“Ladies and Gentlemen, our flight is overbooked today and we’d like to ask if there are any volunteers to take a later departure…”. The recent incident in which a bona fide paying seated customer of United Airlines was forcibly removed from the plane in order to accommodate a flight crew, has been drawing universal attention. The true culprit is the systematic habit of overbooking, both in air transportation and in hospitality. We are told that a room that goes empty tonight puts a dent in your annual revenue. Simply because it cannot be sold twice tomorrow or any other night. Period.
Whether it is the airline or our hospitality industry, do we have the right to overbook? And what consequences might we be running into?
How about using the laws of supply and demand to the benefit of our guests: we lower our prices when we have empty rooms and “jack them up” when we expect to sell out.
Is it illegal for a hotel to “walk” a confirmed guest?
“A common practice whereby an airline, hotel, or other company accepts more reservations than it has seats or rooms available, on the presumption that a certain percentage of people will not show up. Airlines have a legal right to overbook, while hotels do not. A hotel must find a room for everyone who has a reservation and shows up on time. An airline may be required to offer compensation for people involuntarily bumped from a flight, depending on several factors, including how long they must wait for another flight.”
Walking a guest exposes the hotel to a lawsuit. As we all know, when one sues for damages, the sky can be the limit for that $465 room you were deprived of. Sure, a well managed hotel is supposed to maximize its occupancy and its average room rate. Within limits: that does not give the right to that Motel 6 in Madras, Oregon, who not only cancels confirmed aka low rate guests but then jacks up its prices to $2,600 a night for an upcoming solar eclipse.
Winning the loyalty of a walked guest is possible with a balance of communication, compassion, empathy and professionalism. A hotel has the right (and the obligation) to fill all its rooms, and to sell at the highest price.
However, overbooking is tantamount to selling a room more than once. We call it thievery and there is no arguing it.
I am sure each of us at one time has found ourselves in the awkward situation of walking a guest. In our industry, guests are usually only walked (moved to alternate accommodations because no rooms are available) because of two scenarios. First, when an event reduces your room inventory unexpectedly on a sold-out night, leaving you overbooked. Second, when strategically overselling your hotel backfires and more guests show up than you have rooms for.
More often than not, the poor soul that’s the last guest to show up for the evening is the one who ends up relocated. There are actually two people that get the short end of this deal, the guest who shows up at midnight after a full day of travel only to learn his reservation was worthless and the desk agent on the night shift who takes that guest’s inevitable wrath. I wouldn’t want to be in either of their shoes. (Although I have experienced both personally)
SOME GUESTS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
First, you need to identify the guests you will walk. When choosing whom to walk, take into consideration a few factors:
-is this guest someone who never stayed with you and is bound never to return, walked or not?
-what type of room did the guest book?
-is it a one-night-only stay?
-is the guest part of the frequent-stay program?
-is the guest “smooth walked” or “rough walked”?
Begin this process as soon as you realize you will need to walk someone. The best-case scenario includes walking guests who are staying only one night. If you walk guests who have a reservation for multiple nights, try to bring them back to your hotel for as much of the remainder of their stay as possible.
Have a hotel in your comp set, that never sells out, due to possible mismanagement. When you feel you will have to “walk” that night, call to ask how many rooms can be had (and at what rates). Your hotel pays for the alternate accommodations, a free phone call, transportation reimbursement and even a certificate to come and stay again. Make sure a fruit basket or token with a note of apology comes with it.
There will always be someone who will simply refuse to be walked: Remember, when dealing with a situation like this, that if you give in, you will just have to find someone else to walk, which will create additional problems and prolong the inevitable.
The final step is a critical one: You must follow up with the guests to make sure they are satisfied. If they were staying multiple nights and you were able to get them back to your hotel for the remainder of their stay, make sure you contact them or write them another note. Once again express your apologies and thank them for their patience. If the reservation was for only one night, or they do not return to your hotel for any reason, reach out to them anyway. Make sure everything went well at the alternate hotel and again express your apologies. Get your General Manager involved. He/she won’t like it, but, yes, it is part of their job.
Walking a guest can have dire consequences on the hotel’s General Manager or any of his underlings: suppose you walk a guest who ends up being as member of the Board of Directors of the company… you are in deep trouble and so is your GM: the GM who that night, should have been standing in the lobby until 2am waiting for Mr. X to show. But did not.
Which hotels are most likely to walk: airport hotels accommodating cancelled fights or missed connections. These hotels are more than likely all alike, usually mediocre, and being walked from one to another is not a massive issue, except for the fatigue, the aggravation, and not earning the points as a frequent traveler. Convention hotels in periods of citywide conventions. Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Las Vegas are among the biggest convention towns in the country. When a Chicago Hilton has 1,100 expected arrivals for one convention alone, chances are they will be tempted to overbook: there can be many reasons for no-shows. People double book themselves, or are booked by different organizations, family conflicts or illness cancel the trip at the last minute, a flu epidemic hits one entire region, or as usual, the dog ate your homework.
The problem is the guaranteed reservation, which ought to provide the hotel with some peace: it does not. You might be allowed to charge the no show for one night (by the way, is it not hard at all to get that charge removed, just ask me) but what about the other nights of the convention: the room is going to sit empty as there will be no way to rebook it on such short notice.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING THE BOOT
Arrive early – Since the vast majority of walked guests are late night arrivals, getting to the hotel early in the evening will all but eliminate the already low risk of being walked. If you’re going to arrive late — after 10 p.m. — call the hotel to let them know. They will likely walk someone else first, rather than explain why they still didn’t hold your room.
Book on the hotel’s website – Most chains offer a price match guarantee, meaning their rate should be the same as places like hotels.com. Third party reservations scream “Walk Me!” to hotel managers. Try to avoid putting yourself in that situation.
Join the loyalty program – While this may not guarantee you won’t get walked — especially if you’re not a top-tier member — it is still better than nothing. If a hotel manager has to choose between two guests and one of them is not a member, guess who gets walked.
Call the hotel from the airport to confirm you are on your way and double check on your confirmed reservation. Insist that you will not be settling for a lesser room category.
Now that I’ve sufficiently scared you out of ever booking another hotel, here is the reality: Your odds of being walked are incredibly slim. However, just like on the airlines, it happens every single day to countless travelers across the world. If it does happen to you, I hope you’ll try and remember one thing…
The desk agent is just the messenger. Please don’t shoot them.