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MEXICO SPECIAL EDITION : When Disasters Make Hotel Guests Feel Like Hostages : Lodging: Don't take free rooms or meals for granted in a crisis. That's usually left to the judgment of general managers.

October 15, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It was a dark and stormy day. I was due to fly from Los Cabos International Airport in Baja California to Los Angeles. But several hours before my flight was to depart, with the rain falling sideways and hotel workers boarding up windows and heaving patio furniture out of the wind's path and into the pool, authorities closed down the airport for the day. Hurricane Ismael seemed to be coming soon, they said. I was grounded, along with several hundred other American travelers, for an extra unanticipated night.

As it turned out, the hurricane veered toward mainland Mexico around Los Mochis, killing about 100 people in gusting winds and violent surf. But like thousands of travelers caught in this year's hurricanes in the Caribbean and elsewhere, we in San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas had an awkward and potentially expensive situation to sort out: If a weather emergency forces you to stay an extra night in your hotel, or evacuate early, who pays? How much?

Cruise lines, which routinely face the need to steer around rough weather, have a standard clause in their passenger agreements that grants them freedom to change itineraries (though that doesn't always keep passengers from protesting). Some hotels in New York, Boston, Chicago and other snow-prone cities have discounts for snowed-in travelers. And travelers who buy trip cancellation/interruption insurance coverage are usually covered when natural disasters scramble plans. But most travelers don't have that coverage, and most vacation destination hotels don't have much practice in setting natural-disaster rates. Thus, as word of our stranding circulated among the guests at the Melia Cabo Real Beach & Golf Resort in San Jose del Cabo that day, there were a lot of questions in the air.

Some of my fellow guests made loud noises about how they expected a free night since this was beyond their control. Others kept quiet, recognizing that the weather was beyond the hotel's control too. Having just arrived after spending several nights in a nearby small town, I didn't expect any great favors as a new guest checking into the hotel under storm-watch conditions. And I didn't get any. Though the Melia Cabo Real, a 300-room Hyatt-like property, was mostly unoccupied and its services and amenities were severely curtailed, the lowest nightly rate I could get was about $115--the hotel's usual price for a single room in September.

More important, however, is what the hotel did for the guests who had been at the hotel for a day or more and had expected to leave that night. Management gave them the night free. Diego Montoya, the hotel's front desk manager, later estimated that 60 guests were offered the free night.

But travelers in such situations should take nothing for granted. These kinds of crises, hotel industry veterans say, almost always come down to judgment calls by hotel general managers. Some examples:

Early last month, when Hurricane Luis struck the West Indies, the Four Seasons Resort on the tiny island of Nevis was forced to evacuate all of its roughly 160 guests by launch to St. Kitts and then by air to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hotel, which charges $200 per room and up at that time of year, found its guests alternative lodgings in several hotels in San Juan or on St. Kitts and negotiated preferred rates for them. Guests on package plans were given pro-rated refunds.

"Before we put guests in the launch [leaving Nevis]," said Four Seasons general manager Mark Hellrung, "we'd already given them their flight numbers and a confirmation of the hotel they would stay in" in San Juan or on St. Kitts.

In October, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, all of the downtown San Francisco Hilton's 1,900 rooms were rented (the World Series was in town). Guests were given that night's dinner and lodging free, at a cost that hotel management estimated at $750,000.

In September, 1992, when Hurricane Iniki put the Hawaiian Islands on alert, the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu evacuated guests from 1,144 of its 2,542 rooms from roughly noon to 9 p.m., directing them to ballrooms where free buffet food was offered. When it came time to settle that night's bills, the hotel's general manager and front desk staff negotiated prices guest by guest, giving some the night for free, charging others full rates.

"Some guests are more adamant, and others are more understanding," explained Hilton spokeswoman Jeanne Datz.

In January, 1994, when the Northridge earthquake rocked Los Angeles County, the management of the 318-room Warner Center Hilton in Woodland Hills decided to give all guests 50% off on room rates for the length of their stays, Datz said.

In 1993, when Hurricane Andrew ripped into Florida, all of the 662-room Sheraton Bal Harbour's guests were evacuated to the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel in Orlando, where guests far outnumbered rooms. The guests who got rooms paid deeply discounted rates, Sheraton spokeswoman Dolores Sanchez said, and the others slept for free on cots in the hotel's ballrooms or, in at least a few cases, bedded down in guest rooms at homes of hotel employees.

* 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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