Shortly after Thanksgiving 2017, the editor-in-chief of eeweb.com found himself in Washington, DC, roaming the corridors of power and testifying to various senators and representatives.
Do you remember the classic James Stewart film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? The reason I ask is that, shortly after Thanksgiving last year, yours truly found himself in Washington, DC, roaming the corridors of power and testifying to various senators and congressmen/congresswomen.
This all started way back in the mists of time -- well, last summer -- when my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) and I went to Pennsylvania to attend a conference. Gina was in charge of booking our hotel. One of Gina's friends had told her that the Courtyard Marriott in Mechanicsburg, PA, was a nice establishment, so that's what she searched for on Google. Gina clicked on the first returned link, which looked like the following (I just performed the same search and screenshotted the result):
Look closely at the URL: "reservationcounter.com/Mechanicsburg/Courtyard." I don’t know about you, but a lot of folks would assume that this was the reservation counter for the hotel. In fact, Reservation Counter is a completely separate company that goes out of its way to mislead you into thinking that you are dealing with the hotel. For example, if you click on the above link, you are presented with what you believe to be the Courtyard Marriott's website as illustrated below:
As we later discovered, if you actually call the Reservation Counter folks up on the number they provide (the one under the hotel's address, which -- once again -- leads you to believe you are calling the hotel itself) and say something like, "Am I talking to the reservation counter at the Courtyard Marriott?" they don’t reply, "Sadly not, we are nothing to do with them whatsoever." Instead, they will say something like "Yes, we represent the Marriott." They are slippery little scamps. It's hard to tie them down.
What? A 25% Surcharge!
A warning flag should have started waving in my noggin when Gina told me that the room had been booked and they had charged her credit card in full (hotels don’t charge your card until the end of your stay), but this passed me by. Thus, it was only when Gina and I arrived at the Courtyard Marriott and were informed that there was no reservation in our name that we realized there was a problem.
After a lot of messing around, we discovered that Reservation Counter had placed the reservation via priceline.com, and that they had messed up our name. This was also the time we discovered that they had charged us a whopping 25% surcharge for the privilege.
What this means is that, if we had booked directly through the hotel -- which is what Gina had been led to believe we were doing -- the cost would have been ~$1,000 for the week. As it was, Reservation Counter charged us ~$1,250.
This sort of thing hurts so many people on so many levels. Let's start with the fact that Reservation Counter now has $250 of our hard-earned money that should be our pockets. Also, we can bid a fond farewell to any hotel "loyalty points" we were expecting to receive from this stay.
Then there's the fact that if someone were to make a special request -- say for a disabled-access room equipped with a wheelchair-friendly shower, grab rails, and raised toilet seats -- such a request typically won’t make it through to the hotel. This could be a serious problem for the customer, especially if the hotel has already given all such rooms away to other guests.
And let's not forget the poor hotel clerk who will have to bear the brunt of the disgruntled customer's ire. Also, should you decide to cut your trip short and leave a couple of days early, the hotel isn’t going to refund your money because they didn’t take it in the first place.
Business identity theft
I gave this point its own title because I feel it to be extremely important. We hear a lot about identity theft these days, where people find their life savings have been ripped off or their credit rating has taken a nose-dive because some scoundrel has been using their credit cards, or taken out loans in their name, or... all sorts of things.
Well, my feeling is that companies like Reservation Counter are essentially doing the same thing. By going out of their way to make users think they are dealing with the hotel, they are misappropriating the hotel's identity. Furthermore, unhappy customers will tend to blame the hotel, and they will go out of their way to spread the word, thereby impacting that hotel's good name and future income.
Expedia.com and Priceline.com
There are lots and lots of television adverts for different travel sites, so you can only imagine my surprise to discover that there are essentially only two main internet travel companies: Expedia.com and Priceline.com. "Oh Max," I can hear you saying, "you really are out of touch with reality. What about companies like hotwire.com, kayak.com, travelocity.com, and trivago.com?"
The point is that all of these are either owned or controlled by the "big two." For example, agoda.com, booking.com, kayak.com, and rentalcars.com are all part of the Priceline Travel Affiliate Network, while carrentals.com, classicvacations.com, egencia.com, hotels.com, hotwire.com, travelocity.com, and trivago.com fall under the auspices of the Expedia Affiliate Network.
