The lights went out, but Holiday Inn kept my money

Question: We recently checked into the Holiday Inn Express Hotel Poulsbo in Poulsbo, Wash., and experienced a lapse in service. We need your help with a refund.

There was a winter storm with ice on the road, and after a treacherous drive from the Kingston Ferry, which was shut down after we disembarked because of wind, we arrived in Poulsbo. We checked into the hotel at 5:30 p.m. or so. At 6:45 p.m., the lights went out.

We thought that the power would come back on soon, but seeing that the power was off as far as we could see, we hunkered down. No one from the hotel came to our room to give us any information. The phones were out.

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We had no heat, no hot water, no electricity and no hot breakfast as promised. When we checked out, an employee told us that he had no power to adjust our bill, but when the manager came in, and the power returned they would take care of it.

That didn’t happen. A manager offered a 25 percent discount off the room, and then raised it to 50 percent. We refused. We have tried to call Holiday Inn corporate, but were placed on “hold” for 75 minutes before being hung up on.

We paid $107 for a room without electricity, hot water, or heat. Can you help us? — Jeri Kellerman, Saddleback Valley, Calif.

Answer: Holiday Inn should have apologized to you for the power outage and explained its refund policy when it offered a 25 percent refund (and later, a 50 percent refund). But did it owe you a full refund for one night’s stay?

I put that question to readers of my blog when your case first came to my attention. Some felt that the hotel wasn’t responsible for what appeared to be a regional power outage. Others indicated that a hotel like the Holiday Inn should have had a backup generator and was contractually obligated to provide services such as heat, electricity, hot water and breakfast.

Holiday Inn doesn’t mention anything about refunds in the event of a service failure on its website. “Depending on the rate type, if a reservation has been guaranteed by a deposit or prepayment, a full refund will be made if the reservation is cancelled prior to the cancellation policy per the hotel’s policy for that booking,” it says.

That’s practically unintelligible corporate-speak.

Here’s how I see it: Holiday Inn owed you something for failing to provide you with the service you expected. And the correct amount — again, in my estimation — is somewhere between the 50 percent refund it offered you and the full refund you were requesting.

Holiday Inn’s real failure was putting you on “hold” for more than an hour and then hanging up on you. That’s why I always recommend writing to the hotel instead of phoning. When you send an email to Holiday Inn on the corporate level, you’re creating a paper trail that you can easily forward to a supervisor — or to a consumer advocate.

Holiday Inn’s contact information is on my site, On Your Side. (InterContinental owns the Holiday Inn brand.)

Holiday Inn corporate was made aware of your grievance, and it sent you a check for the remaining 50 percent of your room. You’ve received a full refund.

(Photo: Chez Andre/Flickr)

43 thoughts on “The lights went out, but Holiday Inn kept my money

  1. If the power failure was not their fault, then no, not a 100% refund. That being said, they should have also checked on their guests and informed them as to what was going on and the status of power returning.  I agree with a 50% or so refund, because they didn’t keep the guests informed and/or check to make sure they were OK.

  2. This is a tough one. It is not as if the Holiday Inn Express could have done anything to prevent it (short of the generator), so it is a force majueuer (sp).

    In those conditions–treacherous is the word used–just having shelter is a bonus. They were provided with a clean room for the night…fresh sheets…and ultimately 50% off.  Depending on the capacity of their hot water heaters (and occupancy) they quite possibly could have had hot water for a period of time as well.

    For sure they are owed something, but since they used a good deal of the service that their rate paid for–a full refund is not in order.

    If it was such an issue, they could have (if they wanted to brave the treacherous roads) gone to another hotel and I suspect that the Holiday Inn woudl have refunded any charges.

  3. This is different from a hotel having a temporary power outage caused by poor maintenance.  They did receive shelter and weren’t outside in the storm.  There is a value for having shelter–certainly a lower value than if Holiday Inn had been able to provide electricity; but a value nonetheless.  HI’s phone manners certainly need improving, though!

  4. I’d say it comes down to what they tried todo to resolve the situation.  No power they can’t control.  No heat because they didn’t install a generator to at least run the furnaces, well that is under their control.  

