After A Vlogger Asked For A Free Hotel Stay, The Owner Sent Her An Invoice For $6.5 Million

Lifestyle YouTuber Elle Darby butted heads online with Paul Stenson, owner of Dublin’s White Moose Cafe and Charleville Lodge hotel. And all because of an accommodation request. But before long, social media blew up, battle lines were drawn and sides were taken in a debate that raged all across the internet.

Nowadays, more and more people from the online world want to use their social media fame as a ticket to ride. They hope to see the world without having to break the bank. And the bigger names, in fact, can get personal invites to hotels. But those with less reputation can sometimes flood hotels with demands to allow them to stay for free.

Resort marketing manager Kate Jones told The Atlantic, “Everyone with a Facebook these days is an influencer.” And she herself claims to get around half a dozen messages each day from people calling themselves influencers, all wanting something for nothing. Hospitality brand consultant Jack Bedwani agreed with her, saying, “The net is so wide, and the term ‘influencer’ is so loose.”

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Elle Darby, from Bath in England, is a 23-year-old YouTube star. At the beginning of 2018, she decided to go away with her partner for a romantic weekend in Dublin. She consequently contacted some hotels in the city, inquiring about what she described as a “collaboration.” In return for complementary accommodation, she stated that she was prepared to offer exposure on her social media accounts.

Darby is not just any influencer; in fact, she has a sizable following online. Her YouTube channel has more than 273,000 subscribers, and her videos often achieve more than 100,000 views. And that’s not all – on Instagram, more than 200,000 people check out her photographs, which often attract tens of thousands of likes and comments in the hundreds.

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The young woman came to attention online in 2015. Back then, she was beginning to post about her conversion into a fitness doyenne. She recorded the changes she experienced for a year, and by 2016 Darby was ready to show off her new body in a bikini contest. And to this day, she still puts up videos of food-related content and workouts.

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Online followers are not all that Darby has attracted. She has also found love with boyfriend Connor Swift. He’s also in the fitness line, working as a personal trainer and also with a business selling clothing. And, of course, Swift has his own YouTube channel – although with just over 5,600 subscribers, he hasn’t quite achieved the following that Darby boasts.

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One day, Darby reached out to various hotels, and manager Paul Stenson was one of the recipients. On January 16, 2018, Stenson awoke to her message. He was immediately put out by the impersonal introduction, which read, “Hi there.” He inferred that this was clearly a mass email sent to many people and, as a result, was not predisposed to like the rest of its contents.

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The hotel that Stenson manages is the Charleville Lodge, which offers 30 beds to visitors in Dublin. It’s fair to say that Stenson is somewhat irreverent, as can be seen from his hotel’s Facebook page. “This is not a fake page run by a disgruntled ex-employee trying to damage the hotel’s reputation,” the page reads. “It is a real page run by Paul Stenson, Manager of Charleville Lodge, and son of the owners.” Stenson also takes care of the White Moose Café, attached to the hotel.

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The more that Stenson read, the more angry and amused he became. Darby’s email continued, boasting of the number of followers and subscribers that she had. She wrote, “As I was searching for places to stay, I came across your stunning hotel and would love to feature you in my YouTube videos/dedicated Instagram stories/posts to bring traffic to your hotel and recommend others to book up in return for free accommodation.”

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Indeed, Darby may have had a point. Although she may have only been offering Stenson “exposure,” she was offering plenty of it. Videos documenting a previous free stay at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, had attracted tens of thousands of viewers. However, here she had run into a hotel that seemingly didn’t welcome the attention – priding itself on being “fussy” about whom it had to stay.

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Darby went on, “Last year I worked with Universal Orlando in Florida and it’s been amazing for them!” She then ended with a smiley face emoji. This blanket email had exercised and offended Stenson enough for him to reply – that very same day. And he did not hold back.

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Stenson’s opening paragraph read, “It takes a lot of balls to send an email like that, if not much self-respect and dignity.” He questioned who, in a hypothetical scenario where Darby did stay for free, would pay the workers and cover the energy bills while she was enjoying a holiday on the house.