You know when the annoying guy in the Trivago adverts waves his arms around and proclaims, "We search all these websites"? Well, it's really not too much of an effort for them, because they own all those websites! On a personal note, I now feel like I've been betrayed by Travelocity's Roaming Gnome. Never again will I be able to hear his cheerful cheeky chappie voice trilling away without thinking, "You, sir, are naught but an Expedia mole."
I must admit that I'd always wondered where sites like expedia.com and priceline.com got their money from. Originally, I'd assumed that they placed some sort of small surcharge on the user, but it turns out that they extract a humongous amount -- I think ~30% of the cost of the rooms -- from the hotels. The hotels really don’t have a choice in this; if they don’t play the game, then these online bookings will end up with their competitors. This is bad enough for big hotel chains, but it can be crippling for smaller "mom-and-pop" establishments because it impacts their ability to plow money back into the business (three out of five hotels in the USA are small businesses, totaling more than 33,000 properties across the country).
Also, it has to be said that Expedia and Priceline are not above playing a few tricks of their own. Purely for giggles and grins, I just used Priceline.com to search for hotels in Mechanicsburg, PA. Take a look at one of the results they returned as shown below.
Observe where it says, "Only 5 rooms left" in red on the right. Other entries in the results page show different numbers, "Only 4 rooms," "Only 3 rooms," "Only 2 rooms," etc. In fact, these are all made-up numbers. The hotels simply don’t provide this information to the online booking companies. This is added to create a sense of urgency: "Oh my goodness, there are only a few rooms left, I'd better book now!"
Now look at the part that says: "Was $122." Underneath this we see the current price of $67. "Wow," you might think, "I'm saving $55!" Well, not quite -- that's what you are supposed to think. If you click the little 'i' icon next to the "Was $122," you'll be presented with a pop-up window informing you that: "This savings compares your price to the second highest price offered by this hotel 15 days before and after your check in date." Say what?
What this really means is that the $67 is exactly the same price you would be given for this room on the selected day(s) if you were to go through the hotel's website or call the hotel directly. Speaking of which, some of the advantages associated with interfacing with the hotel directly are as follows:
- Your credit card won't be charged until the end of your stay.
- You can check out early without penalty.
- You will receive any loyalty points.
- Any special requests you make will be honored.
Still and all, although some may regard the "Only 5 rooms left" and "Was $122" as being a tad underhanded, I personally am prepared to let them slide as savvy marketing practices. The thing is that when I go to expedia.com or priceline.com, they don’t make any pretense as to who they are or what they do. I ask them to search for hotels, or whatever, and they say, "Here you are." I reserve my ire for companies like Reservation Counter and their ilk (there's a growing infestation of them in the world) who use what I consider to be underhand stratagems to bamboozle me and part me from my hard-earned cash.
Recently, an experienced traveler told me that he uses Expedia or Priceline to perform the first-pass search for him, after which he visits the hotel's website and/or calls the hotel directly. You can't argue with logic like that.
The American Hotel and Lodging Association
I fear we are in danger of wandering off into the weeds. As always, the real trick is to get me to stop talking. Following our experiences with Reservation Counter, I penned my Beware Online Hotel Booking Scams column (see also Pass Me My Spelunking Cap, We Live in an Age of Miracles, and Just Call Me 'Your Majesty').
Well, you can only imagine my surprise and delight a few weeks later when I was contacted by a representative from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. It was from the AH&LA that I discovered the following tidbits of trivia and nuggets of knowledge:
- Hotels, big and small, support eight million American jobs.
- They contribute nearly $600 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
- They support more than $1.1 trillion in U.S. sales (including hotel revenue, guest spending, and taxes).
- Each year, there are 55 million fraudulent bookings totaling $3.9 billion in fees to consumers.
- Many people also had their identities or private information stolen.
- These rogue sites trick consumers by mirroring the look-and-feel of actual hotel websites, using copyrighted images, trademarked logos, and similar URLs.
To cut a long story short (and you have no idea how much it pains me to say those words because I was just starting to warm up), they told me that representatives from a bunch of hotels were going to Washington, DC, to meet up with Members of Congress to discuss the issue of hotel scams, and they would like me to join them to tell my tale of woe.
