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BBT March/April 2019 cover
March/April 2019

According to Amon: customer disservices

Dissatisfied customer

Ryanair’s rostering debacle and how hotels treat corporate customers are connected, says BBT’s columnist Amon Cohen

The great Ryanair pilot rostering cock-up, and failure to tell passengers about their consequent rights, is just the latest reminder that in business the customer doesn’t always come first. Too often it feels like the senior executives do, closely followed by institutional and then individual shareholders, with customers perhaps trailing a distant fourth, just ahead of junior employees.

Ryanair isn’t even the most egregious example we have seen in travel this year. That distinction surely goes to the United Airlines incident in which Dr David Dao was dragged off a plane for refusing to give up his seat to a United crew member to resolve a staff scheduling problem. Dr Dao, you will recall, suffered concussion, a broken nose and the loss of both front teeth for having the cheek to insist on remaining on an aircraft he had paid United good money to put him on.

I am not one of those people who believe CEOs should resign every time something goes wrong at their company. But in this case I thought Oscar Munoz should have walked, not for the original incident but for his subsequent letter to staff describing Dr Dao as “disruptive and belligerent”. When a boss couldn’t see that it was his own company which was so clearly doing the disrupting by ordering a fare-paying passenger out of his seat, it became quite clear all reasonable perspective of raison d’être had been lost.

Hotel fails
You only have to read the consumer pages of any newspaper to realise poor treatment of individual customers by travel and other suppliers is routine. More surprisingly, corporate customers, in spite of their far greater spending power, are not immune to being pushed around either.

According to the Advito 2018 Industry Forecast, sophisticated use of yield management techniques is “resulting in a profound change in [hotels’] relationships with corporate clients”. Specifically, the forecast says, “business travellers find they are increasingly unable to find and book rooms at their preferred rate, even when their contract specifies last-room availability.”

I asked a roomful of travel managers from around Europe recently if they agreed with that statement. They did. An Advito analysis found that preferred rates are unavailable to European clients one-third of the time. That’s colossally high.

Advito says that “by regularly re-designating in their booking systems what constitutes a standard room, hotels are able to manipulate their inventory and availability.” In other words, hotels are usually not in breach of contract when they fail to offer an agreed room. But even if this practice is legal, that doesn’t make it right.

The only solution is for travel managers to start tracking whether their hotel agreements are being honoured, not only in word but in spirit – and, if they are not, complain very loudly to preferred suppliers when travellers aren’t getting the negotiated rate.

I think it’s also time for buyers to act collectively to call out hotels on this type of manipulation. If a client has a deal purporting to offer last-room availability, that’s what it should be given.

Sin City blues
I have written about business travel for well over a decade but that doesn’t stop public relations people sending me press releases about tourist attractions. I remember receiving one such communication a few years ago championing an establishment in Las Vegas called Machine Guns Vegas. According to its own website, this is “the only Vegas-lounge experience that lets you fire the kind of kick-ass artillery you’ve seen in the hands of the highly-skilled SEALS and Delta Force teams” and where “you’ll get the real feel of what it’s like to clear a room with just a pull of the trigger.”

I was shocked to learn that an attraction glorifying AK-47s, sniper rifles and other weapons, which have killed, maimed and orphaned so many people around the world, could even exist, and I wrote back to tell the PR so.

Machine Guns Vegas also boasts that it is “your new Las Vegas bucket list destination”. Well, last month guns certainly did turn Vegas into a bucket list destination. The following day, Machine Guns Vegas posted a message saying, “We feel it’s inappropriate to be open today and tomorrow.” I would be interested to understand the logic by which the owners felt it was appropriate to open the day after that or indeed ever again.

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