Overbooking happens, but it doesn't have to be a negative experience for guests who need walked.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—When a hotel is filled to capacity and guest reservations are still on the books for the night, hoteliers need to have policies in place to walk, or refer, guests to nearby properties for accommodations.
“Overbooking happens because guests fail to check out; it happens because rooms go out of order or because we actually take a chance on a busy day of adding an extra room or two onto our list,” said Tom Waithe, regional director of operations for the Pacific Northwest and Mountain regions of Kimpton Hotels. “Hotels, like airlines, are businesses, and the goal is to maximize revenue at all times.”
Although overbooking strategies can drive revenue, sometimes guests are left without room at the inn. However, it need not be a negative experience for guests if hoteliers are armed with a few best practices during the process.
Who to walk
When a hotel is overbooked, Waithe said the first step is to double check that a guest relocation is actually necessary. That process starts by taking some time to look at a guest-arrival list.
“So many times a guest can be relocated without realizing there was a duplicated reservation, a canceled reservation or a spelling mistake,” he said. That’s why it’s important to view the list for any errors before making a decision.
Once it’s determined that there are no errors, Waithe said it’s time to eliminate from consideration who can’t walk—guests such as VIPs, families or individuals who are staying for multiple nights.
Groups are usually off limits, too, especially if contracts clearly emphasize that members can’t be walked to another property, according to Brent Gresham, area manager of The Spectator Hotel, French Quarter Inn and HarbourView Inn in Charleston, South Carolina.
If group contracts don’t state members can’t be walked, then Gresham said it’s important that these guests are walked within close proximity of the meeting or hotel where the group is staying.
Brian Fry, president of Commonwealth Hotels, which has 45 hotels in its portfolio, said that he has been in a situation before where a whole group had to be moved. In this case, a large group booked at a higher price point caused the hotel to become overbooked. Thus, another group booked at a lower rate was chosen to walk.
“We don’t have one formula (for walking guests),” Fry said. “We look at each occurrence.”
Gresham’s team conducts courtesy calls to confirm guests’ stays and to get an idea of who will be visiting.
“During this process we qualify each guest based on rates, length of stay and the medium of which they booked their room to verify before arrival,” he said via email. “This allows us to determine which guest might be open to us walking them over to one of our sister properties. If it’s a guest that has stayed with us before, more likely than not we know their personality and if they’d be open to staying at a sister property this time around.”
Although Gresham said it’s on a case-by-case basis, he finds that people staying for one night or corporate guests are more open to being walked.
In general, Waithe said, there are some types of customers who won’t mind being relocated to another hotel. He agreed that corporate business travelers are less likely to care because they aren’t the ones paying for the room.
“You look for those people who won’t mind or who will look at it as a positive,” he said. “The other side is that you have to ensure you aren’t sending them to the dubious motel down the road. You need to send them to a quality product.”
Brands vs. independents
The hotel that guests are walked to often can depend on the type of hotel of the original booking.
For branded hotels, Fry said his team tries to be respectful of referring guests within the brand family when possible. Each brand has a slightly different take on what is preferred in the situation, he said, but ultimately guests’ needs come first.
“Sometimes guests are more worried about proximity; sometimes they’re more worried about being in the brand family,” he said. “We try to be respectful of both.”
Waithe said that in his area there are four Kimpton hotels within close proximity of each other. When he needs to walk guests, he will send them to the Kimpton hotel that will provide a similar guest experience. If all of the Kimpton hotels are full, then guests will be sent to a hotel that is of equal or better quality, with guest safety and security being the No. 1 priority.
Gresham said his team at his independent hotels, which are part of the Charlestowne Hotels family, work to do its best to walk guests within the portfolio in an effort to still capture the business.
“However, we always walk guests to the closest hotel to cater to their needs. We never want to sacrifice our reputation to force a product that they don’t want,” he said. “We will definitely send them to a competitor if that is the best hotel that meets their need. We still have a chance of earning their business at a later date, especially if they’re staying in Charleston for more than one night.”
When it comes to independent luxury properties, such as the ART in Denver, which is part of Commonwealth Hotels, other key luxury properties are identified for partnerships, Fry said, in the case of walking guests. The opportunity to negotiate a lower rate for this purpose is also key, he added.
Recovering the service
Service recovery is possible if the walking process is done in a proactive manner, sources said.
“If you are proactive with your approach, it cuts off the anger before it happens,” Fry said. “The angry guest will be the one at midnight or 1 a.m. who gets surprised, so avoid that surprise.”
Waithe agreed, adding that the process needs to be quick. If done right, hoteliers will know they are overbooked before guests even start arriving on property. Once it’s determined who will be walked, accommodations should be made for that guest before he or she arrives. Once on-property, there should be a car waiting with a room set up and ready to go at the other hotel.
“People will arrive tired after being cramped on a plane. Maybe there’s a business meeting to attend in the morning,” Waithe said. “They don’t want to stand there while you dial around to hotels to find an open room.”
Gresham said to make sure the “call around” is up to date so that front-desk associates can easily see the area vacancies with comparable rates. Then, they should communicate with hotel staff at the other hotel.
“We call the hotel prior to the guest’s arrival so that their front desk is aware of who is coming over and so they can refer to them by their name and make them feel welcome,” Gresham said.
If walked guests are staying in the city for multiple nights, Waithe said to bring them back the next day with the offering of a free upgrade and other complimentary amenities on return. Another tip is to notify everyone on the team of which guests were walked and are returning, that way they can be referred to by name, which will add a special touch.
But no best practice will make up for the walk if the team doesn’t handle the situation with empathy, Fry said.
“You have to hear them out and be attentive to their needs and be empathic,” he said. “It sounds basic, but it’s amazing how hard it can be. Train your staff to do so.”