My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Why “We’re Oversold – Just Deal With It” Isn’t Acceptable

On Wednesday night, I arrived at the Hilton Doubletree in Washington DC after an intense day of meetings ready to do a few more hours of work. When I got to the desk, the clerk told me that the hotel was oversold. I raised my eyebrows. The news worsened. Not only were all nearby hotels fully booked, but so too were all hotels in the District. He was going to have to send me out to Virginia to a hotel that would be 30 minutes away in zero traffic and, well, DC never has zero traffic. My response was simple: “You’ve got to be f*ing kidding me!?!?” I had booked the hotel through Amex, complete with the confirmed late check-in. I refused to take his offer to go to Virginia because it would’ve messed up every aspect of my itinerary. Instead, I called Amex to get them to investigate options. From the Amex folks, I learned that things really were dire in DC. Yet, according to the rep’s records, the Doubletree was still selling rooms. I told this to the clerk and he told me that wasn’t possible. I looked on Kayak and found that I could also still book the hotel. Meanwhile, at Amex, the only other two guaranteed hotel rooms, both at the St. Regis. One was a presidential suite costing $3000 and the other was a normal room costing a little over $500. (For comparison, my Doubletree reservation was a little under $300 per night.) I immediately asked her to hold the cheaper St. Regis reservation and pressed the clerk to switch me to that hotel. He panicked and told me he’d need to talk to his manager. Getting his manager on the phone was no easy task.

Meanwhile, I tweeted with outrage. As the clerk’s manager failed to respond, a slew of tourists showed up for their hotel rooms; they too were told the dire news and shipped off to Virginia. Far quicker than the manager, the Hilton rep responded on Twitter. I was hopeful. I asked him to call the Doubletree. He did. The clerk explained the situation and said there were no rooms and that they only rooms were in Virginia. I asked for the phone and explained that there was a room at the St. Regis. I explained that they are expected to get me a hotel room in the same city and that it was absurd to think that they could charge me almost $300 a night and ship me off to Virginia and call that customer service. For over an hour, layers of phone calls and discussions and interactions between the different actors – the clerk, the manager, the national representation, the Amex representative – went round and round. Finally, they agreed to send me to the St. Regis but they were only going to pay me for the one night and expect me to check out the next morning and then wait until 3PM to check back in. Given that I had a slew of meetings that I was planning to do from my room midday, this wasn’t going to work. But, after almost 2 hours of them running around in circles, I was exhausted and decided to stop fighting. So I went to the St. Regis, glad to have a room, but deeply unsatisfied with everything about my Hilton experience. Yes, in the end, they allowed me to pay Doubletree rates for one night at the St. Regis. But that took two hours of my time and layers of management and phone calls and never a sincere apology or commitment to fix it by any means necessary.

Then I got to the St. Regis. Bedraggled, grouchy, and generally fed up. Oh what a difference. The clerk there immediately grabbed her more senior colleague (the on-site manager) when she realized the situation. He told me that it would take some time, but that I should go and sit and relax. He sent me off to the bar where my friend and I had a drink. 15 minutes later, he came into the bar, handled me a room key with a smile, and signaled to the bartender that we should not pay for our drinks. Midday, I was in my room, and the head of security came by and asked me when I’d be out. Apparently, they hadn’t booked that room because they needed to do service on the door. I told him when I would be gone. When I came back later that day, the head of security had left a plate of fruit, a bottle of sparkling water, and an apologetic note.

Needless to say, my experiences were night and day. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the St. Regis is a luxury hotel whose brand rests upon its commitment to service while the Doubletree is a basic hotel. Yet, there’s another really clear difference. The representatives physically present at the St. Regis were empowered to actually take care of the issues that arose while the poorly paid clerk at the Hilton had no agency to do anything other than follow orders and call his manager for exceptions. And, by the sounds of it, his manager was not really on-call and didn’t have much agency either. If I didn’t have the visibility that I have through social media (as, presumably, none of the tourists did), I wouldn’t have had any wiggle room whatsoever.

There’s also another issue here. The Hilton was continuing to sell rooms even though it was sold out. Presumably, it had been oversold for hours because the clerk had clearly looked like he had been sending people to Virginia for a while. Another factor could be Hilton’s program that allows any premier client to bump a paying customer to oversold. But it’s not like Hilton sent any email warning of the situation. Or otherwise attempted to notify me or Amex. Rather, they expected me to show up and be OK with being shipped off to Virginia and pay DC rates with the only “gift” being a free taxi each way.

