Stilt walkers and ballet dancers from Busch Gardens, games from Lowry Park Zoo, two bands, 30 restaurants and more than 600 people from all around Central Florida will converge on the Winthrop Barn in Riverview tonight - because nine years ago a man in San Francisco found the old yellow page business directory to be ineffective.
Yep, a Yelp party is on the rise. The Yelptucky Derby arrives at the Barn with Wimauma restaurant proprietor Amy and Gary Moran serving as hosts.
For those who don't know about Yelp, it's an online business directory - the 21st century version of the yellow pages (hence the Yelp label) with one significant catch. It's driven by customer reviews. Every business receives a rating from one to five stars based on the critiques of "Yelpers."
The founders crafted the idea after one of them had a bad experience with a dentist he dialed up from a yellow page listing, according to Yelp Tampa Bay community manager Brett Nehls. The founders reasoned that a directory with customer comments would prove to be a better guide.
As of January 2013, the site reported having 100 million unique visitors in 20 countries. Although it includes all manner of businesses and retail outlets, it's wildly popular with foodies.
Nehls said some use Yelp as a barometer for new restaurants and a tour guide when they travel.
Although the site is not without controversy (more on that later), Amy Moran believes in it. She continues to help her husband at Wimauma, the popular South Tampa destination known for Southern cuisine. But she assumed management of the Barn this year and says tonight's gathering will serve as sort of a grand reopening for the event facility on Bloomingdale Avenue.
All the food and drink is free, but it's open only to frequent users of the Yelp website - those designated as Yelp Elites - and folks who open Yelp accounts and RSVP by noon today. Every attendee must RSVP, but it appears a lot of folks already have signed up.
Moran expects people to come from as far north as New Port Richey, as far south as Sarasota and as far west as Orlando. Nehls says it's not uncommon for Yelpers, who tend to be more affluent and mobile, to drive miles if spurred by a good review.
The Yelp Elites earn such a designation by offering high-quality and high-quantity reviews. The reward for frequent, fresh critiques? Invitations to exclusive events and special deals at participating restaurants when they "check in" with their smartphones.
Of course, a danger lies in this formula: competing businesses or just mean-spirited "trolls" can post harsh reviews that can undermine business. It proved to be a problem during Yelp's infancy, so the computer whizzes created a filter (an algorithm, to be technical) to weed out posers and fake entries.
Here lies the latest controversy. Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks recently wrote that some businesses believe the filter weeds out positive reviews - unless the business pays Yelp to be showcased on the site. Yelp, of course, denies any involvement in such a high-tech extortion scheme.
Meanwhile, Moran and other restaurateurs take a more commonsense approach. They hope for good reviews and seek to correct the problems raised by adverse but fair criticism.
"I love Yelp," Moran said. "It's a chance to get feedback from your customers. You can't let it drive yourself crazy. You take the criticism and then you figure out how to make it better."
Criticism aside, it became clear to me that Yelp fosters greater connectivity in the community. It not only links people through the Internet, but it gets people out and about to events where they talk and communicate. It's how I met a couple and really learned about Yelp's impact.
In an age where instant messaging and Facebook posts have begun to supplant face-to-face communication, any vehicle that brings us together can't be all bad.
That's all I'm saying.
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IF YOU GO
Yelptucky Derby tonight
Yelp's second annual Yelper party is from 7 to 10 p.m. today at the Winthrop Barn Theatre, 11349 Bloomingdale Ave. in Riverview. With the party's theme tied to the running of the Kentucky Derby next weekend, attendees are encouraged to sport Kentucky Derby gear - big hats, sundresses and dapper suits. Attendees must RSVP via Yelp. Visit yelp.com to register; search for Yelptucky Derby for invitation.