How hotels get the goods

It’s no coincidence that every visit to the upscale Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., seems to get better than the last for EJ Farrell.

“I almost always am upgraded to suites and on my last visit was given a villa, which usually goes for a couple thousand dollars a night,” says the bookseller from El Paso, Texas. “I know they keep records of anniversaries and such, as I had one disastrous meal in their premier restaurant, Mary Elaine’s, several years ago on my anniversary. Since then, they have remembered the date with fabulous meals and service that has more than made up for any problem in the past.”

Farrell gets taken care of elsewhere too: at the legendary Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and at the Halekulani in Honolulu, the staff somehow manage to anticipate her every need. They ask if she wants to stay in the same room she did last time. They always serve her burgers well-done, the way she likes them.

How do the hotels know all this? Because they collect data on their guests’ every preference. Everything from your shoe size to your husband’s name could end up in a property’s computer database.

“Guest history systems are an integral component of almost every property management system,” says Andrew Mace, a hospitality industry specialist at Talus Solutions in Atlanta. “Hotels use the system to pre-empt a guest’s needs and to predict demand for rooms.”

The information in the systems is vast and “often quite personal,” adds Mace. Hotel chains use the information not just within a single property, but across the chain (it’s called “brand-wide customer marketing” in the biz), creating massive dossiers on guests.

I had the opportunity to take a look at one hotel’s guest database recently, and what I found was surprising and a little disturbing. The property, which let me into its back office under the condition that I wouldn’t use its name, is part of an international chain.

When you check in, the system clues in the hotel staff from the get-go. It instantly reveals details about your room preference, the newspaper you want delivered in the morning, what kind of room service breakfast you prefer. Standard stuff.

Then there’s the not-so-standard stuff. Wife’s name. Kids names. Companions’ names. Your birthday. The last movie you ordered from pay-per-view. Personal things that you don’t want broadcast through the hotel.

And it isn’t just available to the hotel employees for the asking; some hotels have been known to provide it to law enforcement without a fuss. “When the police want that information, hotels usually give it to them,” says Steve Aldous, a partner at the Austin, Texas, law firm of Slack & Davis. “They want to be cooperative. Technically, [the police] would need a warrant to get it, but it doesn’t usually come to that.”

Can you imagine a couple of cops hunched over a terminal with the bellboy, browsing your file on a slow night?

“You can ruin someone’s reputation or make their life miserable with knowledge gleaned from something as innocent as who they ate dinner with, what they watched for an in-room movie, or what services they requested from the concierge,” says Mark Devine, a software engineer in La Crosse, Wis.

Meanwhile, some hotels are merging information from one property with information from another, combining frequent-guest information, credit card information and information about your personal preferences.

It’s one thing for a hotel to remember that you like a fruit basket instead of chocolates or that you prefer a beach-side room to a pool-side room. But collecting data on your companions? Letting anyone at the hotel who can type access it? Allowing the police to look at it without a warrant? Thanks, but I’d rather pay cash and travel incognito than let them know that much.

I’m sure I’ll get a lot of e-mails from angry innkeepers who will insist that these databases are just meant to help them serve the guest better. I would agree that in many, if not most cases, that’s true. Farrell’s experience is a good case-in-point.

I don’t think that gathering the information is wrong, but I’m not comfortable with who gets to see that information. Most importantly, I’d like to get a look at what the hotel has on me. Like a credit report, I believe every guest should be able to see a copy of his or her file. No questions asked. What’s more, we ought to be able to add our comments to information that we feel misrepresents us. We should be able to edit portions of our profile. We should not be left in the dark on this issue.

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.

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