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Getting walked by 'wacko' hotel employees

Getting walked by 'wacko' hotel employees

Question: I booked rooms for me and my brother at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto in Canada. I made the reservations back in September 2004 for a four-night stay in June 2005. The reservations were guaranteed with a credit card.

My wife received a phone call in mid-January from a hotel employee advising her that both room reservations had been cancelled. They said the cancellation was due to a major overbooking caused by their computer system. The hotel did not offer to put us up in any other hotel, and they made no effort to assist us in finding new accommodations.

The only thing they did to help was to email me a list of alternate hotels downtown and in outlying areas. The alternative hotels in the downtown Toronto area were basically college dorms that are converted for use as hotels in the summertime, and the other hotels were well outside the downtown area. These hotels offered us nothing close to comparable quality or amenities.

There is an international convention taking place that weekend, so all the downtown hotels are booked, as they were when I made the reservation last year. I eventually found an available room at the Hilton. The Hilton Toronto is similar in amenities and room types as the Marriott, so this was the best alternate choice possible in downtown Toronto. At this late date, however, rates are much higher: Rooms at the Hilton are $314 Canadian — more than double the $152 Canadian rate I had booked at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto.

I made it clear to Courtyard By Marriott Downtown Toronto that I do not accept its cancellation of my room reservations, and I expect the hotel to compensate me for the difference in the cost of lodgings. I spoke to numerous employees at the hotel, and I wrote several e-mails requesting that the Courtyard by Marriott pay the rate difference to settle the matter. I informed them that I would gladly take the hotel to small claims court for breach of contract if they fail to settle this matter equitably. I also asked for a contact at the Marriott corporate office should the hotel be unable to resolve the problem on its own.

Unfortunately, everybody at Courtyard By Marriott Downtown Toronto has stopped responding to my e-mails. They seem to have made a decision to stonewall me in the hopes that I will simply go away.

The professionalism with which they have treated the entire matter came shining through when one of the hotel's employees apparently hit the reply button rather than forward in her email program in response to an email of mine, and mistakenly sent me a one-line email that said, "What are we doing with this wacko??????"

I would certainly appreciate anything you can do to help me with this matter.

— Deane Silke, San Dimas, CA

Answer: Somehow I don't think "wacko" is the Canadian term for "valued customer", but insulting you wasn't the hotel's only mistake in dealing with this situation, overbooking snafu or no.

"The law protects the innocent as well as the wacko," says San Francisco travel law expert Al Anolik. Hotels have responsibilities to guests holding guaranteed reservations, so when they overbook — by accident or design — they must take steps to help travelers.

Overbooking can be an issue during conventions, even though hotels use yield-management systems to manage room inventory. It's a balancing act, since hotels want to sell as many rooms as possible without sending guests packing.

However, it seems the convention wasn't behind your hotel's overbooking, though it did make finding a replacement room harder. You got the boot from the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto because the hotel was migrating from one computer-reservation system to another when you booked your rooms, which caused a serious overbooking problem.

But no matter the cause, simply giving you advance notice and five months lead time to find another hotel on your own wasn't adequate, according to attorney Anolik. "The hotel can't just say sorry, we let you know ahead of time, and hold up the cross to the werewolf," he says. "That's not good enough."

In general, when a hotel turns away a guest with a reservation guaranteed by a credit card, it's obliged to find alternate accommodation at a nearby hotel—and pay for the first night there. This is called "walking." If the replacement room is more expensive, the hotel should cover the cost difference for all the nights of the reservation.

In other words, you were correct to request that Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto reimburse you for the $648 Canadian more you must pay due to its computer error.

Marriott's walk policy is even more generous than the norm. According to Marriott representative John Wolf, when its customers are walked to alternate hotels, the original Marriott hotel should pay for the cost of the new hotel for the first night. If travelers are booked for more than one night, but can't be accommodated at the Marriott property, then the hotel will pay for each additional night of accommodation elsewhere.

Marriott's policy applies both when travelers are turned away at the hotel's check-in desk and when they're notified ahead of time that the property is overbooked. Franchise properties such as the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto are expected to follow these same guidelines.

I sent your complaint — and a copy of that errant email — to Marriott. Resolution was swift: Two days later, you received a letter from Chris Kerbow, general manager of Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto, apologizing for "the associate misconduct you experienced."

As a gesture of goodwill, he offered to pay for the entire cost of your three-night stay at the Hilton Toronto. Kerbow said he would personally contact the hotel and arrange to have the room billed to the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto.

I'm glad the hotel acted quickly to apologize for the email affront. Paying for your stay at the Hilton is within Marriott's own walking guidelines. Ironically, if the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Toronto agreed to your initial request that it cover the rate difference, it would have cost the hotel a lot less money, and certainly a lot less grief.

How can you avoid trouble?

Guarantee your room reservation with a credit card. You may still run into trouble with overbooking, but your credit-card guarantee protects your rights and means the hotel must try to find you alternate accommodations.

If your hotel is overbooked — either in advance or when you attempt to check in — ask the hotel to find you a room at a nearby property. The hotel should also pay for your first night there, plus the cost difference if the new room is more expensive and you stay there on subsequent nights. It should provide you with transportation to the other hotel. It should also give you a free phone call to notify your family or office of your lodging change.

Note the names and titles of hotel employees, and keep copies of correspondence. If the hotel declines to help you, you can contact the hotel management (or its corporate parent) for reimbursement.

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Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at travel@usatoday.com. Your question may be used in a future column.