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TRAVEL INSIDER

Guest Comment Cards: Is Anyone Listening?

Hotels: Managers really do read those customer response forms--and often take action on complaints and suggestions.

November 22, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Most of us--maybe 75%, maybe 97.5%--can't be bothered to fill out those guest comment cards that hotels are always nudging toward us. I know I can't.

From a certain angle, after all, my job amounts to a more elaborate version of filling out guest comment cards. It seems redundant, and uneconomical, to complete those forms for free.

But my wife retains her amateur status as a hotel customer, and as a teacher she abhors the sight of an unanswered multiple-choice question. Further, as the veteran of one bleak but character-building college summer as a Holiday Inn maid, she holds that every lodging we use deserves a detailed accounting of our experience there.

In Memphis last July, she took up pen and comment card to lavish praise on the Peabody Hotel doorman who gave us such good getting-around-town advice, while also tattling on the concierge who, in the few crumbs of advice he was willing to give us, was wrong.

While she sits scribbling in such circumstances, I often wonder: How many other guests fill out these forms, and who reads them? And what, if anything, happens next? Now I have some answers:

At U.S. Hilton hotels, 3.5% to 5% of guests fill out comment cards. The cards go not only to the hotel general manager, but to a Dallas company called Customer Survey Technologies, which looks for larger trends and reports to corporate headquarters in Beverly Hills.

In 1993, for instance, "we eliminated credit-card access fees on long-distance calls from guest rooms," recalls Hilton spokeswoman Kendra Walker. "And that was a result from feedback from guests, who felt they were being nickel-and-dimed."

At Marriott Hotels, spokeswoman Geary Campbell says management relies less on in-room comment cards than it does on surveys mailed out to a sampling of recent guests every month. Over the last decade, Campbell says, those responses have inspired accelerated check-out procedures, the placement of an iron and ironing board in every room, the extension of open hours in fitness and business facilities, and the creation of hotel sub-brands such as Courtyard by Marriott, which caters to guests on extended stays.

At Four Seasons hotels and resorts the response rate is about 3%. Vice president for operations Wolf Hengst said that comment-card information is a key consumer tool in pushing hotels forward in technology upgrades. Once the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., installed its first televisions with remote controls in 1979, he recalled, managers throughout the chain, and the industry, started hearing from guests eager to channel-surf.

Throughout the Ritz-Carlton universe of 11,588 rooms in 35 hotels worldwide, guests in the first 10 months of 1998 sent in 16,989 comment cards. (The company also relies heavily on guest-satisfaction polling by J.D. Power and Associates.) Hotel general managers are expected to respond by telephone within 24 hours or a letter postmarked within a day or two. All cards eventually filter back to individual hotels, where patterns sometimes emerge.

When the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton opened in April 1991, the U.S. recession was biting hard, and many business travelers were actually doubling up in rooms. So management outfitted 98 rooms as "double-doubles"--two double beds in each, rather than the single king that most vacationing couples count on. But the economy changed, and comment cards lamented the lack of king-size beds. When the hotel renovated in 1996, management cut back the number of double-doubles to 55.

Similarly, in 1992, hoping to stay abreast of communications advances, the same hotel placed a fax machine in every room. But the next few years brought a gradual accumulation of comment cards from travelers who didn't want to sleep alongside a reminder of business obligations. In 1997, says a spokeswoman, the hotel reversed course and told guests that in-room fax machines were available only by request.

(That move, by the way, runs counter to a wider trend of guest demand for new communications and entertainment doodads. Over the last five years, many hotel officials say, guest comment cards were one of the strongest forces pushing upscale hotels to add videocassette players and data ports to make it easier for guests to plug in their laptops.)

Comment cards, the spokeswoman says, also influenced the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton's moves to cut back smoking rooms from 52 to 32, to add voicemail (in 1995), to double the size of its workout facility (in 1996) and to add a 24-hour business center (this year). The hotel has responded a bit more slowly, however, to comment-card requests for a children's video arcade in the lobby.

Meanwhile, at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel, general manager Jim McPartlin says "we probably get a 25% to 30% return on cards. . . . Most of the clientele have no problem giving constructive feedback."

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