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PEARLS OF WISDOM

Oyster.com builds a speciality of hotel reviews from a paid staff of reporters with no stake in the companies.

Where do you go for guidance on a hotel?

Maybe the sturdy AAA or Mobil travel guides that grade lodging based on visits by secret shoppers with detailed checklists. Perhaps you rely on the reputation of a quality brand.

Like so many travelers these days, I like to read opinions of total strangers with no more apparent expertise than myself. I'm talking, of course, about hotel guest reviewers who post on Web sites such as TripAdvisor and IgoUgo.

In the world of corporate spin, there's real value to an unvarnished review that warns of bed bugs, foul odors or rude desk clerks. But too often, conflicting opinions leave you confused. And there's a chance your reviewer is really a manager trying to pump up his property or trash the competition.

A new online review business brought a different approach to the game this summer. Oyster Hotel Reviews hired a team of reporters to go undercover into hotels. They sleep in the beds, order from room service, swim in the pools, hang out in the lobbies and take photos. Lots of photos.

''Hotels are a product you can't see before you buy and can't return it later," said Elie Seidman, Oyster's chief executive.

Oyster reporters don't take freebies or special media rates, and the site doesn't sell hotel rooms. Instead, it generates revenue from travel product advertising and click-throughs to online travel agents.

Oyster has more than 700 reviews of leisure hotels and motels in the Caribbean, Miami, New York and Las Vegas. Reporters write 2,000-word reviews, with pro-and-con bullet points and a "bottom line" summary at the top.

A review on the uber-stylish Delano in Miami-Dade's South Beach dissects everything from the service ("not as snobby as the reputation") to the tiny standard-room bathrooms ("you could shower and brush your teeth in the sink at the same time").

The site's "Photo Fakeout" page displays hotel publicity pictures side-by-side with Oyster staff snapshots. A favorite: a hotel's closeup shot of a guy with surfboard in the pool, which the reviewer exposes as an oversized jacuzzi.

Oyster hopes to grow to 5,000 reviews from all major U.S. and Mexican resort destinations (yes, including Tampa Bay) and European capitals by early 2011, Seidman said.

For now, the selection is limited geographically. And with features like "Best Hotels to Go Topless" and "easy, though illegal, access to high-grade marijuana" in Jamaica, Oyster seems largely attuned to the young and affluent.

But then, local knowledge and hotel expertise are Oyster's stock in trade. Reporters spend two to three weeks on trips to their assigned destinations, staying at six to 12 hotels, Seidman said.

"At TripAdvisor, you get 50 individuals to one hotel," he said. "With us, you get one individual to 50 hotels."

Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384 or huettel@sptimes.com.

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