What makes this acceptable? Why do we tolerate overselling hotel rooms? I realize that companies want to maximize profits, but why is it OK to royally screw customers that you’ve guaranteed to have a room for?

On a personal level, there’s a serious irony here for me. I used to use Hilton pretty regularly. I used to have status with Hilton. But, a few years ago, something happened and I stopped using Hilton. A month ago, my mother had a wonderful stay at a Hilton and I realized that I had forgotten why I had stopped using them and I felt like I was being stubborn for no reason. But, in many of the cities I’m visiting this year, Hilton is actually more practical than Starwood or Kimpton (my most common go-to brands). This DC trip was my first venture back into the Hilton brand. Ooops.

I travel a lot. Last year, I was out of Boston for 209 days. I’ve become a bit of a prima donna about my work travel because it’s bloody exhausting to spend so much time negotiating these things. I’ve always had a complex relationship to the issue of status wrt travel. On one hand, it bothers me that hotels treat those who travel more frequently better than those who don’t. On the other, omg is this much travel grueling and sometimes it’s nice to be treated like a princess after yet-another-hotel following yet-another-airport in yet-another-timezone. So I’m conflicted.

But one thing that I strongly believe is that it’s not OK to commit to a service (a hotel room, for example) and then substitute with a lesser solution without any compensation and just consider this business-as-usual. And justify it in the fine print of a contract written by lawyers not to be legible to consumers. This kind of pervasive low-level abuse should not be tolerated. When you as a company screw up, it’s your responsibility to go out of your way to do right by your customers. Not just your loud and visible customers or your high status customers, but all who you’ve made an agreement with.

And it’s not just about high end brands or those who pay a significant premier. Last week, I was on Virgin America. As the plane was coming into Boston, they learned that there were problems with Red (the interactive display for TV/video/food/gaming). They emailed all on the flight to give a heads up and an apology. At the gate, they apologized twice and told us they’d keep us updated. On the plane, they managed to get the video working but not the interactive components. So they gave all food out of free. And they compensated all of us $25 for the inconvenience. THAT is service. And while Virgin is a well-loved brand, they’re not more expensive or more luxury per say. They’re just more civil.

What will it take for all brands to recognize that civility in society requires that they treat their customers with respect? That they empower their customer-facing agents? And that when they screw up, they go out of their way to apologize? And what will it take for customers not to accept being treated horribly because that’s become status quo in America? Le sigh.

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26 comments to Why “We’re Oversold – Just Deal With It” Isn’t Acceptable

  • AnthroPunk

    You seem to have gotten caught up in a crosswind of “process.” People aren’t the problem here, the software is. Unfortunately, you got caught in a bug. In this case, the bug allowed takeovers without checking availability or limits.

    You became a piece of “inventory” in a process inventory management system. Your humanness wasn’t a factor here. The goal of the optimization process apparently was to maximize rooms (much like airplane seats) and shuffle people accordingly to serve that maximization. Whether or not they wanted to be shuffled had no bearing on the situation. The goal is to fill rooms.

    I don’t condone this, but it seems to be happening more and more.

    Respect doesn’t have much to do with it, either. It’s just a negative aspect of process design that people managing the design of large enterprise systems are missing when they develop tools.

  • Really excellent post, thanks for sharing the whole story. It’s incredible how much some big companies expect to get away with in terms of bad service and how time consuming it is to try and get things right. I had a bad experience last year with Qatar Airways, a friend was stranded in Kuala Lumpur, they hadn’t rebooked her flight as agreed and were offering a new flight 10 days later. I went with her and it took 3 hours and talking (very firmly) to several people up the food chain to finally rebook her on a flight that evening. But I wanted an apology an didn’t get it, so I went ahead and kicked up as big a fuss as I could online, until a Qatar Airways rep contacted me, and then my friend – but they never actually apologised, never compensated or anything. ‘sorry for your experience but that’s just how it goes because of some internal rules’ was the gist of it. It’s just not good enough.

  • Jane Armstrong

    I had a similar experience at the Ramada (hilton downmarket chain) in Melbourne. I was travelling around Australia for work and flew into Melbourne from the Torres Strait around midnight only to be told on arrival that my prebooked room in the city had been “overbooked”. I was taxied back out to the airport, given a room at the Hilton and told to return to the city for a free breakfast and room before 10am the next morning. Apparently, sleeping at the Hilton was supposed to be some kind of sop, but I do not care how posh my surroundings do or don’t look when I am asleep. (Anyway, the room was not luxurious or different in any respect to other cheaper rooms and the hotel was impersonal and dull.) The next morning I returned to the Ramada and waited two hours for a room after a mediocre, cold and lacklustre free breakfast. I spoke to the manager about the situation and he was arrogant and unapologetic. Like you, I had all day meetings which I had intended to carry out in room. By the time, I had a room the morning was over. My company had to pay in full for time wasted due to the Hilton’s policy of customer exploitation. May their brand be forever tainted!

