On Wednesday night, I arrived at the Hilton Doubletree in Washington DC after an intense day of meetings ready to do a few more hours of work. When I got to the desk, the clerk told me that the hotel was oversold. I raised my eyebrows. The news worsened. Not only were all nearby hotels fully booked, but so too were all hotels in the District. He was going to have to send me out to Virginia to a hotel that would be 30 minutes away in zero traffic and, well, DC never has zero traffic. My response was simple: “You’ve got to be f*ing kidding me!?!?”
I had booked the hotel through Amex, complete with the confirmed late check-in. I refused to take his offer to go to Virginia because it would’ve messed up every aspect of my itinerary. Instead, I called Amex to get them to investigate options. From the Amex folks, I learned that things really were dire in DC. Yet, according to the rep’s records, the Doubletree was still selling rooms. I told this to the clerk and he told me that wasn’t possible. I looked on Kayak and found that I could also still book the hotel. Meanwhile, at Amex, the only other two guaranteed hotel rooms, both at the St. Regis. One was a presidential suite costing $3000 and the other was a normal room costing a little over $500. (For comparison, my Doubletree reservation was a little under $300 per night.) I immediately asked her to hold the cheaper St. Regis reservation and pressed the clerk to switch me to that hotel. He panicked and told me he’d need to talk to his manager. Getting his manager on the phone was no easy task.
Meanwhile, I tweeted with outrage. As the clerk’s manager failed to respond, a slew of tourists showed up for their hotel rooms; they too were told the dire news and shipped off to Virginia. Far quicker than the manager, the Hilton rep responded on Twitter. I was hopeful. I asked him to call the Doubletree. He did. The clerk explained the situation and said there were no rooms and that they only rooms were in Virginia. I asked for the phone and explained that there was a room at the St. Regis. I explained that they are expected to get me a hotel room in the same city and that it was absurd to think that they could charge me almost $300 a night and ship me off to Virginia and call that customer service. For over an hour, layers of phone calls and discussions and interactions between the different actors – the clerk, the manager, the national representation, the Amex representative – went round and round. Finally, they agreed to send me to the St. Regis but they were only going to pay me for the one night and expect me to check out the next morning and then wait until 3PM to check back in. Given that I had a slew of meetings that I was planning to do from my room midday, this wasn’t going to work. But, after almost 2 hours of them running around in circles, I was exhausted and decided to stop fighting. So I went to the St. Regis, glad to have a room, but deeply unsatisfied with everything about my Hilton experience. Yes, in the end, they allowed me to pay Doubletree rates for one night at the St. Regis. But that took two hours of my time and layers of management and phone calls and never a sincere apology or commitment to fix it by any means necessary.
Then I got to the St. Regis. Bedraggled, grouchy, and generally fed up. Oh what a difference. The clerk there immediately grabbed her more senior colleague (the on-site manager) when she realized the situation. He told me that it would take some time, but that I should go and sit and relax. He sent me off to the bar where my friend and I had a drink. 15 minutes later, he came into the bar, handled me a room key with a smile, and signaled to the bartender that we should not pay for our drinks. Midday, I was in my room, and the head of security came by and asked me when I’d be out. Apparently, they hadn’t booked that room because they needed to do service on the door. I told him when I would be gone. When I came back later that day, the head of security had left a plate of fruit, a bottle of sparkling water, and an apologetic note.
Needless to say, my experiences were night and day. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the St. Regis is a luxury hotel whose brand rests upon its commitment to service while the Doubletree is a basic hotel. Yet, there’s another really clear difference. The representatives physically present at the St. Regis were empowered to actually take care of the issues that arose while the poorly paid clerk at the Hilton had no agency to do anything other than follow orders and call his manager for exceptions. And, by the sounds of it, his manager was not really on-call and didn’t have much agency either. If I didn’t have the visibility that I have through social media (as, presumably, none of the tourists did), I wouldn’t have had any wiggle room whatsoever.
There’s also another issue here. The Hilton was continuing to sell rooms even though it was sold out. Presumably, it had been oversold for hours because the clerk had clearly looked like he had been sending people to Virginia for a while. Another factor could be Hilton’s program that allows any premier client to bump a paying customer to oversold. But it’s not like Hilton sent any email warning of the situation. Or otherwise attempted to notify me or Amex. Rather, they expected me to show up and be OK with being shipped off to Virginia and pay DC rates with the only “gift” being a free taxi each way.
What makes this acceptable? Why do we tolerate overselling hotel rooms? I realize that companies want to maximize profits, but why is it OK to royally screw customers that you’ve guaranteed to have a room for?
On a personal level, there’s a serious irony here for me. I used to use Hilton pretty regularly. I used to have status with Hilton. But, a few years ago, something happened and I stopped using Hilton. A month ago, my mother had a wonderful stay at a Hilton and I realized that I had forgotten why I had stopped using them and I felt like I was being stubborn for no reason. But, in many of the cities I’m visiting this year, Hilton is actually more practical than Starwood or Kimpton (my most common go-to brands). This DC trip was my first venture back into the Hilton brand. Ooops.
I travel a lot. Last year, I was out of Boston for 209 days. I’ve become a bit of a prima donna about my work travel because it’s bloody exhausting to spend so much time negotiating these things. I’ve always had a complex relationship to the issue of status wrt travel. On one hand, it bothers me that hotels treat those who travel more frequently better than those who don’t. On the other, omg is this much travel grueling and sometimes it’s nice to be treated like a princess after yet-another-hotel following yet-another-airport in yet-another-timezone. So I’m conflicted.
But one thing that I strongly believe is that it’s not OK to commit to a service (a hotel room, for example) and then substitute with a lesser solution without any compensation and just consider this business-as-usual. And justify it in the fine print of a contract written by lawyers not to be legible to consumers. This kind of pervasive low-level abuse should not be tolerated. When you as a company screw up, it’s your responsibility to go out of your way to do right by your customers. Not just your loud and visible customers or your high status customers, but all who you’ve made an agreement with.
And it’s not just about high end brands or those who pay a significant premier. Last week, I was on Virgin America. As the plane was coming into Boston, they learned that there were problems with Red (the interactive display for TV/video/food/gaming). They emailed all on the flight to give a heads up and an apology. At the gate, they apologized twice and told us they’d keep us updated. On the plane, they managed to get the video working but not the interactive components. So they gave all food out of free. And they compensated all of us $25 for the inconvenience. THAT is service. And while Virgin is a well-loved brand, they’re not more expensive or more luxury per say. They’re just more civil.
What will it take for all brands to recognize that civility in society requires that they treat their customers with respect? That they empower their customer-facing agents? And that when they screw up, they go out of their way to apologize? And what will it take for customers not to accept being treated horribly because that’s become status quo in America? Le sigh.