Honor over Luxury- the Sheraton Saga Part 1

It started last night when I got a call from Ogre, telling me that he had been walked from the Sheraton. This wouldn’t have been any big deal, except for how badly it was handled. Starwood Hotels , via their social media folks at @starwoodbuzz ,has stepped up and done some after the fact attempts to make good so I can not disparage them completely- but the tale is still unfolding and I will let you make your own judgments.
My analysis says that this is a case of corporate corner cutting leading to less than prepared staff who were young and failed to step up to their customer service mission. Luckily, there are heroes- expected and unexpected- as well as buffoons in this tail. I share this, not to reek vengeance but with the very real hope that somehow, some of this might sink in and make the system change. ( yes, I have a thing for windmills, as well).

Following are the things that the Sheraton did very wrong, turning any one of these around could have made for a completely different level of satisfaction than we have right now.

1) Knowing 3 conferences were coming to town at once, Managers should have been assisted to have better backup plans for guests who have to get walked.

2) Even if training is expensive and time consuming, Sheraton staff should be trained and capable of handling stressful situations. I have NO doubt things were crazy. They had to walk over 20 people. They had booking issues with a wedding party. People were traveling for conferences and were cranky. That is a suck situation. Businesses who excel, handle it with grace and calm. Yes, the people around you might be nuts, but you are getting paid to get more polite the crazier they get.

3) Not once was the Sheraton pro-active. They were badly reactive to every situation.
a) they knew they hit full and still had bookings that might come in ( likely for weddings and conferences) but did not make any arrangements with other hotels until the crisis moment was upon them

b) they had multiple people booked from Purdue, but once the first got walked and others were still to arrive, it never occured to them to contact the single business office person and let them know there were any issues for their travelers.

c) they claim that part of this was a misunderstanding and they were still holding a room for Ogre for nights 2 and 3 all along. He left them his cell phone, but they never called to clarify when they realized the point of confusion

d) when my tweets got annoying enough and reached Starwood hotels, they found a room and wanted to make it right, but even then, they waited for him to approach them and ask– even though his conference was in the Sheraton and they could have easily located him.

e) the Expedia process was beyond annoying, but at least once I reached the right person, they called back several times to see if things were resolved. the Sheraton NEVER called me back, even when they said they would. It was Starwood staff who finally called me the next day.

4) If your IT/booking system is so hard to use that you can not clearly tell ( multiple times by multiple people) if there is a room available or not, you need a new system. It is impossible for service people to do their job well when the systems and processes are an obstacle.

5) when you are apologizing, don’t make excuses. Be sincere, don’t assume just buying off the guest will make everything OK no matter what.

Here is the unfolding thus far:

