How hotels became a strange shell of their former selves
Nearly all U.S. hotels are still short-staffed. Here's what you can do about it
Before the pandemic, American hotels were a standout in an industry of underachievers.
Some hotel chains routinely scored top marks in customer service surveys. They were so good at what they did that other companies hired them to teach customer service. No hotel chains cracked our top 10 list of most-complained-about companies. Hotels also largely escaped the wrath of their customers and the consumer advocates who protected them.
Look at them now.
Customer service scores are slipping, and even lodging industry insiders say guests should get used to it. I've seen a steady uptick in hotel complaints, with guests griping about lack of service, housekeeping and the presence of unwelcome fees.
What happened? The hotel industry wants to blame everything on the labor shortage. Just this week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association released a new survey with some startling numbers. It reported that 87 percent of hotels were experiencing a staffing problem, with 36 percent calling the shortage "severe."
The most critical staffing need is housekeeping, with 43 percent ranking it as their biggest challenge.
How did American hotels go from standard-bearers to punching bags? And how can you ensure your next hotel visit isn't marred by poor service?
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How did this happen?
The conventional wisdom is that the hotel industry suffered through two terrible years during the pandemic. It laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, and when demand returned, it couldn't staff up quickly enough. And that's how we got to these service-less hotels that are strange shells of their former selves.
But that's only part of the story. The truth is that some hotels have always wanted to cut housekeeping and food service and then potentially sell them back to guests on an a la carte basis. So when the pandemic came along, it gave many hotels an opening to do what they've wanted to for a while.
Many hotel owners saw the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently reduce some amenities they had always wanted to get rid of — chief among them, daily housekeeping. And while the labor shortage is keeping them from staffing back up, there's no doubt that they secretly hope the service-less hotel concept will become the new normal.
And that's not just my opinion; it's also yours.
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Here's how this could play out.
Some budget hotels in the United States will never return to offering food service or daily housekeeping again, even if the labor market improves. Instead, they'll offer some services as extras, taking a page from the airline fee model. Think of it as Spirit Air running a hotel.
Another group of hotels will eventually return some of the missing amenities. But management will also take advantage of their guests' lowered expectations by raising fees — most notably, mandatory hotel resort fees. These properties will try to have the best of both worlds, offering a "full service" experience and exploiting the ancillary fee opportunities. It's like what you get with a legacy carrier like American or Delta.
And then there are the few hotels that will try to return to the way things were: daily housekeeping, a hotel restaurant, and a fully staffed front desk. But to compete, these hotels will also have the highest rates. So you can still experience the legendary hospitality for which American hotels were once known. But it'll cost you. It's like flying on Singapore Airlines or Emirates. You pay more, but you get more.
In other words, there'll be more market segmentation — and potentially, a lot of consumer confusion.
What you can do about it
So hotel customer service is in a death spiral, and customers think it will never improve. Can you do anything about it?
Actually, you can.
Unlike the airline industry, where four carriers control more than 80 percent of the flights, the hotel industry is much more competitive. Customers can make a difference if they speak up.
There's some evidence that customers are making their displeasure known. On the issue of hotel resort fees, we've seen some concerted efforts by consumer advocacy groups to stop these predatory fees. But more needs to be done.
Fill in your guest comment card
Every hotel — from the lowliest budget property to the priciest five-star resort — reviews guest comment cards. If you stay in a hotel that hikes the Wi-Fi fees or lets your room go for an entire week without housekeeping, for goodness' sake, fill out the comment card. If you don't, the hotel will interpret that as your approval and will continue doing it.
Talk about your negative experiences
If you participate in social media, speak up. Let your friends and family know when a hotel has turned into a strange shell of its former self. And don't let the hotel get away with the COVID or tight labor market excuse — remember, some hotels were waiting for these market conditions to make these changes. They're not all victims.
Don't stay there!
You can avoid the hotel if you want to send a crystal-clear message of disapproval. And you can tell all of your friends to blacklist the hotel, too. Word travels fast. Before long, the hotel's management will understand that cutting housekeeping or raising a resort fee is a terrible idea. And maybe they'll do what they should have done a long time ago and raise their room rates so that they can cover their costs.
Guests aren't the only victims, of course. I feel even worse for the hotel employees who have to work longer hours and then answer to unhappy guests. This is an existential moment for the American hotel industry. It can slide down the path of the airline industry, or it can climb back up the mountain of higher standards and better service.
Maybe we can show them the way.
Your thoughts, please
What do you think of post-pandemic hotel service? Are hotels just victims of a tight labor market, or are they taking advantage of the situation?
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott knows what it’s like to check into a hotel with substandard amenities (after all, he’s a second-year MFA student). He channeled his disappointment into this digital artwork.
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