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For Weary Travelers, An Unwanted Walk

The days following Valentine’s Day were a difficult stretch for the staff of the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Provo, Utah.

A large block of rooms was unavailable due to renovations, and a sizable literary convention (with an intriguing emphasis on science fiction) was based in the hotel’s convention center. Someday I might want to attend the “Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium” (and re-read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” while I’m at it), but this time I was there for a wedding.

I have many friends and business contacts in Provo, and I always stay at this Marriott when I’m in town. I am around often enough to know many of the staff by sight. They are always cheerful, friendly and as helpful as can be. The fact that they are hospitality workers and that I am a gold-level member of Marriott’s rewards program may contribute, but this being Utah, I am pretty certain they are equally nice outside their workplace as well.

But some things are outside their control. I needed to stay well beyond the usual check-out time on the day of the wedding, and this required several conversations with the manager. A desk clerk mentioned that the hotel was 105 percent booked for that evening.

The manager – a very pleasant young woman – came out of the back office, but before she could talk to me she had to speak with a customer standing next to me, who was accompanied by two small children. This woman had a confirmed reservation, but there would be no room for her that evening. There was nothing either she or the manager could do. This guest, whose reservation was confirmed and guaranteed with a credit card, was being “walked,” as it is known in the hotel industry.

Most hotels in this situation will try to put up the snubbed guest at a comparable nearby property. In Provo, there is no comparable property. This Marriott is in the middle of downtown, steps from the local LDS Temple, across the street from its convention center and a short walk to most local businesses. I have no idea what brought this young woman and her children to Provo, but if they needed to stay downtown that night, they were just out of luck.

Airlines in North America and Europe are required to offer involuntarily “bumped” passengers cash compensation. That is why you probably have heard gate employees call for volunteers to give up their seats on oversold flights in exchange for noncash vouchers that can be used on a future flight (as well as a seat on another flight to their destination that day), because this is cheaper for the airline than offering cash. There is no analogous rule in the hotel industry. Although reservations are contracts, they contain enough escape clauses to prevent individual travelers or class-action lawyers from successfully suing to stop the practice. (More than a few have considered trying.) Each chain or individual property is free to set its own policies for compensating guests who must be turned away.

In general, hotels that walk guests will put them up in a similar room and will provide a cab or other transportation to the new property. However, that does not mitigate the inconvenience of suddenly finding yourself much farther away from family, friends or attractions you may have specifically planned to stay near. And you don’t have to look far to find disgruntled travelers complaining of accommodations that, in their view, were a clear step down from what they had booked.

Travel columnists suggest a few techniques to try to avoid getting walked. The earlier in the day you arrive, the better your chances of securing your reserved room. Paying more for your room, booking as part of a group block or boasting high-level reward status with the hotel can’t hurt. Guests with longer stays are less likely to be bumped than one-nighters. And some experts claim that booking directly with the hotel gets you a leg up on people who book through agencies or sites like Priceline. But ultimately, no one is completely safe from encountering the downside of overbooked properties first-hand.

Hotels argue that they would lose money if they were barred from overbooking. They have a point, up to a point: If my reservation allows me to cancel without penalty by calling before a certain hour on the day of the stay (4 p.m. to 6 p.m. are typical cutoffs), there is a real risk the hotel may not be able to re-sell the room or may have to discount below the rate I was going to pay in order to keep the room from staying vacant – and non-revenue-producing – for the night. So the hotel may book a few extra guests with this privilege knowing that nearly every night, some of their guests will not turn up. No harm, no foul, right?

But that is not how things work in practice. In practice, a low-value guest (in economic, not human terms), perhaps a mother with two small children traveling alone, might get turned away at 4 p.m. in order to leave room for a frequent and more valuable guest (someone like me) who may not arrive until midnight – if at all.

This happened to me once or twice, a long time ago, when I had small children and was far from gold-level rewards status. One particularly memorable occasion was late at night, in Florida, and the Marriott where I had booked a room wanted to send us to a hotel a couple of miles away. I never went back to that Marriott, and I avoided the entire chain for a decade. As a result, I earned gold status at Hilton long before I did at Marriott.

Hotels could operate perfectly well without overbooking, just as JetBlue manages to operate an airline without overselling its seats. Pricing and policy adjustments could fix the problem. Overbooking is a management choice, not a necessity. Sell more rooms on a prepaid or noncancelable basis, or add some financial penalty for guests who cancel within several days or weeks of their scheduled arrival, and you can reduce the level of no-shows to the point where the costs would not be significantly different than what hotels already pay to accommodate “walked” guests.

This change won’t happen, however, without regulatory intervention at either the state or federal level (in the U.S.) or comparable rules overseas. Mandatory cash compensation, perhaps double or triple the reserved room rate – plus a night’s free accommodation for each night of dishonored reservations – would be fair. Such a rule would give a traveler like the woman with children I observed an economic position closer to that of a frequent traveler like myself.

In the end, the Provo manager found a room for the other guest several miles away and offered to provide a car service to get her there. Lacking any alternative, the young woman accepted. I was given my requested late checkout, which had no direct impact on the fellow traveler being walked. My room was ultimately held for another guest, higher in the pecking order, who would have arrived sometime after the wedding reception began. As for me, I slept that night at another accommodation in the Utah mountains, 100 miles from Provo.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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