Hotels.com’s Booker: Adding new fees “would be a tricky thing to pull off right now”

Scott Booker is the chief hotel expert and guest advocate for Hotels.com. I asked him about this summer’s unprecedented crop of hotel bargains and how to take advantage of them in a recessionary economy, plus the outlook for new hotel fees.

Q: Can you give me a sense of how inexpensive hotels are this summer, compared with summers past?

BookerBooker: This is absolutely the summer of the deal, and bargain pricing is just about everywhere. For instance, we have a three-star Ramada near Universal Studios in Southern California starting at $76 that typically runs for $109. It’s $50 lower than other three-stars in the area, and includes breakfast.

The Walt Disney World Swan, which typically has rates in the $250 range, has rooms starting at $180. The Hotel Valencia Riverwalk in San Antonio has rooms at $142 that typically go for more than $250. They’re offering a third night free over the 4th of July, and 30 percent off a three-night stay for the remainder of June, July and August.

We’re seeing big interest from properties to participate in our promotions – more than 900 are participating in our 4th of July sale, for instance. It’s not just about an inexpensive nightly rate, but the value travelers are getting for their money. Properties are making the trip more affordable overall with promotional offers like gift cards, dining and spa credits, and free nights with a multiple night stay — these are quite common right now.

Q: Where are the best deals to be found? And which destinations are still pricey?

Booker: Deals are literally everywhere — I think it’s harder to find a city that’s not on sale. We’re seeing amazing values in places like Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Phoenix, and San Antonio. New York has a sale now with more than 60 deals in the market.

In Los Angeles, we have a brand new five-star property, Terranea Resort, at 50 percent off, with rates from $145. This is more than $300 below other five-stars in L.A. In Vegas, the Trump International Hotel has the lowest rates among the five-star set at $99 a night, plus a $50 spa credit. New York has the Park Central with rooms from $137, and the St. James at Times Square from $109.

If you want a rock-bottom deal, try the Tropicana Express in Laughlin, Nev. Stay two nights, get 50 percent off, with $10 rates from Sunday through Thursday through July. It’s about 100 miles from Las Vegas.

Q: Other than booking a hotel through your site, how do you land a deal this summer?

Booker: Even though that’s the best way to find a deal, I’d recommend two additional points: Read as much as you can about the destinations you want to visit. And, look at package deals that can bring the overall cost of the vacation.

Q: What advantages does someone have booking through a site like Hotels.com, versus a travel agent or directly through a hotel?

Booker: There are some great advantages. I’ll point out three.

Welcomerewards, our Hotels.com loyalty program, is the best advantage. Once you accumulate 10 nights, you get a night free. There are 53,000 property choices available and you can build credits by staying anywhere — chain hotels, independent properties, condos, resorts, B&Bs. Travelers can build up to ten however they’d like — as long they spend $40 a night, they get a free night up to $400. No one else offers a program like this, and we’re getting great response from our guests who have joined – they love the fact that it’s simple, generous and flexible.

Another advantage is our reviews. We have more than one million authentic reviews on the site. People must book and complete a stay with us in order to post a review. This feedback from recent guests is critical in helping travelers make the right property choice.

Also, our call center. We don’t charge to book by phone and our call center is critical in helping us stick with our customers before, during and after the trip. Talking with a live person and asking questions helps many travelers make the decision — we don’t own properties so we’re not trying to push people in one vs. another. If there’s a problem during the trip, we want the customer to call us. We have relationships with our properties and we’ll advocate on their behalf. If for some reason it can’t be fixed, we’ll relocate the traveler to another property nearby. Whereas a chain might need to relocate a traveler to another chain property across town, we don’t have that restriction. It’s likely we have another partner property of the same or higher quality within a few blocks.

Q: I understand you’re in the process of relocating to London with your family. I hope you can answer this question from both a professional and a personal perspective. Just about every hotel says it’s family-friendly or child-friendly, but beyond that claim, is there any way of telling that you’ll be welcome there with young kids? Are there any signs that you shouldn’t go with kids?