    So if there is no power and your only problem is your stuck with just the emergency lighting and can’t watch TV, then the Hotel is doing the best that is reasonably possible.  And no refund at all is called for.  

    However they should be able to heat your room and give you hot water and probably that morning breakfast (assuming its the normal cheezy in lobby style buffet).  If they can’t do that then a full refund should be made.

    1. If the hotel uses heat pumps for heat instead of gas/oil (a reasonable decision), you’d need a huge generator to run those; that’s not realistic.  Industrial generators are large and VERY expensive to install and maintain.  Even the unit for the basic needs of a single house cost thousands of dollars.

      1. If they aren’t providing heat then I’d say they aren’t providing shelter.  Coming from the Northeast perhaps my perceptions are skewed (as I wouldn’t think a Heat Pump would be a good decision).   For just the basic needs of my single house I probably could get by with a car battery (forced hot water oil based system) as the only thing running is a small water pump certainly the cheap $400-500 generators would work.  Personally I have a wood stove and that keeps my house comfortable in a power outage

        Still if the business choses to use a Heat Pump knowing they could not provide adequate heat in an extended power outage then I think they should assume the risk of giving out full refunds when they can’t perform.  They also should probably be providing shuttle buses to a hotel/shelter that is able to provide heat.  

        1. So kick them out altogether, as ALL the area had no power (as the client could clearly see) would be your solution?  The client should be thankful he HAD a room, and accept a 50% refund graciously.

        2. Not all areas are run for gas service; a heat pump is a perfectly regular and normal way of doing climate control in most of the country.  Power outages happen; it’s simply not realistic to expect a hotel to install a massive and expensive industrial generator for an extended power outage that occurs very rarely.  (And NO modern hotel I know of uses just radiators to provide heat; they pretty much all use forced-air units of some type or another in each room, each one of which will require electricity.)

          As Linda pointed out, the whole area was out of power… where would the guests be be shuttled TO?

          1. Define “modern”.  I’ve stayed in a number of motels with only radiant heat and no A/C at all, mostly in the northern areas of the US.  Other places in the South have only radiant heat as a backup, and of course, A/C.  

            Many places in the Pacific Northwest use only “radiators”, including many of the houses on the same block as my house in the Seattle metro area.  No A/C.

            My geothermal furnace here in NE (basically a huge heat pump using stable ground temps) requires electricity to work. 

          2. Modern, as in, your typical recently-built chain hotel.  Guests generally prefer forced-air units because of the better thermal control and quicker temperature adjustments that can be made.

            And in the South, “radiant” heat generally refers to electric baseboard heaters or heat strips inside of the blower for a heat pump.  (And you generally only see baseboard heaters in older houses that didn’t come with A/C initially.  A heat pump makes way more sense if you are already installing A/C.)  The low-electricity alternative Mr. Sazbo was referring to was I’m guessing a circulating-water boiler-based system (and what most people think of when you say “radiator”.)  If you don’t have gas or oil (or geothermal, I suppose), a circulating water system is silly.

            Yes, there are plenty of houses (and even hotels) in all areas of the country with no A/C, but that’s simply not the standard for a corporate chain hotel.

          3. I once stayed in a timeshare (operated almost like a hotel) at a high-altitude location in Utah. The place was mostly empty during the summer.  I remember overnight temps in the low 40s, but I was absolutely sweating in the inside room because they had no A/C. It was built primarily for the winter peak skiing season, so the place had some extreme insulation.

    2. I checked. Apparently it’s no longer a HI Express (that could make things interesting with Holiday Inn corporate) and it’s now known as “GuestHouse Inn and Suites, Poulsbo”.  Here’s a photo of the room.

      Most mid-range hotels I’ve been to don’t have central heating/AC.  This one has a wall unit.  There would be no way to operate it without electricity.  Even if they had central heating/AC using natural gas, I don’t believe modern units can operate without electricity to at least power the blowers and maybe even operate a pilotless ignition.

      1. They have 63 rooms. And from the picture that is a AC/Heat wall unit running on electricty. They probably need a huge diesel powered Caterpillar gen set. Not going to happen with a small business operation. Enjoy the snow (or cold weather) and views and cuddle up.

