Harsh Spotlight Shines on Hotel Industry

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The hotel industry has lately been the subject of a lot of headlines in the consumer press. Sadly, many of the stories deal with topics that could give the industry—long regarded in high esteem by many consumers—a public relations black eye or worse, increased scrutiny and regulation. We need to get our act together, people.

Consider these recent events:

• A presumably benign hacker told a conference earlier this summer how certain electronic guestroom locks from Onity can be easily circumvented and opened using a homemade device. Not surprisingly and to its credit, Onity reacted swiftly, offering hoteliers several fixes to the problem. To date, I've heard of no legal actions resulting from someone illegally entering a guestroom using this technique. There's a bullet the industry has dodged so far.

• Last week, a class action suit filed in California accused several online travel retailers and hotel chains of fixing prices on rooms sold through these sites. I don't quite understand the specifics of the complaint, and few consumers probably do, but the fact is the story in the press is that hotels conspire to keep rates artificially high. That's not a good image for an industry that's been struggling to raise rates (legally) since it emerged from the economic downturn.

• Earlier this week, travel columnist Ed Perkins and the Business Travel Coalition filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over so-called hidden fees charged by many hotels for items ranging from Internet access to housekeeping to bellmen fees and more. The complaint doesn't ask hotels to stop charging the fees, but to include them in the room price or otherwise provide full disclosure to guests. Again, the perception to the public is that hotels are money-grubbers out to cheat consumers.

• The FTC has been busy. In addition to dealing with the hidden fees complaint, it's also going forward with a suit it filed against Wyndham for an alleged computer hack that laid bare personal information of more than 600,000 customers. Wyndham is trying to get the suit tossed out of court, but the PR stain will probably remain.

• Finally, the industry and its lobbying organizations may have dropped the ball in its quest to block new ADA rules regarding permanent pool lifts. As has been reported ad nauseam in the trade and consumer press, the AH&LA, AAHOA, ARDA and others convinced the Justice Department to push back implementation of this rule until January. However, the lobby for the disabled interpreted this as the industry trying to weasel out of installing the lifts at all. It's never a winning hand for a business to be seen as discriminating against disabled people. This, too, shall pass I believe.

I'm not sure whether all this negative attention on the industry is a by-product of an aggressive press and the power of the blogosphere, or it's part of a seemingly widespread distrust of all business, or somehow a failing of the industry's lobbying efforts (which I doubt).

Also perplexing is the fact that none of us individually or collectively can do much about these events, save continual vigilance on issues that could arise at your hotel or hotels that could mushroom into another black eye for the business and legal troubles for you.

I'm betting it's just a dark cloud hovering over the industry that will pass just as the seasons always change.

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