  • I’m glad you had a good experience with Virgin America. My experience with them, last year, traveling with my daughter who has an autism spectrum disorder, left a *great* deal to be desired. On most airlines we have ADA accommodations. Virgin America couldn’t even be bothered to seat us together. It was shocking.

    You don’t ask an anxietal kid on the spectrum — even a teen — to sit away from her parents. That is just asking for trouble.

    In the end they apologized profusely and comped our flight, but that was only after I blogged and tweeted about it.

    It would be wonderful if we didn’t have to shame businesses into providing what we have already paid for.

  • It is interesting that you bring up status in the mix. It is almost a necessity to hold status on one travel partner to precent yourself from being treated like cargo. It is like a self feeding circle that takes real guts to break. You (and I) prefer to stay with Starwood or Kimpton because we have status and get better treatment. If we dare break that streak we may end up with a situation similar to what you faced. So the value of loyalty has changed from ‘Be loyal so we can treat you well’ to ‘Be loyal to us so we do not screw you over’. I really do like your commentary on empowerment. Why do you have to pay $500 a night for empowered employees? Does it really cost THAT much more to train and empower someone to do the right thing?

  • Daniel

    As far as I’m concerned the idea of overselling stock of any variety is just insane. If I show up to a restaurant and place my order, I’m going to be pissed if after waiting they tell me the steak is oversold but I can have chicken instead, even at the same price. You just don’t advertise something you don’t have.

    In the end, you’ve made an offer, Ive given consideration, give me my product.

  • Status can be over-rated, I think. I no longer have status at any hotels (cue Rodney Dangerfield?) because I got sick of paying double their wholesale rate. I may not get the best rooms, but I save myself (or whoever is paying for me) enough to make it worth it. And I don’t have your crazy travel schedule, so I rarely end up changing plans mid-go.

    Moreover, I’ve seen this happen to others, and I’ve taken their rooms. This happened at a hotel down the street from where you (danah) work. I had Pricelined a room at something less than a quarter of rack rate, and they had over-reserved rooms. I got my room, I suspect because I was “non-revenue”: if they had to put me somewhere else they would have had to pay out-of-pocket for me.

    FWIW, I had a conference at the St. Regis and stayed at that (I suspect) Doubletree, and had a perfectly fine stay. And, you know, cookies. And I had an experience with a Starwood affiliated hotel in LA recently that stretched belief on the bad customer service meter. Customer service is largely a game of percentages.

  • Weeble

    I suspect underpowered employees are a deliberate part of the horrid system. If overbooking is systemic and not just an occasional accident, then empowering the clerk to do something about it is going to be expensive and time-consuming. Given the level of overbooking in this case, could the clerk have given a respectable level of service to all the overbooked tourists?

  • Pat

    Thanks for sharing your experience! We have been Hilton Honor members for a long time but have seen the service go downhill too. We do a lot of traveling and your recent experience makes me reconsider staying at Hilton hotels.

  • Bob

    I bet a dollar you vote Democrat. You rant like an out of touch “progressive.” consider yourself officially out of touch with the vast majority of Americans.

  • “On the plane, they managed to get the video working but not the interactive components. So they gave all food out of free. And they compensated all of us $25 for the inconvenience.”

    Yes, to be inconvenienced in such a way is…. well, quite a remarkable statement to say the least.

  • Rachel

    I’ve had plenty of jobs, and front desk is definitely the most difficult and trying. Things happen out of our control, whether it be corporate offices changing over room types in the system without notice (causing us to double-book for two weeks straight) or a freak accident where a toilet breaks and floods an entire floor. While I love the hospitality industry, it is also very hard because nobody seems to understand that things are not always our fault. For instance, many guests like to check into rooms and then immediately turn the AC down to 60 degrees (which freezes it up) and then DEMAND a new room on a night we are sold out. To please the guest, we have to move their room and then make the decision whether to put another innocent person into a room with a semi-frozen AC unit or to send them to another hotel. Especially with Front Desk, because front desk clerks have to take A LOT of flack from guests over issues they really had nothing to do with. Front Desk clerks don’t clean the rooms, so why scream at them over your bathroom floor not being mopped properly? Next time you stay at a hotel, do the industry a favor and be a little more forgiving.