  5. Not sure why this family didn’t stay in the Edmonds area (other side of the ferry crossing) rather than take the ferry in really bad weather and hope that things would be better on the peninsula.  I lived in the Seattle-area for 2 years and have continued to notice in the 20 years since then that bad weather always seems to surprise Puget Sound-ers.  That explains why no generator at the HI.

  6. This was totally beyond the inn’s control.  It’s not reasonable to expect every hotel to have the huge (and expensive to install and maintain) backup generator on the VERY rare occasions that they’ll be out of power for an extended period of time.  It’s like expecting Domino’s Pizza to invest in a helicopter for when the drivers can’t get through the weather to deliver your pizzas in 30 minutes or less.

    If I was the hotel, I might issue a 20% refund as a courtesy…

    1. So if you didn’t get your pizza – or even if you just got the box, you’d still pay full price for it anyway then, right?

      1. If I got my pizza in an hour instead of 30 minutes I’d pay, yes.  And I wouldn’t get bent out of shape if they ran out of Pepperoni for my Supreme Pizza; accepting a small refund as compensation.  I wouldn’t ask for the whole pizza for free…

  7. I once stayed in a hotel in the Baltimore area which also suffered from a power outage during tropical storm. We had very dim lights in the halls, no elevator, computers down. They had a generator, obvioiusly, but just for minimal power. It never occurred to me to ask for a refund – I was just glad the hotel managed as much as it did. The post today seems very familiar. Either someone else is complaining about a widespread power outage that affected Poulsbo and far beyond, or this is a rerun.

  8. So Chris, why didn’t you request this on behalf of all the guests who were burdened with a bed to sleep on instead of a car seat, blankets to bundle up in, instead of just a coat, a roof over their head instead of being along side of a road?  How awful to not have a hot breakfast after all this that they had to endure. 

  9. I’m usually with the guest, but in this case, they should be thanking HI that they had shelter in a storm.   Why should HI act as a free shelter.

    The OPs remedy was to fire up the cell phone and find alternative lodging the first day or suck it up.

  10. You did have a room to sleep in, correct? So why do you insist on a 100% refund? 

    People act like businesses should be charities and any little inconvenience in their trip they demand a 100% refund. That’s complete BS. While no electricity and no heat or warm water is more than a little inconvenience it was also outside the hotel’s control. 

    I see, so you were so unhappy at the hotel you slept in your car, right?  Ah, no…I see, so they did provide some service to you and a relatively warm and safe place to sleep. So, why demand a 100% refund?

    The 25% and then the 50% refund was MORE than generous, you should take it and be happy. If I was the hotel, I would tell you to pound sand after declining a generous offer.

  11. I’m wondering how they managed to program the door keys.  The locks themselves operate on batteries, but I thought encoders operate on AC power.

    I also agree that extensive backup power is generally an investment that doesn’t pay off for most businesses.  They’re expensive, almost never used, and when they’re needed they suffer issues that any engines have from lack of use, such as degraded fuel (varnish, gelling, and contamination) or no startup lubrication.  I’ve heard of backup diesel generators belching nasty exhaust for several minutes until all that stuff gets cleared out.  I could understand a “mission critical” environment like a hospital or data center.  They typically have multiple levels of power backup, starting with instant on battery backup, followed by backup generators.

    I’ve had crazy weather-related hotel stays.  I hunkered down in a hotel room in the Miami area as a tropical storm hit the area.  It was actually a rather weak storm, but I remember doing all the things to prepare for possible damaged utilities, including filling up the bathtub with water (I heard that recommendation on the TV news but the hotel also recommended it), buying Sterno/matches, and loading up on food (including lots of snacks) that I wouldn’t have to heat.

    I’m a bit surprised that Chris didn’t link to the original article as he normally does. This was way back in November 2010, and the responses were mostly that HI didn’t do enough.

    1. how they managed to program the door keys

      The OP’s checked in an hour before the outage, so that would explain how they got their keys.

      But that’s a great thought/question: what did/would happen to anyone who tries to check-in after the outage?

      1. Thought about it for a second, and yeah – they did arrive before the power went out.

        I looked up some specs on room key encoders.  Some systems are actually tied to reservation software, which would require that there is power sufficient for a computer, although I suppose they could conceibably power off of a battery powered laptop.

