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Empty Hotel Rooms Open a New Niche for Discounters : Lodging: They bargain for suite deals and pass savings to consumers, who often must be willing to pay in advance.

March 05, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Back in the beginning of this decade, when things started to go profoundly wrong with the U.S. economy and hoteliers throughout the land began to realize their shiny new buildings were alarmingly under-occupied, a new animal in the travel business was born: the hotel room consolidator.

Being able to identify this animal could save a traveler a good bit of money.

Just as airline ticket consolidators quietly reserve large volumes of tickets at cut rates and then sell them to the public, hotel consolidators (also known as brokers) make quiet deals with hotels, then offer the rooms to travelers via telephone booking services. Their services are free to consumers and often work out to 40% or more off the inflated off-the-rack rates published by hotels. Even with the economy now stronger and hotel occupancy rates rising, industry veterans agree that consolidators seem to have become a fixed feature in the hotel landscape.

There are other ways to get a discountedhotel room, among them frequent-guest programs, , package deals, half-off discount books such as those offered by Entertainment Publications and city reservation services. (Generally speaking, reservation services get commissions from hotels and consolidators don't, but distinctions among discounting companies can be blurry.) But consolidators are useful if you want a reasonably priced bed in a big city, especially on short, short notice amid high demand.

Four consolidators that deal directly with consumers are described here. Keep in mind that travelers should clarify all details themselves and that mention here is not an endorsement of any company.

The Dallas-based Hotel Reservations Network (800-964-6835), founded in 1992, handles hotel rooms in the United States, London and Paris. Typically, Hotel Reservations Network takes a traveler's credit card number by phone, forwards the reservation to the hotel, gives the traveler a hotel confirmation number (so a traveler can double-check his or her reservation with the hotel) and mails or faxes a voucher to the traveler affirming the transaction. At the Park Shore Hotel in Honolulu (published winter rates $117 and up), the company's rates start at $79.

This year, president Bob Diener estimates that the company will handle 300,000 to 500,000 room-nights (mostly leisure travelers) at about 400 hotels in 22 U.S. cities. (On March 1, it added the Big Island of Hawaii, Molokai and Kauai.)

Quikbook (800-789-9887) handles only U.S. hotels. Based in New York, the company was born in 1987 as a service for business travelers, but the company has also added hotels in such leisure destinations as Orlando and Anaheim. Wendy Galfund, Quikbook's director of marketing, estimates that the company works with about 200 hotels in 24 cities. Customers call Quikbook to choose a hotel and make a reservation, and have the option of giving their credit card numbers (to guarantee the room for late arrival) or waiting to pay until they arrive at the hotel. After reservations are made, Quikbook mails or faxes a hotel voucher to the travelers, including the hotel's confirmation number. At the Hotel Dorset in New York (published rates $175 and up), Quikbook's rates begin at $99.

Room Exchange (800-846-7000), also based in New York, offers rooms in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. The company was founded in 1990, and claims more than 23,000 participating hotels and an annual room-night total that managing director Mike Beer puts "in the millions."

To book through Room Exchange, a traveler calls, chooses a hotel, reserves a room and gives a major credit card number. Room Exchange makes the charge against the credit card (cancellations and changes with due notice are handled for free, Beers says) and mails or faxes a voucher to the traveler. But the booking at the hotel stays in the name of Room Exchange until 48 hours before the traveler's expected arrival time. Thus, if you make a booking via Room Exchange and call the hotel three days before arrival to check the reservation, the hotel won't have your name, even though it has your room.

Beer says the company works with hotels in about 900 U.S. cities, including many leisure travel destinations. At the Drake Swissotel Hotel in New York (published rates $215 and up), Room Exchange rates begin at $119.

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