If You've Ever Booked a Hotel Online,       Read This

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I am hopping mad. I went to a travel-industry dinner last night and was told the most appalling thing.

Back in our April 2004 issue, we ran an item about how people were getting great deals from online booking companies--Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity--at fancy hotels, only to find that they weren't treated as well as other guests. We kind of danced around it, because that type of item is a bit unprovable. It's not as if a hotel is going to actually confirm that it behaves badly.

Last night's dinner was held by the BBC, which is trying to figure out how to make travel television interesting. (Good luck.) The guest to my right was in the sales department of an upscale business hotel in New York City. (I'm not naming it because I can't imagine she thought she was speaking on the record.) She said point blank that the hotel treats customers who book through a third-party website worse than other guests. "If someone needs to be downgraded, we always go for the Expedia guest," she said--with pride
  
"But that's horrifying!" I said.
 
"It's that way at every hotel," she said. "We know you don't want to spend money. You won't spend it on our food and beverages, spa services, anything. If you book that way, you're cheap. And we don't want you."
 
"Then why do you even take the bookings?" I asked.
 
"The economics of running a hotel. We need to fill rooms."
 
My jaw hit the table. If your job, your raison d'être, is to treat people well, then wouldn't you try to treat everyone well? (You know I'm ticked when I start talking in italics.) Even U.S. airlines--not usually known for stellar customer service--don't begrudge the passengers who upgrade using frequent-flier miles.

It's not as if Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity--who will surely be dismayed to hear all this--are the black market. Booking through them is a legitimate transaction, and if hotels are going to treat us as second-class customers, they should let us know in advance. Paying less to get less is something I can handle; getting the shaft when I think I've roped a good deal is another matter entirely.

I suppose I'm being a Pollyanna, but every guest who walks through the doors of that hotel--or any hotel--is an opportunity. You never know who's coming back, loaded, and you never know when the economy is going to hit a slump again--which is when business travel tanks.

I've got news for them: The world has changed. Everyone wants a good deal, and only a fool would punish the people who are savvy and dedicated enough to actually get one.

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