  • Interesting post. There’s obviously a class issue working here, but I’ll set that aside for the moment because I’m more interested in the question you close with: “And what will it take for customers not to accept being treated horribly because that’s become status quo in America?”

    What is the alternative? Some people have to travel, for work or family issues. Some people want to travel, for pleasure, etc. The large majority of travelers, especially in the second category, aren’t staying in luxury hotels. Everywhere you go, you’re treated at best indifferently, at worst – as you experienced (or similar “horror” stories). Airlines are perhaps THE example of companies that specialize in jerking around their customers and treating them shoddily, but there aren’t a lot of businesses – other than very high-end or boutique ones – that take customer service seriously at all. They don’t have to, unless someone with a substantial twitter/blog presence gets angry and starts to complain online. There aren’t other – or enough other – alternatives to force companies to work otherwise. The demand for respect or civility or courtesy is at odds with capitalism’s basic aim – to make as much profit as possible. Because there’s no choice, people are “willing” to pay for crap service; thus, there’s no incentive for businesses to provide anything else. You have to lay out a LOT more money, as a consumer, to get even civil, courteous treatment, let alone excellent treatment (i.e., your St Regis experience). Which keeps all of this solidly a class issue, and economic-systemic one.

  • Ron

    You don’t get it. Think about the big picture of what you are saying. Yes, hotels and airlines could be prevented from overbooking. And then they would be forced to charge higher prices. Overbooking prevents perishable rooms and seats from going unused, which benefits the majority through lower prices. Occasionally, an individual gets screwed in the process.

  • Ron: I’d be fine with being charged a premium to guarantee never getting overbooked. That’s not an option.

    More generally though, I disagree with you. As a customer, I’m charged a fee when I cancel in under 24 hours. But they’re not required to have a similar clause for screwing me.

    Personally, what I think would be just would be that they can overbook if that’s the best economic choice. But, when they overbook, they have to pay to put the patron up elsewhere and the patron pays nothing. In other words, they take on the full cost of overbooking. This would guarantee that they’d optimize their algorithms, not continue selling rooms when they’re sold out, and generally work to be as close to accurate in assessments as possible.

  • Sadly it does seem that premium customers only get normal service now – there are exceptions of course, but even with my bank to get a fast telephone service or good service at all you need to have XX thousand in the bank. Everyone else has to queue. This seems to be the norm now… unless you are rich/have VIP status then it’s all smiles. Two tier system (or more) but hey, that’s how capitalism works, just it’s crumbling (like the cookies) as the divide increases across the world. Used to be OK that the economy passengers were subsidised by the VIP ones because the economy passengers would at least get some service. Seems that’s been cut more and more – like the seat space – while the VIPs get more.

    Problem is – as soon as there is an alternative, all those people are out of the door. And although the business and first classes and VIPs subsidise the rest, a bit like the Titanic you need the lower classes to pay for the rest. Sadly I would say that this particular ship is sinking, that the middle class and upper middles haven’t really accepted the fact that they’ve been downgraded to working class because of the recession and the super billionaires that cashed in.

    Maybe when they realise this they might stop moaning about the 99% and the bad service and actually join in changing the system? Revolution’s too good for them, it seems. Until people stand up to how they are being treated – not just by rich hotel corps like Hilton, but across the board – then yes, they will be treated as fodder/bums on seats/ignorable.

  • aepxc

    The standard is actually pretty simple. Every company should treat its customers the way its CEO would be satisfied with being treated (for the price). In other words, less money should buy smaller rooms and worse furnishings, not less honesty and less dignity.

  • Katie Riddle

    Hi all—JUst a friendly PSA from someone in the hotel industry. If you book through a third party (AmEx, Expedia, Travel agent, etc.), the fine print in their agreements say that you are NOT guaranteed a room. If you book through the hotel directly (at least with the InterContinental Hotels Group hotels), you are guaranteed a room. It sounds like the first people to be bumped when a hotel is oversold are the third party bookers–not defending this, just stating. I didn’t know that until very recently (I’m new to the company/industry), and I’m a seasoned traveler.

    That being said, it really came down to customer service…in the age of huge turnover in service staff, hospitality folks have to do a better job of retaining and educating their employees, not to mention empowering them to fix problems. We’re actively working on the problem here at my company, but it’s endemic to restaurants, travel services, cruise lines, etc.

