After Jane Hatch selected the room rate she wanted at the West Street Hotel in Bar Harbor, Maine, the hotel Web site delivered an unpleasant surprise on the next screen: The quoted price hadn’t included a $25-per-day “resort and club fee” that gave Hatch access to the hotel pool, hot tub and fitness center — whether she wanted it or not.
“They didn’t tell me until the end,” says Hatch, who lives in Montgomery Village, Md. “I still booked the room, but it was misleading and unbecoming, particularly for a new property looking to make its mark. Perhaps they don’t care in resort areas like Bar Harbor. But I care.”
So does the Federal Trade Commission. In a surprise move, the consumer protection agency recently warned 22 hotel operators that their online reservation sites may violate the law by displaying a “deceptively low” estimate of what consumers can expect to pay.
In May, the FTC hosted a conference on “drip pricing,” in which companies advertise only part of a product’s price and reveal other charges later as you go through the buying process. The FTC has received many consumer complaints about hotel resort fees, and this fall, several consumer advocates wrote a letter to the agency, asking it to crack down on them.
“This is good news for consumers,” says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University’s Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. “It will eliminate some of the disappointment and frustration they have when they haven’t been aware that there will be resort fees. I think it also will be good for so many hotel employees, who will now not have guests be surprised, as they seem to be so frequently.”
A representative of the West Street Hotel defends the property’s mandatory fee, calling it a “terrific value.”
“The feedback from guests over the summer, which was the first season for the new hotel, was largely in favor and agreement about the value of the fee,” adds Jennifer Cuomo, a spokeswoman for the property. She says that Hatch was shown an all-inclusive rate online before booking, in accordance with the FTC guidelines.
The West Street’s Web site shows the full charge after a basic room rate has been selected.
The FTC action stops short of what the Transportation Department did this year for airfares, requiring airlines and online agencies to display an “all-in” fare that includes every mandatory charge up front. Consumer advocates remain hopeful that the warning could translate into enforcement actions entitling shoppers to see the full price initially, when they ask for a price quote, and not at the end of the booking process, when many have already decided to reserve the room.
Ed Perkins, one of the leading voices against resort fees (and, by way of full disclosure, a columnist for Tribune Media Services, which syndicates one of my columns), calls the FTC’s warning a “partial victory.”
“Apparently, at least some hotels are being careful to note the fees immediately, and they’re also noting the fees in what they post to online travel agencies such as Expedia,” he says. “As far as I can tell, they’re complying with what the FTC asked.”