Boycott this? It may not do you any good

Darren Bradley/Shutterstock
Darren Bradley/Shutterstock
When his favorite Las Vegas resort began charging a mandatory $14-per-day resort fee recently, Tom Alderman vowed he’d never return.

Alderman, a retired documentary filmmaker who lives in Toronto, had been visiting the South Point Hotel Casino & Spa since 2005, dropping about $600 for his weekly stays every time. He liked the hotel’s affordability and the fact that it promised to “never” charge these junk fees, which supposedly cover in-room wireless Internet access, use of the fitness center and “printing of boarding passes” — whether you use the amenities or not.

Until it did.

As of last spring, the room rates quoted by South Point don’t include the required fee, which makes the prices look lower than they actually are.

“I won’t be a party to such a bush-league hustle,” Alderman says.

Will his boycott have any effect? South Point didn’t respond to requests for a comment. But the travel industry wants you to think so — that when enough unhappy consumers take their business elsewhere, their collective actions can persuade airlines, hotels and car rental companies to change their ways.

If only it were that simple.

Unpopular policies such as resort fees, airline ticket change fees and car rental surcharges aren’t imposed for your benefit, but for a company’s.

“They’re not put there to serve your needs,” says Grant Cardone, author of the book, If You’re Not First, You’re Last. “Customers usually don’t even know a policy exists until they have a problem that can’t be solved because of policy.”

When Tom Walsh’s preferred airline adopted a rule requiring large passengers to buy an extra ticket, he stopped flying from Southern California to Oakland in protest, opting to drive instead. “As someone who is in the size-acceptance community, I found the policy discriminatory,” he says.

But even if he’d found hundreds of others to follow him, it wouldn’t have done much good. The airline enjoys a commanding market share at his home airport, and doesn’t have to listen.

The situation is the same in Las Vegas, where resort fees are now a standard. Customers can complain all they want, but where else are they gonna stay?

Maurice Vine’s favorite cruise line recently adopted a new policy to charge extra for some on-board restaurants, a rule that seemed to go squarely against the concept of an “all-inclusive” vacation. He refused to book another cruise with that company.

“I don’t know exactly how much it cost them in lost business,” says Vine, a retired sales manager from Pembroke Pines, Fla. He estimates he’s spent several thousand dollars elsewhere, but far from noticing his absence, the entire cruise industry seems to have embraced a la carte pricing, undermining the idea that food and drink are “included” in your vacation.

“It makes perfect sense in a boardroom when you see how much money can be profited by instituting a new policy,” says John DiJulius, author of What’s the Secret To Providing a World-Class Customer Experience. But he says customers can’t stand the new rules, and if nothing else, the companies’ reputations have suffered as a result.

You don’t have to keep your finger on the “rewind” button for too long for a reminder of the way things were. Remember Spirit Airlines before it went fee-crazy? Caesars before resort fees? Cruise lines before they started charging for, well, everything?

All the while, the industry’s so-called “experts” reassured us we could always leverage our economic clout as consumers to reverse the trend. Then we discovered we couldn’t. Kind of hard when four dominant airlines control more than 85% of the flights in the United States. Or when two cruise lines control more than 70% of worldwide boarded passengers. Or in lodging markets such as Las Vegas and Hawaii, where mandatory resort fees are the rule.

The only beneficiaries of the illusion that you have any economic power in an industry that’s been drained of competition are the companies themselves. So the next time you hear someone telling you that you can always take your business elsewhere, ask yourself: Whose payroll is he on?

Experts say a boycott alone rarely works anymore, but combined with a social-media shame campaign and threats of regulation, any industry can change its ways.

Even travel.

Do boycotts do any good?

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Unhappy? Try these tactics

Walking away from a company that forces you to pay a new fee or has a customer-unfriendly policy isn’t enough. Here’s what else you can do:

Tell everyone. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and Google+, you really can reach a large audience virtually instantly. That kind of public pressure can mean more than the absence of your dollars.

Get organized. When Spirit Airlines refused to refund a non-refundable airfare for a patient with terminal cancer, it resulted in the creation of a “Boycott Spirit” site on Facebook that garnered tens of thousands of “likes,” says author John DiJulius. The company reversed its decision.

Call the government. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Transportation Department can exert regulatory pressure on companies with bad policies. If you never complain, they’ll never have a chance.

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