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Stenson also responded with figures of his own social media following. But he clarified that he “would never in a million years ask anyone for anything for free.” Just in case she wasn’t sure of his thoughts on the matter, he finished with a “P.S. The answer is no.” He then published his response on Facebook.

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Stenson’s post appeared to go down a storm, with some 43,000 people reacting to it. And of those, the overwhelming majority were positive. One of the 11,000 people who left a comment shared a positive view with him. The Facebooker wrote, “Good on you. These self-entitled bloggers are too much.”

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And when Stenson shared the post with another of his Facebook pages, commenters joined in. One wrote, “The response! So good… If I ever go to Dublin, I know where I’m going to stay. Absolute savagery.” Meanwhile, some cruelly mocked Darby’s claims to have boosted Universal Orlando, with one noting, “My favorite part is that Universal Orlando (with over 2.5 million Facebook likes) needed her in order to get recognized.”

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Darby subsequently described Stenson’s reply as “rude, nasty, disrespectful” in a new YouTube vlog. So it’s safe to say, then, that it didn’t go down all too well. This was evidenced in her lengthy video, which ran to more than 17 minutes, during which Darby shared her feelings on the matter.

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In the video, no longer available on YouTube, Darby criticized Stenson for “standing in the way of others achieving their dreams.” Talk of social workers followed, and the vlogger also flung out a waspish comment about the hotelier’s age. She noted that, “Everyone over 30 doesn’t understand digital.” And this was only the beginning of the feud.

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However, Stenson made it clear on his blog – titled Paulie’s Bog – that he had never mentioned the name or any personal details of the woman in question. Indeed, he referred to her throughout as SMI (Social Media Influencer). So it seemed that she had outed herself, presumably to seek attention and sympathy.

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Next, Stenson chose to take on the whole of the blogger community. He made a post on the White Moose Café’s Facebook page with the inflammatory headline “ALL BLOGGERS BANNED FROM OUR BUSINESS.” The post came with a blunt warning, “If any of you attempt to enter our premises from now on, you will be ejected.”

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In the post, Stenson made it clear that the reaction had left him puzzled. He wrote, “I never thought we would be inundated with negative reviews for the simple reason that somebody was required to pay for goods received or services rendered.” And he insisted that he could not, as Darby claimed, have “exposed” her, since he had not given away her identity.

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Stenson went on to claim that this had been just what you’d expect from an influencer. He wrote, “This kind of victimization is very prevalent in the blogging industry, and is in keeping with their general modus operandi of wanting everything for nothing.” And the café’s Facebook followers lapped up this latest round of the feud.

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This time more than 51,000 users reacted to the post, with in excess of 7,000 of them having their say. And some were rather cruel in their trolling of the vlogger. One wrote, “Loving her video. I’m going to watch it again and every time she says ‘literally’ out of those puffy fish lips, I’m going to have a drink.”

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As a consequence, Stenson’s hotel was flooded with bad reviews from bloggers. Thing really started to heat up and the story was picked up by media outlets such as LADbible, the Daily Mail and Mashable. This all seemed to be working in Stenson’s favor. Indeed, some of these sites had even erroneously referred to his business as a five-star luxury hotel, an error that made Stenson happy.

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Indeed, Stenson is not very keen on online reviews, believing that those who provide them are “suffering from some form of psychological derangement.” On his blog, he shared one hilarious review, in which a TripAdvisor user had described their Charleville Lodge Hotel room as containing a stream and an apple tree. Stenson suggested that this reviewer might not even have ever visited.

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According to PR agency Clear Story, the numbers spoke for themselves. Due to these developments, the White Moose Café had apparently been featured in more than 50 articles across 11 countries, potentially reaching 120 million people. But that was nothing compared to Darby’s results, which exceeded Stenson’s, much to his chagrin. She, by contrast, appeared in over 100 features in 20 countries, reaching almost four times the amount of people.

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However, Stenson wanted a larger piece of that pie. So he returned to Facebook to try to further incense the blogosphere. His weapon of choice this time was a picture of a container, adorned with the words “TEARS OF BLOGGERS.” Although one commenter wrote, “The White Moose makes me proud to be Irish,” another labeled Stenson “truly childish.”

