We all have had serious complaints about the way airline service has deteriorated in the last 15 years or so, so I was interested in a recent list of complaints about the other most important aspect of business travel: hotels.
In the FlyerTalk.com 2014 Pet Peeves survey, members of the travel site — savvy travelers who tend not to be shy about pointing out problems — ranked the following as their top two complaints about hotels: expensive or balky Internet service, and insufficient or hard-to-reach guest-room power outlets.
No. 3 on the list, a new entry in this year’s poll, was cigarette odor lingering in some rooms (I assume this is attributable to the great increase in international travel to places where people smoke more, by the way). Following in order were difficulties in controlling the room temperature, noise, insufficient water pressure, unanticipated fees, poor lighting, uncomfortable pillows and bedside alarm clocks that are confounding to operate.
That’s it? That’s the best we come up with?
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“Actually, electrical outlets is a 30-year-old lament,” said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and branding at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
Hotels first responded to that issue decades ago by buying lamp fixtures with outlets in their bases. Now, most hotel companies are investing heavily to accommodate the flood of personal technology, including by adding more convenient outlets to rooms, and more Internet bandwidth.
Dev suggested that intense competition in the global hotel industry was a main reason the complaints generally tended to be minor compared with those about air travel. Any industry where the top three players control 50 percent of the market is generally defined as a concentrated one. In the “brutally competitive” hotel business, he said, the top three global players control only about 15 percent. By comparison, mergers, alliances and bankruptcies have created a highly concentrated airline industry.
Hotel investors — including those at the local and regional levels, where many chain-operated hotels are owned by private developers — also “are holding operators’ feet to the fire,” he said. And hotel operators often hear directly from customers.
“I asked the general manager of a Hyatt hotel recently, what’s most different now from 35 years ago. And he said, ‘You know, my customers really know how to complain. If something isn’t right, they are going to let me know,’” Dev said.
Surely, there are complaints. I managed to drag a few pet peeves out of some frequent business travelers, but frankly, I had to coax them.
For example, Dan Nainan, a professional comedian who flew more than 250,000 miles last year, cited noise.
“That’s my biggest annoyance, like people coming in at 2:30 in the morning rip-roaring drunk,” he said.
But it isn’t really that big a deal, he acknowledged. “One thing that can ameliorate that is if you are very, very nice to the front-desk people, you can often negotiate your way into the quietest room as far from the elevators as possible.”
Barbara DeLollis, who publishes a lively website called Travel Update With Barb DeLollis, thought for a bit before coming up with two peeves, and they’re pretty small beer.
One is not being able to find the hair dryer, as in when the device is hidden in a “hair-dryer space” or tucked into a fabric bag somewhere in a drawer or cubbyhole.
She also mentioned expensive room service, though she tends to avoid it. “In one luxury hotel, I once had a pot of coffee that cost $25,” she said. “It was good coffee, but really?”
Complaints that I sometimes hear from business travelers are long waits at front-desk counters, denial of late-checkout requests even when a hotel is not full, and electronic keys that fail to work.
Another one I hear more frequently is confusion over just how much a room costs.
Increasingly, hotels are trying out “dynamic pricing,” which in some ways resembles how airlines now adjust fares seat by seat and minute by minute. That is, a room rate is adjusted, sometimes hour by hour, to reflect real-time demand. In fact, there is a panel discussion “Dynamic Hotel Pricing: Has Its Time Come?” scheduled during the annual convention of the Global Business Travel Association this month in Los Angeles.
Of course, there are those annoying bedside clock radios that are perplexing to operate — except for the previous guest, who managed to set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. and forgot to turn it off.
Ten years ago, addressing the alarm clock problem, Hilton’s Hampton Inns designed easy-to-program radio alarm clocks and installed them in guest rooms in its more than 1,200 hotels. They are so easy to set that the company also sells them at retail ($60). But over the years, cellphones and personal mobile devices with their own alarms have pretty much made the old-fashioned bedroom alarm clock obsolete.
In the context of rapidly changing technology, I am reminded of a line by the comedian Steven Wright, who said: “I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake-up letter.”