Booker: Look beyond the “family friendly” statement to see what’s actually offered. For example, can kids stay free? Is breakfast complimentary? Does the property have attached rooms or suites and kitchenettes? What about children’s activities, a pool and babysitting onsite? If you’re not sure if the space or amenities will work for your family, call to clarify your questions – don’t risk making a mistake and being disappointed once you arrive.

Also, this question really hammers home the importance of guest reviews. On Hotels.com, you can sort reviews by trip type — business, romance, family, with friends, etc. If I’m traveling with my family, I look at the family average guest rating and family reviews to see what these guests just experienced. The property might have great family friendly options, but if reviews say the pool area is dirty, the free breakfast options were paltry and the road noise or downstairs bar kept kids awake for the night, I’m going to look elsewhere.

Q: There’s some talk that hotels may move to an a-la-carte model, like airlines — charging extra for things like housekeeping and fresh towels. Given that the hotel industry is in such a slump, do you think these fees are in our future?

Booker: I don’t think we’ll see this in the near term. Properties want to keep it simple for guests to book, and they want to add value for them wherever possible. Nickel-and-diming guests for the basics they expect in the stay would be a tricky thing to pull off right now.

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about “total” pricing lately, but when I go to a site like Hotels.com and search for a hotel, I get a lower “average nightly rate” but I’m not offered a total price, including taxes, until I book. Can you help me understand how this helps your customers?

Booker: We don’t really get that many complaints in the U.S on this. Given many retailers offer the total price in the last stages of the booking process, I think people expect to see that format on our site as well.

Q: There are two common complaints about booking a hotel online. First, my hotel never got my reservation. Second, they charged me more than they said they would. Can you tell me what Hotels.com has done to minimize these types of problems? What advice would you give hotel guests who want to avoid these problems?

Booker: On the first issue, we’ve been working over the last several months to improve our process and ensure properties receive, confirm and enter into their system all of the bookings we send them. All three steps are critical. If one of these slips, a room may not be waiting for the guest, and that’s a terrible way to start any trip. As a Hotels.com guest, we will be there for you and we will fix the problem, so please call us directly. We will work with that property to find you a room, or rebook you somewhere else nearby.

On the second issue, we disclose on our site the total cost of the stay, and note in the property description which additional fees may apply (parking, Internet, etc.). We reach out to every guest post-stay to ask them to complete a review — and when they do — they often make mention of these fees. So, customers have two spots (property descriptions and reviews) they can check for added fees before they book.

Clarify again at check in that you will incur no additional fees, scan your statement carefully before you check out, and if anything strange appears, ask that it be removed. This is easier to do when you’re still at the property vs. after you’ve returned home. If you can’t resolve it with the property, again, call us and we’ll advocate for you.

Q: Resort fees, which are really little more than hidden price increases, have been around for more than a decade. Although most chain hotels have stopped imposing mandatory resort fees after being hit with lawsuits, there are lots of independent hotels that continue this questionable practice. What is Hotels.com’s position on resort fees?

Booker: This is a tough one – we see many “hidden fees” for things like parking and Internet, but for the most part, those charges are tacked on when people use the service. Even if you stay at a resort-style property, you might not play golf or visit the spa, so why should you be subject to the added charge?

This hits on transparency and honesty — if the property discloses the fee clearly, I as a customer can decide to accept it and book there, or find another property. I think problems tend to happen when hotels don’t provide this detail upfront. Customers don’t like surprises on trips — and one of the worst to get is a laundry list of added fees at checkout you had no idea you would get. I’ll reiterate my advice from the previous question — check before you book, clarify again at check out, and try to resolve any problems before you leave the property. And, write a review when you get home so you can help inform future travelers.

At Hotels.com, if a property gets complaints consistently because of hidden fees, we will delist them or move them down the sort.

Q: If a site like Hotels.com and Expedia and Hotwire — all owned by the same company — simply stopped selling hotels that forced customers to pay resort fees, it just might be enough to stop them. Would you ever consider that?

Booker: It’s an interesting question. Given we want to provide the most variety and number of choices to consumers, I don’t think we’d stop selling a particular type of property. But, we will provide as much detail about properties so that everyone can make an informed decision. We detail these fees in the description, and guests often comment on them in their reviews.

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