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TRAVEL INSIDER

Whiff of a Room Bargain Turns Foul on the Wharf

Lodging * A $79 rate in San Francisco was a mistake, the hotel says, and it made amends. But the case points out the complexities of pricing.

September 24, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Few things buoy a traveler's spirits more than spotting a bargain. So there must have been plenty of happy souls among those who saw the Radisson hotel chain's print advertisements this month.

An ad in Westways, the magazine of the Auto Club of Southern California, and other publications offered club members a room at the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Radisson for as little as $79 nightly.

Sounds good, right? It did to Susan Nia of Westwood, and it did to me too. But after Nia e-mailed to tell me the story of her failed chase after that price, and after a conversation with an apologetic Radisson spokeswoman, it's now clear that the ad was too good to be true.

The ad included the usual small print, which noted that "rates vary by day and week, and participating hotels are subject to change." A hotel may designate a certain number of rooms each night at that low price, and once those rooms are gone or the hotel hits a preset occupancy target (often 80%), the rate goes up.

So it wasn't a complete surprise when I called Radisson's toll-free number, (800) 333-3333, and the reservations operator told me she had no $79 rooms at the Fisherman's Wharf Radisson for the next six weeks. The best rate she could find was $189. She suggested I dial the San Francisco hotel directly.

First I went to http://www.radisson.com, where the best AAA members' rate I could find was $134 for the randomly chosen night of Oct. 24.

Then I called the Fisherman's Wharf Radisson, (415) 392-6700, directly and asked about the $79 rate.

"I've been told that all the rooms under that rate have been sold out," the operator said. The best available rate for AAA members in the next six weeks was $199, she added.

When Susan Nia called the Fisherman's Wharf Radisson, a hotel representative told her the $79 rate was a misprint and was never valid, she said.

"What is the generally accepted rule of thumb when a hotel runs an ad with a rate that is a misprint?" she asked me.

There's no clear answer. If publications err, they often run corrections. If the mistake originates with the hotel company or its advertising agency, responses can vary. At the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Motel Assn. and the Sacramento-based California Hotel & Motel Assn., industry veterans say such problems are handled case by case.

For a consumer, the problem of disagreeing hotel rates extends beyond Radisson. Even the largest chains sometimes offer conflicting rates for the same type of room on the same night, even when queried on the same day.

For a column on this theme in 1996, I chose six chains with hotels in Mexico. Within 24 hours I asked in four ways for the same type of room in the same hotel on the same night. Querying through a toll-free phone number, a local phone number, a Spanish-speaking travel agent and the Sabre reservation network used by travel agents, I should have been quoted six rates (each repeated four times); instead, I turned up 18 different rates.

These discrepancies continue despite steady advances in reservations technology. The increasing use of the Internet has spawned the creation of special Web discounts, which are not offered through other media.

Another factor in hotel-rate confusion is the layered nature of hotel ownership and management. Individual hotels in a chain are often quicker to drop rates than the same chain's nationwide toll-free phone operators. Individual hotels are frequently owned by franchisees, who agree to cooperate with the chain but do not always march in lock-step.

"Hotels, in their enthusiasm, think of different packages and offers, and sometimes they don't fill out [the paperwork] that passes word to the 800 operators," said Joan Cronson, spokeswoman for Radisson at its Minneapolis headquarters.

For consumers, this means it's wise to comparison shop--not just one hotel against another but a hotel against itself, using different methods of asking for rates. Hotel industry representatives say the Internet has prompted a push toward "rate integrity across all channels," in the words of Kathy Hollenhorst, vice president for marketing at Radisson Hotels and Resorts in Minneapolis.

So what happened with that Radisson in San Francisco?

"It was an error on our part," Hollenhorst said. She apologized for the mistake and said it was a rarity.

Hollenhorst explained that when the chain's marketing group put together the advertisement, marketers should have double-checked each hotel's stated discount price to make sure it was in the computer systems that supply the company's Web site and 800 operators.

If they had double-checked, Hollenhorst said, they would have found that the Fisherman's Wharf hotel's discount rate should have been $189, not $79. (Radisson officials couldn't explain the $134 and $199 rates I found.)

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