Barnett on Business Travel



May 26, 1991 -- Time to turn the tables and let hotel, airline, restaurant and car rental executives sound off on how travelers drive them up the wall.

Normally, they grumble behind closed doors, not to risk alienating customers in a tough market. But when I asked for candid complaints, the dam broke.

"People want our $23.95 a night rooms but they also want all the amenities of a Ritz-Carlton," says Dennis Dees, general manager of the 109-room Red Roof Inn at the Atlanta airport. "We serve people traveling on a budget, but some want room service and all the shampoos and hand lotions. In short, they want layer cake and to eat it in style."

Dees says some guests, possibly business travelers who fail to make a deal or sign a contract, vent their frustration on the room and on the staff.

"You wouldn't believe what some of these rooms look like on Saturday morning. We've had walls kicked in."

San Francisco Hilton resident manager William Bigelow gets annoyed when "guests assume we're a bank. They get disturbed when we ask for a credit card or, after the third day, when the bill tops $500 and their credit limit is maxed out."

Guests who automatically expect to be upgraded to a plusher room irk Bigelow, who oversees the 1,900- room hotel.

"When the airlines started upgrading everyone, people started thinking merely by making noise at the hotel front desk, they can get an upgrade," he says.

Hilton's policy is to upgrade its frequent travelers who are members of its HHonors plan. They'll get the tower level with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. But the occasional visitor paying the regular tariff isn't going to vault into a pricier room or suite simply by throwing around some weight or, worse yet, a tantrum.

Still, Bigelow prefers San Francisco over the Las Vegas Hilton, which lost 50,000 bath towels a month when he worked there.

"Guests who lost $50 in a slot machine apparently felt they could get their money back in towels."

But what really drives hotels bananas are "no shows," especially in smaller hotels.

"It's very, very frustrating because even though we take a guarantee, I don't want to jeopardize a relationship by charging the guest for a room he didn't use," says Mark Allen, general manager of the Lake Merritt Hotel, a newly restored, 51- room Mediterranean art deco hotel in Oakland, Calif.

Allen, who tries to keep his rates reasonable ($69 for a single to $149 for a lavish suite), says he does not "oversell" his hotel like larger, chain hotels who may book 5 percent to 10 percent more rooms than are available, figuring some guests will cancel or never honor their reservations.

"I don't play that game. So if I hold three or four rooms until midnight that can be 5 percent to 10 percent of my income."

Worse yet, Allen says the credit card guarantee is almost worthless.

"It's very difficult to collect on a no-show because if there is a dispute, the credit card company will defer to its cardholder and not to the hotel."

The pouty, sulking traveler who feels shortchanged but fails to complain is Larry Chan's biggest headache. Chan, president and chief executive officer of Park Lane Hotels, which manages hotels worldwide, "wants to hear about it if we're not meeting a guest's expectations. If I don't know about it, I can't fix it, so at least let me give it a try."

It's a common complaint among hoteliers.

"We're human. We make mistakes. Give us the opportunity to make things right," adds Michael Gray, general manager of the elegant 224- room Hyatt Carlton Tower in London. As manager of a small, sought- after property, Gray finds himself in the enviable but sometimes uncomfortable position of telling guests he's sold out.

"Sometimes guests can't believe we're not holding rooms back because they've seen movies and heard jokes about 'sold out' hotels," he muses.

"A whiskered ploy in London: 'Would you have a room for the Queen of England? Well, she isn't coming so I'll take hers.'"

Travelers who don't speak up when they have a gripe are also the No. 1 frustration of Avis Rent-A- Car's worldwide director of customer service.

"Customers who feel they've been ill-treated and don't voice it often brood and then vote with their feet," says Diane Karl, who's based at Avis' Garden City, N.Y., headquarters. "In most cases the situation could be remedied."

The silent traveler often compounds the problem. Karl says if the radio didn't work for one renter and the maintenance crew failed to catch it, the next traveler is stuck with a bum radio.

Another annoyance: "Travelers who bring every pet they may own, leaving dog hairs and worse on the upholstery," says Karl.

Now the automobile must be taken out of service, sent out to be reconditioned, and the person who reserved it next may be inconvenienced.

"That and keeping the car two days longer than the agreed-upon return date without calling us sends us scurrying at the 11th hour," she adds.

Trying to wangle the lowest- priced airline ticket is fair sport today but only a certain number of the cheapest seats are allocated. So Southwest Airlines, with its regular $59 go-anytime, any day intra- California fares, is a bit peeved when passengers try to haggle for a 21-day advanced reservation fare when the supply has been depleted on a particular flight.

"They apparently want to deepen the bucket," smiles district marketing manager Mona Kim.

She also finds it amusing that some travelers want a lavish meal on budget-priced fights that average 55 minutes. For instance, Southwest Air just launched a Sacramento-to- Burbank service, and through Friday is offering a one-way fare for a mere $19.

At that price, how can anyone expect anything more than Southwest's free coffee, soft drinks and peanuts?

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.