By Amy Bradley-Hole Travel columnist
updated 6/18/2008 11:28:53 AM ET 2008-06-18T15:28:53

Most travelers know about the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” list. It’s a collection of seemingly random names of passengers who either can’t fly or must endure extra security measures for unknown reasons. But did you know that many hotels keep a similar list of guests that they block from making reservations and setting foot on their properties?

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Pretty much every property management system — that’s the generic term for the computer systems hotels use to run all aspects of their business — has a data field where a staff member can enter comments about guests. Employees populate the field with reminders that it’s your birthday, an alert that you’ve had a package arrive or information about your likes and dislikes.

But that field is also used to track guest “issues.” As a customer service tool, it’s great, because other staff members can see if you’ve had a previous problem, and can therefore go out of their way to make you happy. Those comments have also been a way for hotels to track guest patterns of complaining, late cancellations, room damage — you name it.

And as technology has improved, it’s allowed these comments to follow you from hotel to hotel within a chain.

It’s not really clear how you get your name on the TSA list, but it’s a little clearer as to how you make the hotel blacklist. There are two main ways: act like a total idiot, or be a repeat complainer.

Wanna-be rock stars who trash a room to the tune of thousands of dollars will likely be blacklisted. (For all you gossip lovers, there’s a Web site that tracks the latest news on which celebrities have been blacklisted from which hotels and why.) And so will obnoxious business travelers who treat a property like their private playground.

As more and more guests become willing to tell on their naughty neighbors, hotel staff must weed out the poorly-behaved minority in order to keep the nice majority happy. Guests with this type of bad behavior may be kicked out of a hotel just for that stay, or they may be banned for a lengthier period of time.

But the chronic complainers often get banned permanently. These are the freebie-lovers who, on every visit, have some sort of problem for which they demand comps. After a while, this type of guest begins to cost a hotel more money than they bring in. The hotel staff must either refuse to give them any more comps, or must refuse to provide them any more service. Often, the latter is easier.

And now, blacklisted guests have even more to worry about, as hotels are beginning to share their blacklists.

Get in trouble at a Hilton in Miami, for example, and you may find it hard to get a reservation at a Holiday Inn in Seattle. That’s because extensive databases of individual hotels’ blacklists are being systematically centralized.

Any property can send in their banned names, but hotels can also buy “memberships” that allow them access to this database. Whether hotels will contribute and subscribe to these services en masse is still in question, but as money gets tight, hotels may do more and more to keep out guests whose undesirable traits can hurt the bottom line.

(Actually, this idea isn’t entirely new. The state of Nevada keeps a ”List of Excluded Persons” with the names of cheaters, slot scammers and card counters who aren’t allowed to enter casinos. And if a pit boss has to kick out a con man, he’ll usually immediately call and warn his counterparts at other local casinos.)

One concern about the hotel blacklists comes from one of the failures of the no-fly list. The TSA list is so vague, and the identifying information on each person so general, that way too many innocent people get caught in its trap.

Have a common name like Robert Jones? Chances are, you’re on the no-fly list, and you’ll encounter trouble at the airport. But the hotel lists are much more detailed. Hotels know that the “bad” Robert Jones lives on Summer Street in Albany, travels on weekends, likes to watch the “expensive” in-room movies, orders pancakes for breakfast, uses an American Express card and always demands a late check out.

It’s easy to identify him, because the hotel’s property management system has been tracking and storing all of this information every time Robert stayed in the past. So it’s highly unlikely that an operator would deny a reservation to Robert Jones from Dallas who has only been to that hotel once before. The differences between the two Roberts should be obvious. But of course, mistakes can be made.

This massive amount of identifiable data leads to another concern about blacklists. And that’s privacy.

Hotels have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their guests. Any data that stays within a single hotel or hotel chain’s computers is, of course, as secure as that network. But once guest information is sent to an outside database, then it’s not so easy for the hotel to control what’s done with that information. And I’m sure marketers would die to get their hands on that list — think of all the new opportunities for junk mail!

Plus, a blacklist can be subjective. What gets you kicked out of one hotel may be perfectly acceptable behavior at another. And guests have every right to complain — even repeatedly — about valid issues. Employees don’t need to feel too empowered to throw out a “blacklist” threat just because they’re annoyed by a demanding guest. And all it takes it one rogue employee with a bad attitude or a personal vendetta, and unaware, innocent people can end up on the blacklist for unprofessional reasons. While that type of abuse can easily be caught on a local level, it may be impossible to spot in a large database.

If you’ve been blacklisted by a hotel, will you know, or will it be secretive, like the no-fly list? I’m sure you’ll know.

Unlike the TSA, hotels aren’t trying to covertly track terrorists, so they don’t have much to be secretive about. When I was a manager, I had to 86 my fair share of guests, and I told them in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t be coming back. There are plenty of polite — and not so polite — ways to tell someone that for his future lodging needs, it would be best for all parties involved if he chose to book a room at another property.

So what if you know you’ve been banned, but you want to try to get your name off the blacklist? (Yes, it has happened — people have wanted to come back to my hotel after we kicked them out!) Thankfully, it’s slightly less of a bureaucratic nightmare than appealing to the TSA. I suggest you call the property’s general manager, and give him your best grovel. You are in no position to make a demand.

You must do your best to assure the manager that you will never leave your toddler unattended for five hours/put bugs on your room service tray every time you come/puke all over the bar and lobby/throw furniture from your balcony into the pool ever again. (All of those are true examples of why I’ve seen people get banned.)

If you feel you’ve been blacklisted by accident, be willing to give personal information that can distinguish you from the guilty party. And don’t threaten legal action. Hotels have the right to refuse service for these reasons, so you won’t gain anything but extra animosity from the hotel by trying to sue. But think about it — do you really want to give your money to a place that doesn’t want you? Just find another hotel that appreciates your business — preferably one that doesn’t subscribe to a master blacklist.

I think blacklists, if managed properly, are a fine idea. Hotels have a right to protect their profits, and a responsibility to protect their guests from disturbing and dangerous behavior. As long as guests get to post unverified and subjective “reviews” of hotels on Web sites, hotels should be able to spread the word about guests with poor behavior.

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. E-mail her or read more of her articleson Tripso.com.

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