Unnatural disaster: What to do when your hotel doesn’t have room

The deadly storms that left large swaths of the East Coast without power just before the Fourth of July holiday provided an uncomfortable lesson to hotel guests like Ken White: Always call to confirm your reservation — especially when the place you’re visiting is reeling from a natural disaster.

White lives in Charlottesville, Va., an area that was hit hard by the hurricane-force winds. Many residents were struggling to stay cool in record-breaking heat, and checking into an air-conditioned hotel nearby was a popular solution.

Maybe a little too popular.

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“I made reservations at the Hilton Garden Inn for Sunday and Monday night,” says White, a college marketing professor. “My credit card was charged, and I was given a confirmation number by Expedia.”

But when he tried to pick up his room key on Sunday, a hotel representative said that White didn’t have a reservation and turned him away. The Hilton, like all the other hotels in the area, was fully booked.

Getting to the bottom of White’s reservation problem was only slightly easier than finding a hotel room in Charlottesville after a power outage, it turns out. For starters, White sent me a complaint and then vanished. Repeated phone calls and e-mails to him went unanswered, which can happen during a popular vacation week — or when portions of Charlottesville remain without electricity for more than a week.

An Expedia spokeswoman said that the online travel agency wouldn’t comment on White’s case unless I provided a confirmation number. I contacted Hilton for a statement, and it, too, refused to say anything at the corporate level, deferring instead to the hotel White had tried to stay in, which it said is a franchise property.

Finally, I reached Eric Pfister, the general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Charlottesville. He confirmed the details of White’s story. Pfister said that on Saturday, June 30, in the wake of the massive thunderstorms, his 124-room hotel quickly sold out.

The Hilton Garden Inn connects to Expedia through an electronic reservations system, and it also receives faxes from the online travel agency as a backup. Hilton’s system was showing the property as fully booked for Sunday and Monday night, but for some reason, Expedia didn’t get the message. It continued to confirm reservations and send backup faxes, which were piling up fast.

“It was a bad situation,” Pfister says.

Hilton tried to contact Expedia, asking it to stop accepting new reservations. Eventually it did, but the hotel had to turn away nine guests the next day, including White.

It’s unclear whether this was an isolated problem or whether other Hilton properties working with Expedia were affected by the reservations system glitch. With this new information from Hilton, I again asked Expedia whether it could help me understand how these surplus reservations happened. It declined to comment.

When a hotel can’t accommodate a guest because it’s overbooked, the standard industry practice is to send that person to a comparable hotel and to pay for the first night’s reservation. That would have happened to White and the other displaced customers, except that there were no available rooms in the region.

In such cases, a hotel’s options are limited, says Stephen Barth, a professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston and founder of the Web site HospitalityLawyer.com. A property can still accommodate a guest by setting up a rollaway bed in the lobby, which sometimes happens during a natural disaster. It can also rent rooms in eight-hour shifts, giving guests a chance to freshen up, or it can allow them to use the showers at the pool.

“Overbookings like this tend to happen at large events, like the Super Bowl or Formula 1,” Barth says. “They’re usually caused by guests overstaying their reservations, but they can also happen after a natural disaster, like a hurricane on an island with a limited number of hotel rooms.”

The best way to avoid being turned away, he says, is to take a couple of preventive measures. White could have sidestepped the situation by booking directly through the Hilton Web site or by calling its reservations number. (White’s confirmation contained an Expedia confirmation but didn’t have a corresponding confirmation from Hilton, according to Pfister.)

Also, Barth says, “always contact the hotel and confirm the reservation.” That’s particularly important when you’re booking through a third party, such as an online travel agency. When your stay falls during a major event — a college homecoming, a large convention or even a big storm, all of which can affect hotel occupancy rates — double-checking is a must.

Had White called the Hilton Garden Inn, he would have known that he didn’t have a room, and he could have phoned Expedia to re-book him elsewhere or made other plans.

Making matters worse, the hotel doesn’t even know which customers were turned away. Pfister says that Expedia didn’t give it the guests’ names, so he’s unable to contact them to apologize and make it right. Which is exactly what he says he wants to do.

“We feel bad,” he says. “We don’t like to turn guests away.”

Pfister says he hopes that White and the others who didn’t have a place to sleep on Sunday night will contact him directly. He promises that he’ll do whatever he can to make it up to them.