Some Hotels Just Can't Keep Their Promises : Service: The 'extras' that a hotel claims it will provide guests and what it actually delivers often are very different. Best advice is to ask questions before check-in.

Perhaps you've seen some of the advertisements. In the highly competitive hotel business, companies are offering a variety of special services to prospective guests-- from complimentary limousines, health and fitness centers and in-room fax machines to 24-hour room service and late-night dry cleaning.

But in some cases, the hotels are so eager to attract guests that they have created service expectations that have little or no chance of being met.

Some recent examples of promotion vs. reality:

--Promotion: The Drake Hotel in New York City advertises "free limousines for guests." Reality: The hotel has one limo for 622 rooms. Good luck getting it when you need it.

--Promotion: The Boca Raton Resert & Club in Boca Raton, Fla., advertises a "concierge desk." Reality: The hotel does not have a traditional concierge, instead the concierge desk is manned by hotel staffers who work for "guest services"--a big difference.

--Promotion: The Las Vegas Sahara touts "lush fairways." Reality: There is no golf course on the premises.

One favorite among hotels is promoting a "fitness and health center." Reality: The "center" is a converted guest room with hardwood floors, a few free weights, VCR and a Jane Fonda workout tape.

The Parc 55 in San Francisco advertises that it offers guests "late night dry cleaning." For travelers arriving in the evening, it sounds like a great service.

However, it's not really "late night," but an "overnight" service. Garments have to be presented by guests to the valet before 7 each night, to be returned by 10 the next morning. Not surprisingly, a number of arriving guests are angered to discover the new definition of "late night."

It was one thing for the Las Vegas Hilton to advertise its various services. But arriving guests often found themselves standing in outrageously long check-in lines. And departing guests were greeted by the same long lines.

So last year, General Manager Michael Maggiore decided to find a way to deliver the services and still deal with the high volume of guests at one of the world's largest hotels. He cross-trained both the front desk and cashier staffs to handle check-ins during peak periods. He issued Walkie-Talkies to assistant managers, who would often take guests to their rooms and register them there. Now, he says, there are no long lines at the Hilton.

"We were engendering a lot of ill will," he says. "How could we expect (people) to believe us about anything else at the hotel if we couldn't streamline their arrival? After all, nothing angers guests more than being promised something that isn't delivered. As a guest, if you find yourself spending all your time trying to define what it was the hotel really meant when they promoted something, you're staying at the wrong place."

For those hotel service promises that are kept, there's still a problem of definition.

"A lot of hotel advertising and promotion has been based on the false premise that the market is homogeneous," says Ray Lewis, senior vice president of marketing for Holiday Inn Worldwide. "But one size doesn't fit all. The realities of the marketplace are wildly different. At various times in my travels, I am a husband, a father, a son, an uncle or an employer. And the kind of hotel I stay at, and what I expect from that hotel, is really driven by the particular role in which I see myself at that moment."

What Holiday Inns offers guests, though they don't advertise it, is a "Hospitality Promise." If a guest isn't happy with one of the Holiday Inn services, he or she simply doesn't pay for it.

The same is true at Marriott. Lately, the company has embarked on an aggressive ad campaign targeted at certain expected hotel services.

"A posh hotel room isn't much comfort when your breakfast is late," says one of the ads. "A lavish hotel lobby doesn't look so pretty from the back of a line," says another.

"Indeed," says Marriott's Tiefel, "room service is a neglected area in our industry. We now guarantee it's on time or it's on us."

"There's no question that if we are going to promote a service, it has to be delivered to every guest, not just a few," says Wolfgang Triebnig, managing director of Le Meridien Hotel in Chicago. "For example, we tell our guests that we have VCRs and CD players. But we have them in each room. That's the way it should be. But at many hotels, there's very little consistency or follow-through.

"The problem isn't the concept but the delivery," says Triebnig. "A lot of hotels advertise things as complimentary or free , but when it comes down to it, a lot of times these things or services are not given to you freely. You have to ask for them in order to get it. And that isn't the way a hotel is supposed to work."

Service guarantees notwithstanding, what happens when your hotel doesn't keep its promises? First, before you ever check in, ask the hotel to define for you any service it advertises that you think might be questionable or somehow misleading.

After the fact, you can certainly complain. Depending on the severity of the complaint, some hotel managers will adjust your bill and credit you for the service you didn't receive or, in some cases, won't bill you at all. But you can't count on it. Instead, let your friends and business associates know of your experience. Remember, no amount of advertising or promotion can surpass great word of mouth . . . or counterbalance bad word of mouth.

Marriott's new ad slogan is "Service. The Ultimate Luxury." With all due respect to Marriott's good intentions, service is not the ultimate luxury. The hotel business is a service business. Service is a basic, fundamental and essential element of any good hotel. When it becomes a luxury, we're all in trouble.

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