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By this point, Darby’s video had been viewed close to one and a half million times. Stenson was still keen to continue to capitalize upon the media interest. And the time had come for his pièce de résistance – he mocked up an invoice for a whopping €5,289,000. That’s the equivalent of about $6.5 million. Moreover, he charged Darby for “the provision of features in 114 articles across 20 countries with a potential reach of 450 million people” and noted that “mentions in videos will not qualify as payment.”

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Stenson went to even more lengths to keep the ball rolling – and he subsequently called a fake press conference. In it, he insincerely apologized for going after a prominent Instagrammer, took questions and finished by jokingly throwing out a vegan interviewer. Indeed, vegans had attracted his ire in the past.

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Still not quite satisfied with his campaign to ridicule influencer marketing, Stenson next created some new merchandise. And one item, which was named #Bloggergate T-Shirt 2, read, “I demanded freebies at The White Moose Café, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” This, in turn, prompted a retaliation from Darby.

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On January 23, 2018, she made a second, slighter shorter video, titled, “my side of the story/moving on.” In it, she rebuffed the notion that she outed herself. Darby instead claimed that despite the efforts of Stenson to black out her name, all anyone had to do was adjust the brightness levels on their screens and her details became visible. She tearfully claimed, too, that she had been unfairly targeted and had received “death threats and cancer wishes.”

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However, two days later Stenson actually did give a free stay to two guests. But it certainly wasn’t Darby and her boyfriend. A homeless couple had already paid for their room, and so Stenson refunded them. Evidently, he judged that the couple were more deserving of an act of kindness.

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Maybe he felt he could afford this generosity. After all, according to Clear Story, the final tallies showed that Stenson gained $10.3 million in terms of AVE (advertising value equivalent) and Darby benefited by $25.3 million. These are no small sums and doubtless neither party expected such a lucrative turn of events.

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Professional opinions vary on the feud. Freelancer Simon Christopher told Smoking Gun PR consultancy, “I think the hotel are excellent at marketing. They got more exposure than Darby could offer them – and for free.” But others felt Darby was in the right. Media all-rounder Lynette Peck said, “Even though I have been a journalist for 25 years and I am not a blogger I do not think she did anything wrong.”

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The Media Shed proprietor John Gutteridge agreed. He told Smoking Gun, “As a blogger I don’t see the issue. We don’t work for free in the same way I wouldn’t expect journalists to… they could have just said no and let that be the end of it.” Gutteridge said that he’d done the same himself, with Universal Orlando providing a family holiday for a post on his blog.

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At the end of the day, there’s a fine line between being exposed and getting exposure. So, whether history will remember Darby as a freeloader, or Stenson as crossing a line, both parties have been trolled, and each have made money from the incident. Perhaps even more importantly in their respective industries, they’ve achieved a far greater level of recognition than they had before.

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Journalist Craig Thomas summed up the issue for Smoking Gun. He said, “Someone in the marketing industry really needs to analyze the business case for [influencers]. There’s an awful lot of b******t about their value to brands and it seems as if PRs and marketers are just giving them stuff/inviting them to events using a strategy of ‘throw it against a wall and see if it sticks.’”

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And Stenson’s stance on influencers finds some echoes elsewhere in the hospitality industry. Philippines resort the White Banana Beach Club Siargao complained of having a deluge of requests from influencers for complementary stays and eats. The club invited the social media users to “get a job” if they wanted to enjoy the good things in life.

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Some felt that this was a bit strong, with one online commenter asking whether it was fair to attack “innocent influencers.” The resort explained that it didn’t have a problem with influencers if they weren’t “freeloaders.” It went on to celebrate the controversy by creating a new cocktail, “The Influencer,” which it said would “warm up your hearts.”

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And resort owner Gianluca Casaccia did make it clear that there were people online who had real influence. However, he noted in a Facebook post, “We will contact them and pay or offer something. But look, they’ve never contacted us, as they don’t need us. We need them.” He explained that he was talking about people with half a million followers online. So Darby has a way to go, but after her feud with Stenson, she’s certainly getting closer.

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