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Hotel burns down, declines to reimburse guests

Hotel burns down, declines to reimburse guests
Firefighters battle a blaze at the Hampton Inn in Tucumcari, N.M., in July. (Steve Hansen / Quay County Sun)

When a small company ducks responsibility for a bad customer experience, I usually figure the operators are inexperienced at this sort of thing or don't care what people think.

But when a big company — especially a really big company — can't behave in a decent manner toward a customer with a legitimate gripe, I have to wonder what on Earth its managers are thinking and why they'd risk losing future business just to save a few bucks.

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Bill Dailey recently encountered such hard-nosed corporate thoughtlessness after staying with his grandson at a Hampton Inn hotel, franchised by Hilton Worldwide. The pair lost all their possessions in a fire.

The claims administrator for the hotel's insurer, Century National Insurance, informed Dailey that because the fire was caused by a lightning strike, "there was no legal negligence on behalf of the Hampton Inn."

For that reason, it said, the insurer had decided to "respectfully decline" Dailey's and his grandson's roughly $5,000 in claims for lost clothing, electronic devices, luggage, personal effects and money.

"What a shabby way to treat your guests," Dailey, 68, told me. "It's hard to believe."

A spokeswoman for Hampton Hotels said she, too, was chagrined by what happened. But she said the company was powerless to intervene.

I disagree, but I'll get back to that in a moment.

Dailey said he and his 28-year-old grandson, Jeffrey, were driving back to Los Angeles from Florida, where Jeffrey had been discharged from the Marines.

When they stopped on their journey at Tucumcari, N.M., they decided that the local Hampton Inn looked like the most comfortable place to bunk for the night. They checked in, stepped out for dinner and later went to sleep in their third-floor room.

The fire erupted around 2:30 in the morning.

"We heard a crash," Dailey recalled. "The lighting fixture had fallen to the floor. Suddenly, smoke started pouring in and people were yelling, 'Fire! Fire! Fire!'"

Dailey said he started packing their things, but his grandson shouted that they had to go immediately. Once outside, Dailey said, they could see flames shooting as high as eight feet from the roof. The third floor where the pair had been staying collapsed onto the second floor.

A local newspaper, the Quay County Sun, said 50 of the hotel's 58 rooms were occupied that night. It said no one was injured in the blaze but that "many guests had to leave luggage, wallets, cash, credit cards and even car keys in the rooms in the rush to get out."

Dailey said he and his grandson purchased some replacement items and finished their trip home. He then sent the hotel itemized lists of property they'd lost or had to buy and requested compensation.

They had every reason to think Hampton Inn or Hilton would do the stand-up thing. After all, the hotel hadn't hesitated to give them a refund for the night's reservation.

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But when it came to making good for actual losses, the insurer's claims adjuster forwarded a report from the New Mexico fire marshal, who had concluded that lightning was to blame. As such, it said, Dailey was on his own.

"I'm sure their insurer is covering the hotel's losses," Dailey said. "Just not ours."

Jennifer Hughes, a spokeswoman for Hilton Worldwide, said the company wished it could do something about compensating guests affected by the fire. But it can't, she said.

"This is an independently owned and operated hotel," she said. "Unfortunately, we don't have control over them."

That's a strange thing to say considering that Hampton Inn franchisees are required to follow highly specific rules, such as offering the chain's "100% Hampton Guarantee," which says that "if you're not 100% satisfied, we don't expect you to pay."

Moreover, Hughes acknowledged that Hilton's Hampton Hotels subsidiary has been in close touch with the hotel's owners since the fire and "encouraged" them to quickly refund guests for the fire-interrupted night — presumably to get ahead of guests asserting their Hampton Guarantee rights.

So why, I asked, didn't Hampton Hotels encourage the owners to make good for lost property, or encourage them to have better insurance?

"That would be the franchisee's responsibility," Hughes answered.

A co-owner of the hotel, Nitin Bhakta, couldn't be reached for comment.

In any case, it's not the local owners who will be held accountable in the eyes of consumers. It's the corporate brands, Hampton and Hilton, that spend millions to foster a nationwide reputation of trustworthiness and reliability.

For that reason, you'd think these guys would keep franchisees on a much tighter leash, especially when it comes to doing right by guests.

James Kristy, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in insurance cases, said that if the hotel's policy excludes "acts of nature" or "acts of God," it can be difficult for consumers to pursue legal recourse.

"You could always hire a lawyer and investigate things, such as whether the hotel was supposed to have a lightning rod but didn't," he said. "But otherwise there's not much you can do."

The hotel's insurer might believe that an act of nature requires no compensation on its part, but Hampton and Hilton know better — or they should.

There's no excuse for leaving guests to fend for themselves after a fire, especially for a hotel that's part of a nearly $24-billion international conglomerate.

Hughes said that because the company feels Dailey's pain, it will give him five nights free at any Hampton Inn over the next year.

I passed that along to Dailey, whose immediate reaction was to laugh.

What they're really saying, he observed, is that even though he lost everything in a catastrophic fire the last time he stayed at a Hampton Inn, he was welcome to return any time.

"I don't think so," he said.

Can't say I blame him.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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