Where does the clever hotel wordplay cross the line?

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By Christopher Elliott

The surcharge seemed like nothing to Andy Fixman — a “trivial amount” he says. But it meant everything to him.

Actually, it should to every hotel guest.

Fixman, an engineer based in Seattle, found an item in the fine print of his bill at the Westin Bayshore Hotel in Vancouver, where he stayed recently. His daily edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper was “complimentary,” it said.

Reading between the lines

“If I refuse the newspaper delivery, a credit of between $1 and $2 a day would be applied to my account, depending on the day of the week,” he says. “This one really annoys me.”

Huh?

If something is free then refusing it shouldn’t result in any credit if you refuse it. Because, you know, it was free.

The hotel seemed to be engaging in a little clever wordplay. What it actually should have said was, “We’re charging you between $1 and $2 per night, depending on the day of the week, for the newspaper. (It actually costs us far less, because we buy the newspapers in bulk and distribute them ourselves.) If you don’t want it, fine. We’ll give you a credit.

Daniel Burrus, author of the book Flash Foresight, says it’s fine print at its finest.

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“They know that the vast majority [of guests] will never read the additional fee section and if you are an aging Baby Boomer, it’s likely that you won’t even be able to see the small type much less read it,” he says. “Airlines and their baggage fees are well-known examples.”

That’s where, ahem, sites like this come into play. (Related: The unauthorized guide to fine print, holiday edition.)

“Thanks to social media, it is very easy to spread the word about a non-disclosed fee and create a minor revolt that can often spread to major newspapers and network television,” he says.

Clarity check

My advocacy team and I asked Starwood, which owns the Westin brand, for its side of the story. Helen Horsham-Bertels, the company’s senior director for consumer affairs, told me the verbiage Fixman shared with me is printed on his bill, also known as folio.

“Upon checking in, guests receive their key packet, on which the verbiage below is communicated,” she says. “The folio is more of a reminder that if the guest had in fact refused the newspaper, the credit would be applied to the bill, as stated on the key package packet.”

But what about the wording — specifically, the “complimentary” part?

“We understand from the guest’s remarks that the word ‘complimentary’ may have been the concern,” she says.

Look, I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, as my mother likes to say. And Starwood is a squeaky-clean brand, when it comes to customer service. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

But this one really annoys me, too.

Customers want businesses to give it to ’em straight. That’s why people are so upset when they encounter “gotcha” fees on their airline tickets and wireless phone bills. They feel as if they aren’t getting the whole picture, that somehow the company is trying to pull a fast one.

It only took a few years for airlines to go from customer service leaders to laggards. The same catastrophe is within easy reach of any industry, including hotels. (And once you’re there, recovery is all but impossible.)

I hope this fee is an aberration. Starwood, for its part, say it has already contacted the hotel and recommended removing the word “complimentary” from its fine print.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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