Getting Scammed in Park City

“In business you get what you want by giving other people what they want.” – Alice Macdougall

Hotel Park City appears to be one of the best hotels in Park City, UT. Certainly, it’s one of the most expensive. But I have come to look at it as a high-class scam operation. If you had the same experience I did, I don’t think you would feel any differently.

Here’s the scam: You call to book a room. The price is very high. You ask if they are running any specials. They tell you that they are sorry, but the hotel is fully booked – that, in fact, the entire town is fully booked and this price is the best they can offer. You capitulate.

When you get to the hotel, everything is very nice and the staff is very friendly. But when you get to your room and take a look at their website, you discover that they are advertising rooms just like yours… at $200 a night less than what you are paying.

You have traveled enough to know that hotels routinely book rooms at whatever price the market will bear. So if you book at the peak of the season, you may end up paying “rack rate.” (“Rack rate” is the official price of the room, which few people pay – the equivalent of first-class airfare.) But you’ve stayed at this hotel twice before. As a returning guest, you wonder why they didn’t automatically extend to you their best price – especially since you asked if they were running any specials.

And here’s the thing: If you book at one rate and then discover the hotel is currently selling the same room at a lower rate, they normally quickly and happily reduce the price you’re paying. After all, you are a potential source of future and referral income.

So you call the desk and politely speak to the young woman there. She politely tells you there is nothing she can do about it. You explain to her that you are not a first-time guest, that you are a frequent traveler, and that you are quite sure “normal” hotel protocol is to reduce the room rate to match the currently advertised rate. She repeats her mantra: “I’m sorry, but those are the rules.” You ask to speak to her supervisor.

Before you explain your situation to her supervisor, you ask if she has any more authority than the desk clerk. She says she has, and so you tell her your story. She listens sympathetically… and then tells you that she is not authorized to reduce rates.

“Okay,” you say, “I’ll pay for today at the old rate and then cancel my room and rebook online at the lower rate.”

“If you do that, sir,” she tells you, “we will charge you the full amount of your four-day reservation as a cancellation fee, plus the new rate.”

“You are joking,” you say.

She is not. So you ask to speak to the general manager, who is too busy to talk to you. When he finally calls you, he has the voice of a 19-year-old boy. You have the feeling that he is not the general manager at all, but one of those nice valets who have been opening the door for you.

Still, you go ahead and retell your sad story, and he tells you the same thing the head desk clerk told you: You have two choices – to pay an $800 penalty for booking on the phone instead of online… or to pay it anyway, along with several thousand more for rebooking online at the lower price.

You take a deep breath and ask the young man if he feels good about what he is doing. “I know you are following orders,” you say. “But it must bother you to treat your guests this way, especially your returning guests.”

He doesn’t say anything. You begin to feel sorry for him.

You tell him that you are going to write about this experience in your e-zine, which has more than 200,000 readers. And that you will do your best to have other publications that you are associated with – with a combined circulation that exceeds a million people a day – to reprint the story.

“I don’t think your bosses are going to like that,” you tell him.

You can almost hear him gulp. He tells you that he didn’t say what he just said. That if you had given him a chance, he would have explained.

And so you ask him to explain.

He says that the higher rate was in effect when you booked, but just last week the hotel had a late cancellation of a block of rooms, and in order to fill them they began to advertise the reduced rate.

You point out that if they had enforced their cancellation policy with the group that cancelled, the hotel wouldn’t be short any money and would have no need to drop its prices. You ask him if they had, indeed, done that.

He won’t tell you. So then you point out that when this sort of thing happens with other major hotels, the customer routinely receives the reduced rate.

He says he will have the general-general manager call you back. You say you will be glad to talk to him, but you intend to run the story anyway to warn your readers about this problem.

“Please wait till you speak to my boss,” he says.

Again, you feel sorry for him. His boss, not surprisingly, never calls.

Offering to match the lowest published rate for a returning guest should be a no-brainer for a hotel. In Hotel Park City’s case, “no-brainer” has an entirely different meaning. By treating a third-time guest the way they treated me, Hotel Park City made a foolish mistake. Not only have they lost my business, but they have created in me a perpetual negative publicity machine.

As an official policy, it makes sense for hotels to charge guests the rate at which they were registered. If they automatically discounted every room to the lowest rate available it would be difficult to maintain a profit. But there is, and always has been, a big difference between the official rate that hotels charge and the rate frequent users usually pay.

When booking, smart travelers always ask about special rates and discounts – and when you arrive at a hotel, after looking at a room, you should ask again.

Why? Because reservation agents and desk clerks are often instructed to follow a customer-service-satisfaction protocol known as “fading.” Fading allows them to lower the rate if a prospective guest isn’t happy with the deal he’s being offered.

But even if a hotel doesn’t practice fading, it should always match its own advertised prices if a booked guest points it out.

Here is how some other hotels would have handled my request at the Hotel Park City:

  • According to its website, Starwood Hotels (which includes Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridien, and others) won’t lower your rate if more than 24 hours has elapsed between the time you booked a room and the time you discovered it being offered at a reduced price. But that’s the official policy. In reality, the 24-hour-rule is negotiable. “There is some wiggle room,” a spokesman said.
  • There is also a 24-hour rule at Marriott Hotels and Resorts (which includes Fairfield Inn and Courtyard), but a Marriott reservation agent indicated that standard policy is to offer the customer the lower published rate at check-in if available, as long as the reservation was made through the hotel, the Marriott website, or its 800 number. (This is contingent on the rate not being a special deal subject to restrictions or listed as nonrefundable.)
  • Hilton, which also runs Doubletree and Embassy Suites, will also change a guest’s reservation to the lower rate if it becomes available before they check in, said a Hilton reservation agent. Some rates (such as special offers) are nonrefundable, which is made clear when the reservation is made.

Keep in mind that you won’t be able to get a lower rate with the hotel if you book your room through a website such as Orbitz or Expedia. The smart way to use these online services is to see what they can give you… and then see if you can get as good a deal by booking directly.

The bottom line is that most hotels are more than happy to give their customers lower rates if they are currently advertising them. But you must have booked your room through them. And you must ask for it.

So ask for it. Just don’t ask for it at Hotel Park City.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]