15 FEB 2018: The late George Carlin once asked, “How can you possibly talk about a ‘free gift?’ – if it’s not free, it’s not a gift.” Such a notion had clearly never occurred to Hilton Hotels or their res agent with whom I spoke this week. It started with a simple question: “I see on your website that you have a double room available tomorrow night for $164 at the Hilton Midtown, Manhattan. Can you please tell me what the total will be after taxes, fees etc. as none of these show up online?” 

First off, it never fails to amaze me how many people whose jobs are all about listening to and communicating with customers are utterly inept at both. In this instance, ignoring my question, he confirmed that the $164 rate was available and, without missing a beat, moved right into asking for my booking information. That's when things got interesting:

Me: “Hold it one moment” I interjected. “Can you please answer my question: How much this $164 room will cost me with all additional stuff.”

Agent: “Oh, um, sorry sir (pregnant pause) … that will be … $220.”

Me: “Wow! That’s quite a leap. How do you arrive at that number?”

Agent: “Ehr, um …well it’s mostly the mandatory $25 fee.”

Me:  “Oh.  And what’s that all about? Mandatory according to whom?”

Agent: (pregnant pause #2) “Well, it’s like a … y’know, kind of a resort fee-charge kind’a thing for services and security and stuff like that. Anyway it is mandatory.”

Me: (Showing remarkable self-restraint), “Okay, well that still doesn’t get us up to $220, what else is in there?”

Agent: “Well there’s the 14% tax – that gets added too,” he announced in a suddenly upbeat tone, as if he’d come up with something that would get me off his back.

Me: “Sorry we’re still not at $220” I persisted.

Agent: “Oh well, there are two other things showing here – a $2.00 F and a $1.50 F.”

I swear – that is exactly what he said!

Me: (Resisting the obvious What the F? question), “And what exactly are those?”

Agent: “(pause) … Can I please put you on hold for a moment sir?”

Some 20 -30 seconds later, presumably after consulting with a supervisor, he was back and, completely ignoring the ‘F’ question, he cheerfully launched into explaining that the $25 mandatory fee would get me all kinds of benefits.

Agent: “Sir, with the mandatory fee you get a 10% discount on food in the hotel, a 15% discount on beverages, free premium Wi-Fi and free local telephone calls.”

ME: (Channeling my inner George Carlin) “So you’re say that paying $25 buys me $25 in discounts plus the WiFi service that your website positions as being free.”

I didn’t address the ‘free phone call’ bit, as it was just too silly given that 99% of guests have their own cellphones.

Agent: (Somewhat tentatively), “Ehr, yes sir that’s right.”

Me: (Knowing the answer but unable to resist), “What if I don’t eat or drink, use the phone or WiFi. Do I still have to pay this fee?”

Agent: (Clearly holding back a sigh and by now convinced he’s talking to a total moron), “Well yes sir. … As I said up front, it is mandatory for all guests.”

Well not for this one. I hung up and decided to check out what he’d told me elsewhere – namely Bookings.com - and, as it turned out, my agent friend at Hilton had been close but wasn’t going to be lighting a cigar any time soon.

The $25 “resort fee-charge kind of thing” is now properly described (or passed off) as a ‘Destination Fee’ and the $25 was actually $28.68 after the 14.75% (not 14%) tax is added. The “15% beverage and 10% food discounts” were also a tad misrepresented - in reality they were one-time per stay $15 and $10 discounts. Needless to say such offers are designed to lure guests into having one quick discounted drink that often becomes a couple or three fuller-than-full-priced libations.

As for those two mysterious ‘F’ numbers, they were really one of $3.50 for another city room tax. Miraculously, the agent’s total of $220 was correct albeit that the add-ons accounted for a 34% hike on the displayed $164.

This ‘destination fee’ nonsense is of course just an urbanized version of the ‘resort fees’ that have been around for some time: In some places like Las Vegas, these fees are now pushing $40 a night. Just like airline fuel surcharges should be merged into higher fares, so too the provision of certain guest amenities, whether poolside towels in Jamaica, or fitness centers in Manhattan are a cost of doing business and should be included in room rates. The notion that one can assess a ‘mandatory fee’ for features that are promoted as inclusions is just deliberately deceptive marketing.

Now that these deceitful pay-for-the-freebie fees are becoming part of the fundament, it sets up a lot of odious apple and orange comparisons. In other words, unless everyone adopts the same approach to displaying room rates, those who hide part of the rate as destination charges in the guise of mandatory fees – mandated by nobody other than themselves – will have a distinct advantage over competitors who don’t.

George Carlin also said that, “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” So, too ‘Destination Fees’ are a contrivance to hide the real rate.  Caveat emptor!



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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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