Newlyweds Screwed out of Hotel Reservation

Regulars of the blog know I travel heavily — I’m posting this from a hotel room as we speak. When good people get shafted by airlines, rental agencies, or other service providers I take notice.

With a future to save for, Deanna and her fiance wisely chose a staycation at a local hotel instead of a costly vacation overseas. Starwood’s “W” in downtown Atlanta carried a reputation for luxury, comfort, and service with the couple reserving the “Romance Package,” a corner suite with a view of the city including a bottle of champagne and chocolate strawberries.

After a beautiful wedding and joyous reception, the young newlyweds were driven to The W, only to hear from the front desk staff that their honeymoon suite was given to another guest.

Contrary to entirely reasonable expectations for a so-called “reservation,” the hotel is not prepping a room in anticipation of a guest’s arrival, even after calling ahead, even if after book months in advance and paying extra for special requests. What, then, is the point of reserving?

Deanna called The W a week in advance, checking to make sure a room requested months earlier was set aside for their first evening together as a married couple. The hotel assured them that their reservation was in place while the couple continued receiving emails notifying them of their upcoming stay.

Nothing in the string of communication between Deanna and The W suggested their room was anything but ready and waiting.

Instead of being treated to a warm congratulations and a set of room keys, they were declined and referred to a Red Roof Inn, a bottom-tier $60 motel as their only alternative. The couple hadn’t yet been charged for the room at The W but the expectation of availability was clearly and repeatedly set. Disappointed and frustrated, they ended up taking an Uber home.

It’s a basic failure of customer service, neglecting to properly set expectations with disappointment as the inevitable result. Deanna contacted The W by Facebook and email but never received a reply, prompting her to share her frustration openly on Twitter:

Not long after after her posts, The W’s Twitter page was set to private, a poor attempt at damage control as her ordeal was shared by friends and family through various online venues. Any social media professional knows that shutting down dialogue is the worst way to handle a bad experience.

Seeking the expertise of a hospitality professional, I asked a good friend of mine (who will remain nameless) for his feedback. For years he’s worked for a major upscale hotel chain, one with ties to Starwood.

He confirmed that bookings are used by hotels to estimate occupancy, aiming around 105% with the expectation that some will flake out, and a small percentage of people always do. Like car rentals and airlines, they may take your reservation but you’re guaranteed absolutely nothing, at least according to the fine print (which in this case said “comparable” lodging will be offered, which the Red Roof Inn certainly is not).

It seems inappropriate for a luxury brand, whether it’s Starwood, Mercedes-Benz, Saks, or Ruth’s Chris, to shaft its customers and defer them to obscure legalese as a cop-out for failing to fulfill obligations. There’s a higher expectation, a belief that the service will live up to the price and promise of the brand’s status. Otherwise, why would a customer pay more? In hospitality, service is everything.

I’ve said the same of Cadillac, how the sales and service experience pales in comparison to Lexus. The same goes for Macy’s, as customer service takes a nosedive while pricing remains higher than most department stores.

Customer satisfaction is, in theory, easy to achieve. Having owned a car dealership and a bookstore, shipping books and classic cars sight unseen to customers worldwide, I’ve discovered that the key to satisfaction is setting deliverable expectations and following through on all of it. That’s truly it.

Unfortunately, a hotel reservation is in actuality a computerized roll of the dice, the property’s gamble to get as close as possible to full occupancy, placing “revenue management” over people. On a regular basis, overbooked customers are “walked” — an industry term for guests who are referred to another property.

Under normal circumstances, a “walk” isn’t the end of the world. This happened to me a few weeks ago in Rhode Island, the error in my situation being on the part of Priceline who offered me a room an already filled hotel. Because I used Priceline instead of reserving directly, I was charged in full at the time of booking for my entire stay. Priceline’s customer service then upgraded me to a nicer hotel and refunded 50% of the bill, saving me over $200.

However, in Deanna’s case, there was a failure to have the customer walked to an equivalent property.

A reasonable customer may assume that booking directly with the hotel is the best way to receive the highest level of service and flexibility, but Deanna and her husband were cast aside in favor of regular business travelers and large groups. Unlike pay-ahead services like Travelocity and Priceline, direct reservations are charged at the end of the stay rather than before, giving the hotel the option to rescind their offer, kicking guests to the curb.

Had the couple been referred to a similarly equipped, equally nice property in Atlanta, this article and her response on Twitter never would have happened.

This Seinfeld clip depicts the frustration perfectly:

Fast Tube by Casper

I took their situation personally as someone who often checks into hotels at odd hours in desolate parts of the country.  Unlike this couple who booked months ahead, my planning is seldom more than 8 hours in advance. I rely on hotels to follow through on their obligations, especially after 10-14 hours on the road, often with my dog tagging along.

My friend in the hotel business also confirmed that star levels, with regards to booking and room guarantees, are entirely irrelevant. Whether you reserve a room at Super 8 or Four Seasons, overbooking is standard practice, just like the airlines. He goes on to say:

“When any hotel walks someone, it’s a process. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve sat craned over a computer or on the phone desperately trying to find a comparable room for a walked guest. Sometimes it’s just not possible since the same class of hotel is booked across the board sometimes. I know people in every corner of the industry, and I would never even dream of someone being walked to a lesser property unless all other options were exhausted. The claim that the hotel made no effort for better accommodation is not only unsubstantiated but it’s not really fair either. Everything else is perfectly fair, though.”

After Deanna’s Twitter posts, The W replied the next morning offering a free stay. Unfortunately, that cannot undo the sour memory of a ruined wedding night. I don’t know them personally but after communicating with Deanna directly and doing some basic vetting, they seem like normal young Americans.

For those inclined to criticize the couple as privileged snowflakes blowing an issue out of proportion, bear in mind that this was a special occasion planned months in advance. They deserved better.


Based on these unfortunate revelations about the hospitality industry, what should a traveler do?

First, do as she did and call ahead — some suggest contacting the property a week in advance, calling again three days ahead, and once more on the same day (what some call 7/3/1). Deanna informed the front desk that they’d be arriving between 11pm and midnight, wrongly assured by hotel staff that it was no problem.

Second, if you travel frequently, make yourself a regular of a particular brand. Join a rewards program. In addition to priority service, regulars earn free stays, breakfasts, parking, shorter check-in lines, and cocktails. Unfortunately, those who choose luxury hotels for rare special events are relegated to bottom-tier status as hotels tend to favor government employees, rooms booked by travel agents, large groups, and regular business travelers. So much for “luxury.”

Third, for occasional stays, consider booking with a third-party service like Priceline. I’ve praised the service repeatedly over the years for offering excellent pricing and serving as a buffer between me and the property, effectively an angel over my shoulder as I wander the far stretches of the continent by automobile. Most importantly, Priceline usually requires full payment in advance, compelling the hotel to set aside a room as the revenue is guaranteed. Exceptions like late check-ins do apply so it’s always wise to call ahead.

Finally, Deanna wanted to clarify that she actually does like QuikTrip hotdogs, no offense intended to fans of the gas station delights.
I am inclined to agree. Everything from QT is awesome.

Note: Priceline does not pay me a dime for my praise.

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