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Probing the Pros and Cons of City Reservation Services : Lodgings: These independent agencies are an attractive option--but not all of them deliver what they promise.

January 23, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Here, if you're a city traveler on the way to a strange town, is a seductive prospect:

A citywide hotel phone reservation service has gathered a wealth of background data on local hotels. It gets deep discounts and makes bookings at no cost to the traveler.

Sounds wonderful. So it's not surprising that over the last decade, reservation services have arisen and grown in most major American cities. Many are efficient, knowledgeable and prosperous--but they're not all alike. The city hotel reservation service remains a ragged industry with no national network, widely varied standards and styles of business, and enough potential pitfalls to scare away some tourism professionals.

"It's labor-intensive, it takes start-up capital, and it takes a real commitment to providing service," says Jill Gustavson, who co-founded San Francisco Reservations seven years ago. If a traveler lands in the hands of a sub-par agency, Gustavson says, he or she might miss out on a discount or "might not get information that you would want to know, such as what that (hotel's) neighborhood is really like."

In many ways, the coordinating of citywide hotel reservations seems like a natural undertaking for a local convention and visitors bureau. The problem there, says Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, is "who's included and who's not." Since hotels are dues-paying members of convention and visitors bureaus, Collins says, "the fastest way to get a bureau person fired is to have them recommend a particular hotel" over another.

A reservation service that is an independent business, of course, has no such problem, and can use honest information as a selling point. If you're considering booking rooms through a city reservation service, keep these questions in mind:

How many hotels does the agency take reservations for, and what kind of discounts does it get? How often do agency representatives visit the hotels?

Be sure the reservationist asks enough about your preferences. If you know one hotel in the city, ask about that property to see if the agency's assessment matches what you know. If you don't know any hotels--or you don't know of a reservation service--call the local convention bureau or chamber of commerce and ask. Any effective service is likely to have a good relationship with those organizations.

Most reservation services never take payment from travelers; they pass along your credit-card number to hold reservations in your name, and are paid commissions by the hotel after guests arrive. Here's a test: Suggest to the service's reservationist that you'll call the hotel to pass along your credit-card number directly. At most well-run services, that should be no problem.

After a reservation is made, most services send written acknowledgments, including the hotel confirmation number. Call to reconfirm, and while you're at it, ask about rates to check the size of your discount.

*

Here are three reservation services that serve four key U.S. cities:

* New York and Los Angeles. Express Reservations (telephone 800-356-1123), though based in Boulder, Colo., specializes in these two cities. The company started in 1987 and handles a clientele of roughly 85% business travelers. Steve Cornwell, president, says the firm concentrates on about 25 hotels in New York and 15 in Los Angeles, thereby allowing "constant feedback from clients" on the properties. (Beyond that, Cornwell says, each of the company's 26 employees makes a round of hotel visits every nine months in either New York or Los Angeles.) Express customers usually pay $130-$140 nightly in New York, $110-$115 in Los Angeles, though the service usually can find rooms beginning at $70 in both cities.

* San Diego. San Diego Hotel Reservations (tel. 800-728-3227) started doing business in January, 1991. President Matt DeLine says the company offers reservations at about 250 hotels throughout San Diego County and sends reservationists on regular inspections. DeLine estimates that 60% of his customers are leisure travelers and that most pay $60-$80 nightly, though he handles hotels whose rates typically range from $40 to $150. DeLine also says business is good; he booked about 50,000 room-nights last year, up about one-third from the year before.

* San Francisco. San Francisco Reservations (tel. 800-677-1550), an independent company that opened in 1986, says it makes reservations for more than 200 hotels in the Bay Area, including all major properties in the city, and many bed and breakfasts and selected motels. Co-owner Jill Gustavson says prices are usually substantially below those available to walk-in guests, and generally range from $50 to $250 nightly for double rooms.

* Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. Accommodations (tel. 202-289-2220) says it will make reservations at virtually any hotel in the city (there are an estimated 25,000 rooms), but it uses a shorter list of preferred properties, usually obtaining substantial discounts. The service, an independent company, was founded in 1984. Co-owner Nancy Riker estimates that clients are 60% business travelers, 40% leisure. They usually pay $90-$140 per night during peak-rate seasons of spring and fall, $60-$100 during the less busy (and more humid) summer months.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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