By Christopher Elliott
Brenda Rivera thought she had a reservation at the Hilton DoubleTree Metropolitan in Midtown Manhattan in October. But she didn't. The hotel was closed.
She'd found a $174 (R2774) nightly rate through Travelocity and booked her stay. Then, a few days before her arrival, she decided to look for nearby dining options.
"When my son Googled the hotel, he found that it was temporarily closed," she says.
Rivera, a photographer from Cedar Park, Texas, asked Travelocity for help. The online agency offered her a refund for the hotel stay, but it said the cost of her travel insurance was not refundable. (Travelocity sold her a policy, but it did not cover hotel closures.)
"A hotel closure can be a traveller's worst nightmare," says John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency network. "Especially if it happens close to the trip."
Hotels have been closing their doors with greater frequency in the past nearly two years. Lodging Econometrics, a firm that tracks hotel closures, estimates that roughly one percent of hotels in the United States – about 570 properties – have closed during the pandemic.
"Some of them closed permanently," says Bruce Ford, the company's senior vice president. "Others closed temporarily for renovations."
When a hotel goes out of business or shuts down for renovations, it doesn't necessarily send out a news release. If the hotel is part of a chain, the company may move your reservation to another one of its properties. But unless you have a travel agent monitoring the situation, you may not know about it. So how do you find out?
Travelocity spokesperson Mel Dohmen says the online agency did know, but it received the notification from the hotel 11 days after the property cancelled Rivera's reservation.
"If a hotel knows it's going to be closed - either temporarily or indefinitely - they notify Travelocity, and inventory for that property is closed on our sites, so future bookings can't be made," Dohmen said. "Once notified, Travelocity also conducts proactive outreach to customers with reservations during this time frame, and in these cases, we give customers the option to cancel their booking without penalty for a full refund or reserve alternative accommodations."
Travelocity reached out to Rivera after I asked about her case. It refunded the cost of her travel insurance and paid the difference between her DoubleTree reservation and one at a new, more expensive hotel.
Experts say one way to minimise the possibility of being left out in the cold is to book through big hotel chains such as Hilton, IHG or Marriott. Consider what happened to Timur Aydin, who had a reservation through Hilton at the Arctic Club Seattle, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, in May.
"Until the date of our arrival, I received all the typical confirmation emails like, 'We can't wait to see you,' and, 'Your reservation is confirmed!' " says Aydin, who works for an electronic manufacturer in St. Petersburg. "In fact, a few days ahead of the trip, I was getting the app notifications about the hotel amenities as well."
Then he tried to send the hotel a message through the app. The response: "Our chat function isn't currently available."
"I figured it was because they were short-staffed due to covid. But I was so busy at work I didn't have time to call and confirm," he says.
When he arrived in Seattle, he found that the hotel was closed.
"I called customer service and talked to a rep who was just as shocked as I was but had no idea what to do," he says.
Hilton eventually offered him a room in another hotel. In hotel industry parlance, that's called "walking." If a hotel is closed or overbooked, a chain can send you to another hotel without making you pay extra.
Sometimes, you may have options you aren't aware of. That's what happened to Judy Williams after she tried to check in to the Hotel Relais de Mirepoix in Mirepoix, France, in 2019. Her husband had booked and confirmed a room for three nights at the boutique property.
"We arrived in Mirepoix, parked in the town square parking lot and walked a block to the hotel with our luggage," recalls Williams, a lawyer from Billings, Mont. "The large solid wooden gates were shut. We rang the bell and waited. Nothing. I looked down, saw weeds growing out under the gates and said, 'This place is so closed.' "
It was. Turns out, the hotel had closed permanently two months before it confirmed the couple's reservations. A local family helped them find a nearby pension with an available room.
Fortunately for the Williamses, the Hotel Relais de Mirepoix was part of Relais & Châteaux, an association of independent upscale hotels and restaurants. When the couple contacted Relais, it quickly found another member hotel nearby, offered them a discount and sent a $500 gift certificate as an apology.
"We decided to treat the whole thing as an adventure," Williams says.
Glenn Haussman, the host of "No Vacancy," a podcast about the lodging industry, says he has never seen this many hotel closures or displaced guests. In normal times, there are systems designed to alert travel agents and hotel chains that a property has closed.
"But in the pandemic, the system isn't always working," he says. "The notifications have been falling through the cracks."
Haussman's advice: If you're staying anywhere, particularly in an urban location, email the property at least 48 hours before your arrival to make sure everything is still open. If the hotel doesn't respond, call.
"And always, always, have a Plan B."