by cuisine, neighborhood, and/or rating! In both MAP or LIST format.
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And you can cross off some more candidates for best dining guides for D.C. – Yelp? No. TripAdvisor? No. Michelin? No. Zagat? No. We like to call ourselves the 3rd best dining guide for DC, but by this time next year, we might be the Second Best Dining Guide!