        Some of the encoders I’ve seen were standalone, with only a simple LCD display and a keypad.  I could easily imagine one being battery powered, or at least capable of being powered for hours (if not days) by a small uninterruptable power supply.

        The other thing I’ve noticed in some of my recent hotel stays is that the clerk checks the reservation system, then checks a hanging file to pull out an already printed reservation request.  If they don’t have power to access their computers (and there’s a good chance that without regional power they’ve got no network access) then a paper file would allow them to see a reservation status unless the reservation was made after they did a daily run.

      2. I work at a hotel. We have 3 sets of preprogrammed “Failsafe” keys to use in the event that the power goes out and we are unable to use our keycard machine. Also during inclement weather we print “Downtime” reports on an hourly basis. These reports allow us to run the hotel without a computer. Being from the Northeast I had the chance to test both of these systems during the recent October 29th snowstorm. We were able to function surprisingly normally during the 3 days our hotel was without power. Our central reservations department was able to email us the arrivals for each day to the manager’s blackberry and then it was just a matter of writing it all out longhand.

    2. funny how things change, huh?  back then, i posted that i felt 50% was fair, and if the manager was as jerky as she said, then HI needs to deal with him. i still feel that way, but it seems the majority of the readers have flip-flopped.

      1. Well – this was a franchise and the franchisee changed affiliations.  I’m wondering how it all works out since Holiday Inn no longer has a franchise agreement with this hotel.

      2. readers have flip-flopped

        Not necessarily. Anyone who sees this the way Chris does (“the correct amount… is somewhere between the 50 percent refund [HI] offered you and the full refund you were requesting.“) presumably voted “No” to the “Should hotels offer a full refund question?” question here and also voted “No” to the original “Did HI offer enough compensation” question?”  

        That would be a completely consistent position.

        The framing of the article almost certainly matters too.  The original began by mentioning that other hotels affected by the blackout offered full refunds. Also, voters in the original poll may have been put off by the description of the manager’s “attitude” as the OP’s tried to negotiate with him.

  12. I’m not sure if anyone already mentioned this but someone also posted a similar (terrible) review on TripAdvisor.

    I agree with the rest of the nice people here. The Inn provided shelter during bad weather and the OP should be thankful for that and also receiving a 50% refund.

    It’s pretty shameful to use a consumer advocate to get a room for FREE under these circumstances. I really believe CE should not be advocating for “jerks”. I suppose the Inn is owned by a local businessperson who lost money despite providing some service. That person got hurt and might be very well be the victim.

    1. As of this time, 34%, including myself, have voted that a full refund should be provided. There are clearly differing opinions on this matter and I think referring to the Kellerman’s as “jerks” is uncalled for. I feel they deserve a full refund and Elliott clearly felt it was a subject worthy of debate on this forum. Can we disagree without insults and name calling?

      1. Ok, maybe “ingrate” is more appropriate.
        If they hated the place, why not just leave and ask for a refund. But to USE the place and ask for 100% back? Don’t know what’s a better term for someone who does that.

    1. There was a lot of impersonation going on in one particular comment section, with any guest being able to use any handle at will.

      As soon as the comments moved to Disqus, I started using my Disqus account to post here.  I don’t post and run more or less anonymously.

  13. Many businesses have “interruption of business” insurance policies.  There may be some coverage for this type of thing where the hotel is paid for their loss of business.  I’d say having to refund it’s guests would document the hotel’s loss of business.

  14. I don’t believe the hotel owed the guest anything in this situation.  The original offers of 25% and 50% refunds were more than generous and the OP should have accepted without further complaint.

    If this was the only room at the hotel without heat, hot water, or electricity and the hotel did nothing to correct the issues, then a refund was in order.  Since this situation affected the entire hotel and the surrounding area as far as could be seen, then I don’t feel the hotel should have to give away their rooms for free.  The OP still received a place to stay that was out of the weather.  It had to be more comfortable and warmer than sleeping in their car.  And how was the hotel to provide a hot breakfast?  Fire up the barbeque outside and warm the cinnamon rolls there?  If there was no breakfast of any kind provided, then maybe the hotel owed them a small percentage of the room rate, otherwise, nothing.  

