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Walking down

5 tips for avoiding the latest hotel scam

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Christopher Elliott
Travel columnist

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Jack Taras and his friends thought they would be checking in to 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 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.

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“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:

1. 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."

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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.

2. 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.


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