All of which explains why, on the morning of Thursday, November 30, 2017, your humble narrator found himself in Washington, DC, dressed in his formal black-and-white Hawaiian shirt, poised to enter the hallowed halls, and prepared to stride the corridors of power, in Washington DC. I tell you, it really is a funny old world when you come to think about it, and no mistake.
Striding the Corridors of Power
Our day was jam-packed with 30-minute meetings, one after the other, with barely time to catch one's breath. The morning was devoted to meeting senators and/or their congressional staff. Our first appointment was with the staff of Senator Amy Klobuchar, who represents the state of Minnesota. I took the picture below, which explains why I'm not in it.
One thing that really impressed me in this meeting -- and throughout the day -- was how knowledgeable the Members of Congress and their staffs were. They had obviously prepared for our visit and were well-acquainted and/or briefed as to the underlying issues.
One thing that was a bit strange was when everyone introduced themselves at the beginning of the meeting. We would start with the member of congress and his/her staff. Then the members of our party would do the honors, while I awaited my turn. It was a bit intimidating to hear, "My name is xxx, and I'm the general counsel for the yyy chain of hotels." This would be followed by something like, "We have 8,500 hotels around the world; 2,000 of these are in the USA; 150 are in your state; and 50 of these are in your district."
And, so it went, with general councils, chief operating officers, and all sorts of other lofty titles and positions, until -- eventually -- only yours truly was left. All eyes turned to me, at which point I said, "Hi there, my name is Clive Maxfield, and I'm the token consumer." This invariably got a laugh, after which I was invited to tell my tale. You'd be amazed how many of the people we were briefing responded by saying, "This happened to me" or "The same thing happened to my wife/husband/friend."
Eventually, we broke for lunch. This took place in the senate dining room, where a table had been reserved for us. This was pretty much like a regular buffet, with a cold salad bar and a couple of hot food bars and suchlike. One big difference was how amazingly ripe and fresh everything was. Another was the staff bouncing around making sure everyone's glasses were constantly filled. My particular favorite was the guy hand-calving a huge roast. "Say when," he instructed, but I pretended to be distracted and not to hear him because that meat looked so good!
Following lunch, we ambled our way to the other side of the Capitol Building to start a series of meetings with the Representatives. These meetings commenced at 1:00 p.m. and continued into the evening.
I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by how agreeable everyone was. One person that really sticks out in my mind was Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who represents the 12th District of Florida, and who was extremely friendly, affable, and courteous.
As an aside, at some point in the day, one of our party received an alert on his smartphone and exclaimed, "Hey, we've made Politico!" It's true, if go to this page and scroll down a little, you will see the following entry:
FLYING IN: Members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association are on the Hill today meeting with lawmakers on protecting people from online hotel-booking scams, among other issues. They’ll meet with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Bob Latta (R-Ohio), John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Tom Marino (R-Pa.), as well as staffers from other lawmakers’ offices.
Sadly, they neglected that "Max the Magnificent from eeweb.com" was playing a part in this gathering, but I'm sure this was just an oversight on their part, so we won’t hold it against them.
Before we knew it, the day was done. We finished our last meeting in the early evening. A few hours later, I managed to discover the way out of the building. Have you ever read the The Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley? This is a satirical novel told by a narrator in a post-apocalyptic world sometime around 3000 AD. The tale revolves around an innocent young man called Joenes who sets off on an epic adventure in the 21st Century. At some stage, Joenes is recruited by the government and ends up spending days wandering around a huge and confusing building called the Octagon (which replaced the Pentagon). I know how he felt.
Ambling my way back to my hotel, I once again passed the Capitol Building. Although a few other people were meandering around, everything was calm and tranquil. An almost full moon was in the sky and I paused to snap the picture above.
Later, whilst relaxing in my hotel room, I reflected on the fact that I've been blessed with tremendously good fortune throughout my life. In addition to my outrageously good looks and the fact that I'm a trend-setter and leader of fashion, I've enjoyed perfect parents, fantastic friends, a wonderful wife, and a superb son. I've also been fortunate enough to see a lot of the world (speaking at conferences and suchlike) and have enjoyed a lot of interesting adventures along the way, of which visiting Washington, DC, and meeting Members of Congress will be something I'll remember (and, doubtless, be talking about) for the rest of my life.