Will a Hotwire star dispute ruin my visit to Milwaukee?

When Brian Cross scored a “four star” hotel in Milwaukee recently through Hotwire, he assumed he’d be staying in an upscale property. But as I’ve noted in the past, Hotwire’s stars don’t necessarily compare to other established ratings systems.

And Hotwire — which doesn’t reveal the name of the hotel until after you’ve paid for it online — assigned him to The Ambassador in downtown Milwaukee. (Here’s how it stacks up on TripAdvisor and Google.) Cross also made a second booking at what he thought was a three-star hotel, with similarly disappointing results. He got a room at the Best Western.

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“The Ambassador hotel is on the outskirts of downtown approximately 20 blocks away from the Milwaukee River, in a less than desirable neighborhood,” he says. “I would submit that due to the conditions of the neighborhood and the age of the hotel, you would not find many who would consider this location to be a four star hotel.”

So, how to get Hotwire to undo this?

Cross started with an email to Hotwire:

For your company to list the Best Western in Milwaukee as a three star hotel and the Ambassador in Milwaukee last week as a four star hotel and stick me in these two places, I can truly GUARANTEE you will never get my business again.

Dealing with William Shatner on Priceline seems better and better every trip. This is a shame as Hotwire used to be a great way to get a deal on a hotel, this is no longer the case.

You can also rest assured I will yell to the heavens on the internet on Yelp and TripAdvisor and Twitter about the quality of hotel that you have stuck me in two trips in a row.

In closing, to say that your ratings are deceptive would truly be an understatement.

Probably not the best way to start the conversation, but his frustration is understandable. Cross believes — as some other Hotwire customers do — that its star ratings are rigged. (I’m puzzled by why anyone would make a second reservation when they aren’t happy with the first, but let’s move forward.)

Hotwire replied with a cordial form letter that acknowledged his disappointment. It also explained how Hotwire comes up with its star ratings.

Then it added,

We constantly review our hotel partners’ star ratings to ensure we provide the most accurate and up-to-date information. I can assure you we last evaluated both hotels on December 10, 2011, and Hotwire is confident the star rating is accurate.

Cross responded with a few details about his hotel assignments. And he also answered my question about why he’d made two reservations. Turns out he was a long-time Hotwire customer, and believed getting a room at the Ambassador was just a fluke.

He told Hotwire:

#1 The Ambassador Hotel is Approximately 20 blocks from the center of downtown and frankly is not in a very safe or desirable area, to call this a Downtown hotel is a great stretch by any definition. It is also a very aged hotel, that has undergone minimal renovations at best. The ratings on various sites are also less than promising to say the least.

#2 The Best Western Towne hotel is by no means a three star hotel, it is also an aged hotel, while this hotel is in downtown, I have walked by it many many times, I would in no way consider it a three star hotel, it is a two star hotel at best, I only need to look at the my own perception of it backed up by the innumerable negative ratings on your parent company’s own sites including Expedia and Hotels.com.

But Hotwire wouldn’t undo either reservation, saying only that if Cross had a problem when he checked in, he could contact the company.

That provoked the following response from him:

It’s a shame corporations never truly learn crisis management skills. just yesterday the Chicago Tribune published a negative story about your business, and here you continue the same practice of deceptive behavior.

This evening I may actually enjoy spreading this to my innumerable amount of followers on Facebook and Especially Twitter. Thank you for your concern in this matter, please rest assured that I and most likely my friends will never do business with you again.

And that’s when Cross contacted me to see if I could help.

My initial reaction was that taking a different tone with Hotwire might have been more productive. Hotwire is always going to stand by its ratings system reflexively. But politely engaging with the company might have yielded better results.

The other issue: By complaining about two hotels in the same city, you run the risk of being dismissed as a “laundry list” complainer, and that lessens the effectiveness of your grievance (laundry listers gripe about everything and companies believe they are impossible to please).

Cross decided not to stay at The Ambassador, and wants to see if I can mediate his case with Hotwire. I’m not sure if this trip can be saved, since he’s already “no showed” for his room. But I’m willing to try. But should I?

(Photo: ifm uth/Flickr)