The mystery of Oyster Bay’s energy fee deepens

You wouldn't believe our utility bills! / Photo by Candi Berger - Flickr
Last month, I reported on the possible re-emergence of energy fees in the hotel industry. Today, I have some good news for you — and an update from the hotel that allegedly charged the fee to one guest.

Since that story was published, I’ve heard from no other travelers who had to pay a mandatory surcharge to cover their hotel’s energy costs. So the problem appears to be contained for now.

Well, not entirely.

Almost two weeks to the day after the post was published (the feature first appears on Frommers.com, then a few days later on my site and in syndication) I received an email from the general manager of the resort that was said to have charged the fee. He said the Oyster Bay Beach Resort does not force its hotel guests to pay for energy usage, that he had no record of the customer I interviewed. And he claimed I never contacted him.

Uh-oh.

So today I’m going to do a deep dive into the facts to determine what went wrong — and, most importantly, to find the truth about the Oyster Bay’s fees.

Energy fees

Does Oyster Bay charge its guests for energy usage? Yes.

“We do charge a $12 per day energy surcharge for a two bedroom and $7 for a studio apartment for our timeshare guests and exchangers given the high level of utility costs on the island,” said the manager. “We pay over 42 cents per KWH in St. Maarten and since the water is desalinated also the cost per cubic meter is very high.”

OK, so the guest who had complained about the energy fees was staying in one of its two-bedroom units. In his email to me, he hadn’t drawn a distinction between the hotel and timeshare unit. He just said he was staying at the resort.

But Oyster Bay says it’s an important difference. Timeshare owners are informed about the energy fees in their contracts and when their stay is confirmed. It sent me one of the letters, which does indeed note the existence of a utility fee in the fine print of its confirmation letter. So this guest — if he’s really a guest — should have known about it.

The mystery customer

What about the traveler lodging the complaint, Jack Permadi? Oyster Bay says it could find no record of him. I sent the resort a copy of his email correspondence, and it quickly located his record, although it was under a different name.

I’m always concerned that someone isn’t who they claim to be online, particularly when they’re making a charge like this (no pun intended) against a travel company. In a world or savvy reputation-management companies that try to manipulate search engine results and TripAdvisor reviews, hotels would do almost anything for a good write-up. I’ll have more on that in a second.

You never wrote!

The most baffling of all the accusations was that I hadn’t bothered to ask Oyster Bay about this fee. If I had, I was assured I would have been given a quick reply. A review of my records show that I sent an email to the general manager’s address, contacted Oyster Bay through its Facebook site, which it acknowledged, and then sent another email to its general “in” box, after being referred to it by someone answering its Facebook page.

In each email, I was clear about my intentions — I was a reader advocate trying to answer a question from a guest about energy fees. I enclosed the customer’s email in each of my requests.

The emails were sent May 6. I waited four days for an answer before filing the story, and the post appeared May 12.

Oyster Bay claims it never received any of the emails. I find that difficult to believe, since it had acknowledge my Facebook post, and knew that my question was coming.

“I am sorry but our Facebook page is a social page for our guests and owners (and) is not a business page or an official way of communicating for us,” the general manager wrote to me in an email.

Oyster Bay is disappointed with my original story — “pissed” is how the manager described his reaction — and demanded a new article clarifying the fee. The Oyster Bay Twitter account also sent me several public messages berating me for committing a reckless act of journalism. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the manager sent me numerous follow-up emails, repeating his demand for a follow-up article.

I’m happy to oblige.

So, to recap: Oyster Bay does indeed have an energy fee, the guest exists and the resort’s email apparently doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes …

This story offers an interesting look at hotel reputations and how they’re controlled by companies.

Note the lag time between when the story was first published and a belligerent manager began emailing me.

Why did it take almost two weeks to contact me? The first story appeared online May 12 and the manager didn’t contact me until 6:53 p.m. on May 25. Shouldn’t the Oyster Bay’s PR team have caught the story sooner?

If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say the manager was either Googling the resort’s name one Friday evening, or that his reputation management software had IDd a problem in a weekly report.

Either way, he worked quickly to repair the perceived damage. He even told me he’d persuaded one online news outlet to delete the “erroneous” article from the Internet. I won’t mention the name of the organization, except to say that the site never asked me for a clarification.

Throughout our correspondence, Oyster Bay mentioned the online comments, which were costing it precious reputation points.

One reader accused Oyster Bay of “frauding the customer,” adding, “Don’t these business’ know the definition of lying?” (I’m sure she meant to say “defrauding.”)

Another commenter said energy fees, at least the way Permadi described them, ought to be illegal.

“Any hotel that pulls these undisclosed fees is a total fraud,” he wrote. “Obviously they want to present a lower price to the unsuspecting customer in order to get their business, knowing that most travelers in a foreign city won’t walk away from a confirmed reservation.”

Would a new story about Oyster Bay’s energy fee make any difference in the way it was perceived?

The hotel apparently thinks so. It believes the complaint was made by a guest who glossed over several key facts, didn’t do his homework and then complained to a consumer advocate who didn’t bother to confirm the veracity of his story. With these new facts revealed, Oyster Bay’s reputation would be cleared.

I don’t know if it’s that simple. The fact that one of its own timeshare owners didn’t know about its mandatory energy fee comes as no surprise to me. The “utility fee” is literally the last item at the bottom of the Oyster Bay confirmation letter. And I don’t buy the resort’s explanation that Facebook is no way to communicate with it, given how concerned it seems to be about its online reputation.

But I’m most troubled by Oyster Bay’s lack of response to my emails when I began researching this story. Either its email doesn’t work or it simply ignores the messages it doesn’t want to answer. It makes me wonder how closely the resort is listening to its own guests.

Who’s right? As always, I’ll leave the verdict to you.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus