By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
(Tribune Media Services) -- Jack Taras and his friends thought they would be checking in at the Occidental Grand Hotel on the Dominican Republic's postcard-perfect Eastern shore for spring break. But when Taras, a 19-year-old sophomore from Providence College, arrived at the resort, he was greeted with the hotel industry's latest trick: he was walked down.
"They were sent to a hotel that wasn't as nice," says his father, John Taras. He phoned his son's online travel agency, Cheaptickets.com, and asked about the downgrade, which lasted the full five nights of Jack's stay. It deferred to the hotel, which offered an apology and a vague explanation of a "computer mishap" that resulted in an overbooking.
"Walking" is a practice that's as old as the hotel industry. When a resort is overbooked, it typically sends a guest to a comparable property, covering the cost of transportation, a phone call and accommodations. But somewhere along the way -- probably at the start of the current recession -- the word "comparable" was conveniently dropped, and hotels quietly began sending guests to lesser properties.
That's not supposed to happen, according to Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group. "It's most often the hotel's policy that guests are provided accommodations in a facility of equal quality," he told me. "The last thing that a property wants to happen is to compound the problem by sending the guest to an unacceptable facility."
But problems are being compounded. That's the bad news. There's also some good news: Walking doesn't happen as often as it did before the economy started going soft. The latest lodging industry forecasts predict more empty rooms in the months ahead, in an historic downturn that a recent PKF Hospitality Research study predicted would be "deeper and last longer" than previously thought.
"With lower occupancy rates, I'm sure hotels are not having to walk as many guests," says Robert Mandelbaum, PKF's director of research information services.
The Occidental Grand offered Taras a voucher for a two-night stay, which he doesn't want, and Cheaptickets.com has told him his case is being escalated to a supervisor. I contacted both the resort and the site on Taras' behalf, but neither has responded.
It's easy to understand why a hotel would want to walk a guest "down" when it's overbooked. The property must cover the cost of your room when you're "walked" and even though it often pays a discounted industry rate, it can save a few bucks by sending you to a lesser property and pocketing the difference.
Question is: what to do when it happens to you? Here are a few tips for guests who have been walked:
Refuse the room
Richard Carson wishes he'd done that when a four-star hotel in San Diego decided to downgrade him to a motel recently. "We arrived about 3 p.m. and were told we had no room, because 15 guests had decided to prolong their stay," he says. "I'm sure that if I had been a no-show, they would have pocketed our deposits, even though there were no rooms available."
He's right. If Carson had politely stood his ground, pointing out his guaranteed reservation for a medical convention that had blocked hundreds of rooms at the same property, he probably would have been sent to a better hotel, if not offered a room at that one.
"The next time, I will simply start disrobing in the lobby, and wait for them to suddenly find a room," he jokes. Now there's an idea.
Know what's happening behind the scenes
When someone tells you they're out of rooms, it doesn't necessarily mean the hotel is full. It just means there's no room for you.
"It's totally political," says Kitty Cayo, who used to walk people for a hotel in the Midwest that she prefers not to name. "No frequent-stayer status? Walked. Not a corporate client? Good-bye. Booked through central reservations and an infrequent pleasure traveler? Hasta la vista." She says at times there were rooms available, but they were being held for a VIP or two, "who managers hoped like hell were going to show up."
Knowing that full doesn't always mean "full" can be useful when you're negotiating the terms of your walking papers. If a hotel employee admits that a few rooms are being held for late-arriving VIPs, you might talk your way into a better hotel.
Invoke your status
Speaking of which, if you're a frequent guest, and you're in danger of being walked down, this would be a good time to whip out your program membership card.
When Lyn Greenhill tried to check in at a Hilton Garden Inn recently, and was sent to "some other property I've never heard of," he called the Hilton HHonors phone line. As a gold-level member of its frequent-stayer program, Greenhill had more clout than the average guest.
Like it or not, better customers are often singled out for preferred treatment, so having a card can protect you against a walk and a downgrade. But it's no guarantee. A Hilton representative said the best it could do for Greenhill was to offer him a room at the Garden Inn the next day. So he phoned the nearby Marriott property, which had room.
Crack a joke
That's what Jonathan Yarmis did when a Marriott property in Los Angeles tried to walk him to a less desirable hotel. "What would you do if J.W. Marriott were in town?" he asked the clerk. "Well, I'm sure we'd find Mr. Marriott something," the employee responded. "Well," said Yarmis, "I have it on good authority that he's not coming -- and I'll take his room." The clerk laughed and asked him to wait a minute. "Sure enough, they found a room," he recalls.
Moral of the story? There's always a room or, at the very least, it's someone else's problem.
It may make the difference between a downgrade and an upgrade.
When Anne Wiggins checked into a luxury hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica, a receptionist told her there was no room at the inn. "I asked what the problem was and they said the education convention was still in progress and no rooms were available," recalls Wiggins, a retired college administrator.
She politely asked to speak with a manager, who declared, "No problema" and ordered an employee to walk her to a condo. "What a lovely place," she remembers. "It had two bedrooms, each with its own bath, a kitchen, dining room and living room. There was a gorgeous view out each window. We stayed there for several days and were not charged extra."
Being nice is your most effective weapon against an involuntary downgrade. Niceness often trumps status and hotel employees can -- and frequently do -- go out of their way for a friendly guest.
Ideally, when a hotel runs out of rooms, it should do everything it can to make you happy. Right down to the last detail.
Consider what the Sheraton Old San Juan did for Clyde Permenter when it couldn't accommodate him. "They reserved a room at the DoubleTree, paid for it, paid for my taxi fares, for a complimentary buffet breakfast and returned my deposit," he recalls. When he returned the next week after a cruise, he was upgraded to a suite. "What more could they have done?" he asks.
Until every hotel guest is "walked" like Permenter, these tips will ensure you get what you paid for.
(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com).
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