Hotels.com: Read the Fine Print!
By: Dennis Yu
By Dennis Yu and Keith Wilcox
I don’t always post articles about parenting or children. I also have a passion for warning people about scams. My all time favorite scam warning is about Multi Level Marketing. I posted an article a year ago about Send Out Cards (an MLM company) that has gotten over 700 comments and a quarter million views. Scams, though, aren’t always infomercials, diet pills and get rich quick schemes. Sometimes they come from reputable companies, reputable companies that, in an attempt to satisfy shareholders, treat their customers like buffoons. What they do is usually perfectly legal; they change the terms of service – quietly so almost nobody notices; or they nickel and dime customers to death thinking nobody will notice (all those fees and taxes you pay renting a car or getting on an airplane). Like I said, it’s usually legal. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t totally wrong and won’t give the company a much deserved public relations black eye. Below is a revelation, verbatim, from a former manager at hotels.com about the company’s price match guarantee. He did not give us permission to use his name, and we won’t. But, his insight should teach us all a cautionary lesson about trusting in seemingly clear advertising. Heck, if a manager at the company in question, hotels.com, felt ripped off and helpless, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us!
I know you said you wouldn’t but, again, please do not use my name or other indefinable information. I still have several friends and contacts at hotels.com. I need them for a reference.
The hotels.com Welcome Rewards program launched about 2 years ago. Book 10 nights; get one free…anytime, anywhere. When the program launched you could book 10 nights at any room, any hotel as long as the value was $40 or greater. Upon booking 10 nights you would receive a free room at any hotel room up to $400 per night.
I used hotels.com for several months I racked up over 20 nights in stays and earned 2 free nights. Earlier this year (2010) I got ready to book at the Wynn in Las Vegas and was going to get suite for two nights, I was going to maximize my two $400 nights. My wife and I were very excited. I hit the checkout and to my shock, I was told I could book one room at about $197 and another night at about $207. The rules had changed. Redeemable free nights were now based on the average of each of my blocks of 10 stays. This evidently changed very discretely via their online terms and conditions in March of 2009. I received zero notification of the rule change.
I have no issue with hotels.com changing its rules. If the program was unprofitable and needed to be changed I’m OK with that. However, my earned nights should have been retroactive. I should have been able to book my two rooms at the $400/night rate and any subsequent stays should have fallen under the new rules. Also, as I stated I was never notified prior to March 2009 that the rules were changing. I had several opportunities and would have used my free nights prior to March 2009. But I knew I would be heading to Vegas and was holding on to my nights to share with my wife. Had I known the rules were changing I would have absolutely used my free nights earlier.
Not customer friendly rules, and I’m researching to see if this was illegal.
Here’s a post from some others with similar comments.
A Lesson in Social Media:
In July 2009, baggage handlers from United Airlines broke a guitar, and then ignored the musician’s request for help. The result was the hilarious video shown below. Similarly, untied.com was born of United ignoring and refusing to fix a mistake they made. Not to pick only on United, the list is long with examples of companies that compound service failures with the flames of social media– Motrin Moms, profane tweets for Skittles, AOL’s aggressive customer care, Walmart caught staging their RV campaign, and so forth.
Hotels.com, by promoting a rewards program and “price guarantee” on Facebook that is riddled with loopholes, is fast becoming the next social networking casualty. Both their rewards program and their price guarantee program have been exposed on Facebook as nothing more than hotels.com smoke and mirrors. Hotels.com doesn’t realize that social media is a channel where consumers can talk back to brands and share with friends. In the case of hotels.com, they seem to think that social media is simply an advertising conduit to exploit. It’s more than that. Social media gives more power than ever to consumers. It’s a double edged sword that advertisers would be wise to wield carefully. The advertising rewards are definitely there for companies that do it right; but reputable companies should take heed. Never go to the dark side. Never try to fool your customers under the mistaken notion that social media is the same thing as print media or a television spot. Unlike a TV commercial where it might take months or years for consumer grievances to filter up, social networking quickly uncovers deception, and customers quickly defect. The initial response by hotels.com was to delete unhappy comments on their wall, which backfired, as that only served to fuel further consumer anger. We are grateful to have this inside look at hotels.com by a former manager. It is a case study in how some companies misunderstand the nature of Social Media and mismanage their outreach.
The lesson learned– social media is a multiplier of both testimonials as well as outrage. Don’t trick your customers. They are smarter than you think.