  • danah boyd,
    I came to your web site after watching your talk entitiled
    “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy”(Webstock 12) and
    after reading this post on hotels overbooking(or overselling).

    The larger question is: why businesses get away by ignoring laws?
    Or why laws are not protecting the consumer?

    You do not give the impression of being a naive person. You are also lucky in the knowledge of using the socal networks, unlike most people.

    Welcome to the real world.
    Regards,
    Kemal Talat Muskara
    Alanya, Rep. of Turkey

  • Oh my goodness. Chris Brogan (my boyfriend) just sent this over to me because the SAME EXACT thing happened to us a few weeks ago with Hilton, except I had booked through hotels.com. The Hilton staff were no help, blamed it all on hotels.com and basically were like “too bad, we didn’t do it.” According to hotels.com it IS Hilton’s doing and it is their room inventory that is showing that rooms are available. Anyway, It took HOURS to get a new room somewhere (thanks to the help of hotels.com) as everything in Boston was sold out. Total nightmare.

  • Jim St.Clair

    Great, post. great comments. I think I’ll blog about it.

    One thing I can add that I haven’t read is that we have lost “empowerment” in so many jobs. Since employee loyalty has slipped so badly, it now impacts customer loyalty, because no one (desk clerk, service agent, even manager) can simply say “I WILL solve this problem”. Great companies like St. Regis, L.L Bean or others teach every representative can solve a problem, and be rewarded for helping a customer. Those times have passed us by in so many ways…

  • Many years ago I repeatedly had issues with Hilton reason why my go to brands became Marriott and Starwood.

    I have two or three stories where I got bumped and I decided I rather not stay with hilton.

    Last year I was given at conference I spoke at and the hotel had major issues in Customer Service. I wrote about it and they quickly reached out to me and sent me a complimentary night at any hilton.

    I think they need to work on their locations a lot more but from Headquarters it seems to me that they don’t tolerate this and they are trying to help in fixing these issues.

  • Rick

    I’m curious about the twitter connection. Did the social media intern at Hilton read your tweet and somehow get the attention of management? Did they consider that you have 65k followers when they responded?

  • Rick: I have no idea. Clearly someone read my tweet; they called the Hilton Doubletree directly. Why they chose to respond to me in particular… that I have no idea. I presume it was because of my audience size, but I have no idea how they’re trained or what they’re told to do.

    But yes, the national folks were far more willing to be helpful than the local folks because the local folks had no agency.

  • Different chains and different locations will handle these situations in widely varying ways, and like some have stated, status makes a big difference. I am not entirely surprised that you had that experience with a) Hilton and b) that hotel; if it were SPG and the St. Regis to begin with, for example, it would be far stranger – elite status aside.

    My finding, relevant to your situation, is that for many brands the social media / Twitter teams are quite empowered and quite eager to help, regardless of audience size or Klout score or whatever. They’re just operating with different goals, prerogatives and powers. I often will go through Twitter before calling or doing other things because really, you can get responded to faster (during their business hours) and with more direct contact.

    One thing though on your suspicion that top-tier folks may have been part of the problem – while definitely possible, all the major chains still require advance notice for that – some as much as 72 hours, others as few as 24 hours, but still more time in advance; it would give people sufficient notice to make amends in advance…

    Do your travels occur frequently and with sufficient flexibility to grant you perks, status, and related privileges? That’s a whole other topic to reflect on – no doubt fascinating fodder – but to go there would be to indulge too much the consultant’s bread and butter…

  • HotelMgrSC

    I manage a hotel that oversells routinely. It’s a common and necessary practice industry-wide. When an oversell occurs the last guests to arrive are “walked” to other hotels. I was shocked to read that the hotels mentioned here did not pay for the hotel room. Any hotel i have ever worked for has paid for one night room and tax for guests they walked to other hotels. Honestly i have never heard of a hotel NOT paythating. It’s similar to getting a free round trip airline ticket when you give up your seat in an overbooked flight. Unlike an overbooked flight you usually don’t have a choice.

    Revenue managers create oversell strategies to ensure 100% occupancy. To ensure a head is in every bed and a valid credit card accompanies it, hotels will oversell by as much as 5%. What most people don’t realize is that hotel cancellations are so prevalent that a 15 room oversell usually turns out to be more like a two room oversell because people book hotel rooms using invalid credit card numbers or cards that are over their limit. If those people don’t show up, the hotel ends up with empty hotel rooms and no revenue. Just like everything else, hotels are ultimately businesses where profit is the goal.

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