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The Lights Are On, Nobody's Home

Scott Vogel

What's your reaction when a new hotel provokes reactions like this on TripAdvisor?:

"The valets were terrible, but also 99% ... of the other hotel employees we spoke with reacted as though every question or request was a huge inconvenience for them." "We found trash on the closet floor, soap that appeared to have been gnawed by an animal." "Our first night, the fire alarm went off at 5 in the morning. ... By way of apology, the hotel offered us waffles the next morning. Thanks, but I would have preferred another few hours of sleep." "The bartender was awful. I sent a glass of wine back. ... He then wouldn't open a new bottle and pushed me to something else that was also terrible." "If the swimming pool is important to you, verify the times it is open. It was only open from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then again for a brief period at night." "The mini-fridge smelled like there was a dead mouse in it."

I mean, what do you do with opinions like that? Speaking personally, I can only say that when my son and I come across such rants ... well, we couldn't wait to stay there.

I understand that this sort of schadenfreude tourism may be unique to us, but the resort in question, the purportedly 4-star Westin Annapolis, was so convenient we just couldn't resist. Just to fill you in, the Westin appeared to hold spectacular promise when it opened this past July, a 225-room luxury hotel that would serve "as the anchor for a stylish, mixed-use complex that includes boutiques, restaurants, offices, a spa" and more, according to a press release. But something seems to have spoiled the party in the intervening few months. Then again, maybe all those TripAdvisor people were overreacting.

"Good afternoon, sir! Welcome to the Westin," beamed the valet. My 7-year-old grabbed my arm, taking me aside. "He doesn't sound awful," he whispered. Indeed, everyone was all smiles and the car was parked without issue. The lobby was a bit chilly and attitude-y (especially for Annapolis) but the front desk clerk was friendly and fast. "She seems nice too," said my son.

Another clerk seemed nice the third time we left the lobby, having twice received keys that wouldn't open a room on the fourth floor. "Maybe it's the floor," she smiled, her hands trembling ever so slightly. "Third time's the charm!"

"She seems nice," I said to my son on the way to the elevator. He'd had enough: "Can we just get in the room? I want to go swimming."

Uh-oh, I thought.

I'm pleased to report that our fifth-floor double had not a bit of trash in it, the soap in the bathroom appeared ungnawed, the fire alarm was neither seen nor heard and the mini-fridge, to which my son immediately sprinted to check, contained not a whiff of dead animal. To my great relief, the pool was open too, although the front desk and the lifeguard appeared to disagree violently about the hours of operation.

In short, the Westin is not a disaster. It is, however, a textbook example of what happens when a major hotel chain thinks its work is done when the concrete dries. Here, as so often in the travel industry, the human element appears to have been neglected at the outset, an omission made all the more glaring by the sumptuous surroundings. Prospective hoteliers in the Internet era beware: If a property opens before its time, first impressions will be brutal and immediately shared.

Have you had experiences when inadequately trained personnel spoiled what should have been a perfect holiday? And did you take to the Web to retaliate?

By Scott Vogel |  October 8, 2007; 10:53 AM ET  | Category:  Hotels , Scott Vogel , Tales from the Road
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In the post 9/11 tourism slump, my now husband and I decided to splurge on The Willard for a posh overnight to celebrate the anniversary of our first date and recent engagement.

The best part of our overnight was dinner at Old Ebbit's Grill - the hotel was a disaster.

Despite the hotel obviously being nearly empty (the lobby was dead, as were the restaurant and bars on a Friday night), they put us on one of the rooms that overlooked 14th Street and the front desk wouldn't move our room. Noisy wasn't the word - we barely slept that night from the sounds of trucks rattling down 14th towards Constitution. My then-apartment near Fairfax Hospital (with all the attendant helicopter and ambulance noise) was quieter.

The room was stuffy - the A/C didn't work correctly. And despite calling the front desk and asking them to look at it while we were out, I don't think they ever did - the room was, if anything, more stuffy than it was when we arrived (though the front desk insisted someone had come and checked the unit out). The tub also didn't drain correctly - when you took a shower, you were ankle deep in water.

And when I had called for the reservation and asked about parking rates, I was told it was complimentary. Of course it wasn't and they wouldn't budge on comping it when I complained politely to the front desk (my parents taught me the art of polite complaint a long time ago).

It wasn't so much the cost as it was the principle. They had made a misleading mistake on top of all the non-existent luxury service I had been expecting and they weren't even attempting to correct it or see what they could do to make the situation better.

There were forums back then that I could have complained on, but instead I wrote the management an e-mail telling them how disappointed I was in our experience (I believe I used the term "underwhelmed").

I told them I had stayed in more comfortable rooms and received politer service from mid-level hotels that normally cost a fraction of their price, and listed the plain facts of our disappointing stay. I pointed out that that that was hardly what I was expecting, considering I had visited friends at The Willard in years past and they had all enthused over the quality of the hotel.

I wasn't snide or argumentative, just pointed out how they had failed to live up to their fabled service.

I received a reply within the week with a slight apology and the promise of a discounted stay within the next year if I chose. I didn't use it - there were too many other nice hotels in the area if we wanted to splurge again and we chose them instead.

Problems happen even at the best hotels. But if the customer service isn't up to fixing them gracefully, then why should I go back to that facility?

Posted by: Chasmosaur | October 8, 2007 12:25 PM

Ironically, I had a terrible experience in a hotel this past weekend. Our electronic key didn't work and after letting the lobby know, it took 30 minutes for them to find someone who could give us a new key - after being yelled at for being "stupid" and not knowing how to use one. Guess what? They couldn't make it work either...or the new one. Thankfully the third time was the charm, but I am never staying there again.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 8, 2007 2:43 PM

I agree that hotels often err more in correcting the mistakes they made than in committing them in the first place. And I had a good laugh at the key comment. I've more than once gotten that "are you sure you're doing it right?" look from the front desk. Trust me, guys -- THE KEY WON'T WORK.

Posted by: Scott Vogel | October 8, 2007 3:16 PM

My friend and I stayed at a place near the Yankee Candle Factory in Massachusetts a few years ago because of its location to Yankee and complimentary breakfast. Well, it was noisy all night (and it was pretty much the middle of nowhere!) because either a high school or college sports team was staying there (maybe even both). Room doors and car doors slammed all night. People were using their "day time voices" in the parking lot and hallways, too. And when we inquired about breakfast the next day, the young man pointed down the street to Dunkin Donuts! I took the information to send a complaint, but never did. I don't ever plan on staying at that chain ever again, so I didn't need a discounted room.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | October 8, 2007 3:33 PM

I think a lot of the nasty reviews on Trip Advisor are from competitors are disgruntled ex-employees (who were probably fired after being discovered in a compromising position in a vacant room.)

My bad hotel experiences include being given a key to a room, opening the door and finding the room already occupied.

At another major hotel, we were billed double. Charges appeared twice on my credit card.

We've also had malfunctioning TVs, air conditioners, and, most frequently, plumbling.

The worst was probably a major chain that was hosting the participants in a pee-wee hockey turnament. Late into the evening, hundreds of pumped up little kids ran screaming through the halls.

Posted by: Folgers | October 8, 2007 8:25 PM

I've had pretty good luck, but then I don't travel that much. My worst experience (knock on wood) was getting a room in which the shower didn't work. I didn't discover this until I had been in the room for a couple of hours, of course. When I went to the front desk to ask for a different room with a working shower, the clerk told me that because I had already made the room "dirty" he couldn't move me to a new room. I persisted, and he resisted.

Finally I asked him for the number of the chain's national customer-service number, and called them ... from the lobby phone, where the clerk could hear every word.

Not only did I get a different room, I got one with a jacuzzi.

Posted by: Northern Girl | October 9, 2007 10:48 AM

Posted by: Northern Girl | October 9, 2007 10:48 AM

Wow, that's ridiculous! It's not like they could give the room to someone else if the shower didn't work...

Posted by: DLC1973 | October 10, 2007 4:51 PM

My most-recent hotel snafu was in South Carolina at the Wild Dunes Resort's hotel on Isle of Palms. Major communications problems and runarounds on one of our scheduled activities. I'm a regular reviewer on TripAdvisor, and read reviews there on a regular basis. I take everything I read there (and at other sites) with a grain of salt-- ya have'ta. I'm not unreasonable about what I expect from a hotel, and have a pretty high tolerance for small issues. You can tell a lot about a traveler by what they include and how they write a review...

So, I didn't "retaliate," when I had a bad experience, I just described what happened. I'm as likely to report good experiences (to management, too!) as I am negative ones.

Posted by: Casta Lusoria | October 10, 2007 5:21 PM

One thing I learned about hotels online - don't ever take their "nice ads and photos" at face value. A year ago my family went on a 3 day getaway vacation package to Forida. We were given a few hotel choices. My biggest mistake was to select a hotel based on its nicely done "photos" and the "features" on showed its website. When we arrived at the hotel ... I was disgusted and my kids terrifed. there were bugs and mites all over the sheets, and the walls are dilapidated it even made us ownder how come th eHealth and sanitatiuon allowed this hotel to operate. Has anyone heard of the century old Hotel De Ville in Florida??? Stay away...!

One thing good about that experience- I made sure to research, be a smart traveller, and read every comment and feedback I can find before I make any reservations at any place. Travel Blogs like this are very helpful... and so with other hotel review sites. Thanks!

Posted by: mjz5488 | October 15, 2007 1:47 PM

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