Not every case that crosses my desk makes me question the very foundations of my consumer advocacy practice. But Sandy Neff’s did.
Neff reads my column in her local newspaper in Texas, and she turned to me for help with a recent hotel reservation.
“The first of the year my niece announced that her wedding was going to be on September 7th in Mill Valley, California, and suggested that anyone who would be attending should make his or her hotel reservations early,” she says.
She booked a reservation through a moderately-priced hotel in the area for Sept. 5 to 9, expecting to join her niece to celebrate the wedding. Total cost: $750.
But it wasn’t meant to be. On May 16th, her niece canceled the wedding.
“The next day I called the hotel’s general manager and asked if there was anything that he could do to help me out,” she says.
You can probably guess what happened. Neff had booked a completely non-refundable room.
“I would give anything to have my money back, since I live on a fixed income and this had come out of my savings,” she says. “But I understood that that was probably not going to happen. Instead, I asked if they might be able to give me some sort of gift card that I could use at some of their properties around Texas.”
The hotel wouldn’t do that. Instead, it offered her a two-night stay anytime before May 21, 2014, at that hotel. Bear in mind, it’s a non-refundable room. She wasn’t entitled to anything.
“That’s worthless to me,” she said.
In talking with Neff, I felt that she really wasn’t asking for that much more. A credit at one of the chain’s hotels was not the same thing as asking for a full refund, and if it could be done, why not? After all, it’s not as if Neff canceled the wedding. These were clearly circumstances beyond her control.
I contacted the hotel on her behalf asking if there was anything it could do for her. Actually, those were my exact words. In retrospect, I should have chosen my words more carefully.
Here’s how the manager responded:
I won’t have any problem reselling the room. My issue is that she purchased a “non-refundable” advanced purchase room at a discounted rate…..and knew it was non-refundable……but on your advice I will refund her….my point is it seems there is “no responsibility” for decisions made (especially bad ones)…..and this is very, very prevalent and getting worse every day.
Hmm, I don’t recall asking him to refund the room. All she wanted was for her credit to be a little more flexible.
“That’s very generous of you,” I wrote back. “But I don’t recall offering any advice on this case.”
To which he sent me a one-line response, excerpting from my first email: “Anything you might be able to do for this guest would be much appreciated.”
My response? After the “where-did-I-go-wrong” reaction, I tried to backtrack.
“It wasn’t meant that way,” I wrote. “I apologize if you felt as if I was pressuring you. As I read her correspondence, it seemed the customer felt her appeal hadn’t been properly reviewed.”
But it’s true, I was asking the manager to make yet another exception to his refund rules for a reader on a fixed income. But a full refund? I hadn’t advocated for that, nor would I.
By rolling over and coughing up the money, the hotel was making me feel like the bad guy. Maybe it’s just as well. Those of you who read this site, waiting for me to make one of these confessions, probably can’t wait to write a “told you so” comment that tries to invalidate two decades of consumer advocacy. Others will say, “Don’t feel so bad — you’re trying.”
The hotel decided to refund the money, anyway. But if it had refused, I would have supported that decision. After all, it’s a non-refundable room. How much clearer could that be?
My takeaway: Be very specific when you’re asking for a review of a case. People don’t read carefully, they have a different view of context, and they won’t always come to the same conclusion that you would.
That’s true whether you’re a hotel guest — or you’re running a hotel.