    Many mentioned the hotel should have had a generator to provide power.  While a good idea, the cost of such a thing is prohibitive for most businesses.  Even where I work, which absolutely needs to have power at all times, our generator does not provide heat & cooling.  It is very expensive to get a unit large enough to provide full power for the small chance that power will be out.  Most I have experienced in hotels have been only enough to provide elevator service, drastically reduced lighting and just enough power to run the front desk computers and phone system.  These were in countries where power service is random at best and not having a generator would mean being out of business more than in business.  In other words, the generators were installed out of necessity, not just convenience for occasionally power problems.

  15. I’m one of the minority that feel the hotel should give a 100% refund in the case of an extended power failure. The way I figure it: you pay good money for a room with heat and hot water. If those cannot be provided, the hotel has not lived up to it’s side of the contract and should refund the money. I don’t care about “out of their control”. It’s becoming common for lots of companies to use that excuse these days. If Emerson Electric failed to deliver the starter motor for your new car to the factory, would you consider it acceptable to get a 5% discount on the price when the car does not work at all? After all, you bought the car from Ford, and the starter not being delivered was out of their control, so it should be reasonable for them to just deliver cars that won’t start, right? Grocery stores who lose power often lose food. Should they just sell it spoiled? I worked in radio for many years. If we lost power, we were off the air or ran at low power on a generator. We could not charge customers for ads. Power failures result in loss of business for many types of companies. Why should hotels get a pass because they can claim they at least “provided some shelter”. Heck, the Kellerman’s would have been about as comfortable in their car.

    An extended power failure like this, one where the room might be in freezing conditions or no hot water was ever available, will occur with some probability. If it is more than rare the hotel should have a backup generator. I’ve stayed at lots of hotels in the Caribbean, a place where power is often unreliable, that have generators that power the entire hotel, including air conditioning. If it is rare, then the cost of refunding to customers is likely not that much, anyway, and should be considered part of the cost of doing business. It may even be insured. In any case, some simple and inexpensive support could have greatly improved the comfort of their guests. Have they ever heard of a Coleman stove? Flashlights? Portable heaters could have allowed them to at least keep some rooms in the lobby comfortable so customers could warm up. I was in a hotel once where the power failed and they sent someone to every room to tell them what was going on and offer options. I think they deserve a full refund in any case and the fact that this hotel obviously doesn’t care just increases that case.

    1. Do you know the side of the hotel? I posted a link to their response in TripAdvisor. I’ll quote it here:

      Micah Kim, General Manager at GuestHouse Inn & Suites Poulsbo, responded to this review

      October 7, 2011

      Hello, thank you for your comments about the hotel. I’m sorry you had to
      endure the cold night as the hotel lost power as we do not have a
      backup generator. Even without power, all guests decided to stay at the
      hotel rather than driving in the tretrous road conditions. With the road
      being extremely dangerous, the hotel had 2 fireplaces and food to serve
      all guests. The hotel has given credit to all guests who stayed at the
      hotel. Please call the hotel and ask to speak to the G.M. if you have
      not gotten a credit, thank you.

      Maybe Jeri Kellerman and company would have been better off sleeping in their car and get a 100% refund.

  16. I don’t think Holiday Inn deals with power outages too well.  Stayed in one in Houston in April, the power went out on a Sunday night due to a lightning strike, and this caused the fire alarm to go off continuously.  Even if I wanted to sleep in the room, there is no way I could have due to the noise, as the alarm was right outside the door of my room.  They would not put me in a different room, farther from the alarm and said they couldn’t, even though I would say the hotel was maybe 10% full due to the fact it was a Sunday night.  Did nothing for me.  Finally after a couple hours, and several phone calls and trips down to the lobby, the desk clerk (the only office employee on duty) got me into a room at a sister property about a half mile away.  The next morning, I went back there to properly check out, as they couldn’t do it the night before due to the computers being down, and they were very rude.  Needless to stay, I won’t be back there on one of my frequent trips to Houston.

  17. I don’t see any reason the guest doesn’t deserve a full refund in this case. In 2011 in the United States, staying at a Holiday Inn, electricity and hot water are integral parts of the room. If the hotel can’t provide them for whatever reason, they haven’t provided the room the guest paid for. Period.

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