Travel arrangements were made for a handful of Purdue University staff by a single business office person via travelnow.com ( which is a subsidiary of hotels.com, which is owned by expedia.com). Upon arriving at the Sheraton Station, Pittsburgh where the prepaid reservations had been made, Ogre was turned away by management. They informed him that there had been an error with Expedia, they were over booked and there was no room at the Hotel. ( there needs to follow an entire post on this thought, but suffice to say,there is a huge opportunity in the travel business for an enterprising geek who wants to perfect their algorithms for projecting room use).. Truth is, this happens, no hard feelings- the key is in how the Hotel handles it when it does handle. There is a charming hotel in the islands who won my mother’s loyalty because they got walked for the first 2 nights of a vacation and the overbooked hotel booked them in a very expensive resort where she was greeted at the door with a champagne glass and lots of care. The overbooked hotel had called ahead and arranged things and there was minimal paperwork they had to do to get settled into a lovely room until the original hotel could handle them again.
Last night was a different story. The Ogre and another guest were sent in a cab to a nearby Quality Inn. The Sheraton manager had not called ahead, and the manager at the Quality Inn basically laughed at them and sent them back. They were then sent to another Sheraton 1.5 hours away. Along the way, the cab driver complained about the 5$ surcharge the hotel claimed for every cab fare they booked and said there was a movement to blacklist them. Arriving at the Sheraton 4points at the airport Ogre was again greeted by a manager who had no idea they were coming, but luckily had a room– for that one night. But no rooms after that.
In parallel, I was working the system from the travelnnow.com/hotels.com/expedia angle. They had actually made the booking with the Sheraton (it was guaranteed and we had the booked itinerary number)and technically, they were the ones who should be arguing and making this right. (again an entire other blog post to follow- but suffice to say 100 minutes on the phone (mostly on hold) and several transfers to finally get to someone helpful and useful is NOT a functional system) While waiting in the airport hotel lounge, ogre ran into a very nice gentleman with an iPad who helped him look up other possible hotels for rooms. They were calling around while I remained on hold with the travel specialists and found the Parador Inn- a local BnB- who had a room available. Ogre booked it then and there, just in case. (knowing you will have a place to sleep the next night in a strange city can be re-assuring). Once we got to the correct Expedia agent, and were getting some help they talked to the Sheraton, confirmed that there were no more rooms there at all this week, and arranged for the Sheraton to pay the Parador Inn, since the room was pre-paid. They told me to call the Sheraton to confirm, as they did not believe the Sheraton would call me back. when I did and spoke to the desk agent in charge. I was trying to get confirmation that there really was no other room for the other nights ( before he moved to a hotel 15 minutes in cab away from the conference) and re-assurance for Ogre that things would be calm and handled the next day, she was frustrated with my questions and when I said I just wanted to be sure he would not be sleeping in the streets the next night, cut me off and hung up the phone.
I told the Expedia people that the issue was not yet resolved, got the case number, talked to Ogre a bit then went to bed. about 12 hours later ( not bad, really) I was contacted by @starwoodbuzz asking for details and if they could help. After some DMs, I got a nice call from Starwood, saying that they talked to the general manger, there had been confusion, they DID have a room for him. I was also told that they admitted this had been handled badly ( but it was because they were full and things were crazy, so you have to understand, yes?) and he should expect a little VIP treatment. I text messaged him the news, then gave him a call a bit later to see how he wanted to handle it. At this point, he had already checked into the Parador Inn. He felt like the proprietor had stuck his neck out when no one else would guarantee a room and Ogre said that although the Sheraton had guaranteed him some luxury, honor was more important and it was not fair to take the income away from the small business man because Sheraton was finally starting to behave reasonably. (you see why I love this man?) The Sheraton has agreed to pay for both nights (so far only one has actually been paid- we are waiting tomorrow to make sure the next day authorization shows up) at the local BnB, but this is really no skin off their neck. If they can show he got a room, they can still charge Expedia, who charges Purdue, who uses the federal grant money taxpayers funded to pay Sheraton. This leaves the Sheraton with no losses and no motivation to change how they operate. it also leaves all of us paying for some really crappy service.

I am not sure how I feel toward the Sheraton yet, I DO appreciate the @starwoodbuzz efforts and that they responded to me personally. I do not feel like they learned anything in this incident, or that there will be any reason to believe that my next stay at a Sheraton will be any better. That may be my frustrations still being fresh and coloring my judgment. I am still going to contact Expedia, both because their process sucked and because I need to find out if they are still paying the Sheraton, even after all of this. What do you think – am I over reacting or justified in feeling less than willing to trust Sheraton?

Apple’s Parenting Habits Breed Incompetent Kids

There is nothing more frustrating than having some pretty good brains in a room beating around an interesting idea and then stopping a hair short of the truth and leaving it hanging in either conspiracy theory or coincidence.

It was so frustrating this morning that I found myself yelling at my radio as the podcast played ( good thing 26 was quiet and nearly empty this morning). I was listening to the most recent “Cranky Geeks” episode, and they were discussing Rob Enderle’s article ( Rob was on the show, btw) about how it seemed an odd almost conspiracy that ex-Apple employees were causing the ruin of many Apple competitors. He calls it Apple’s Fifth Column with a bit of tongue in cheek. He does end the column with the observation that this is most likely not true, but just a case of companies needing someone in charge to keep them from doing stupid things. In the show discussion, Rik Myslewski points out that this is generally the CEO.Although Adam Curry is pushing for conspiracy theories ( of course— and I say that lovingly, I enjoy NoAgenda, btw) The discussion ends in chuckles and they move on before they get to the important analysis.

The truth is, in most really large companies, smart, proficient CEOs surround themselves with executives and charge those executives to fill top management positions with people who are good at making decisions. In most large companies, there are too many ( and perhaps too disparate or too complex) decisions that need to be made for a single person to have control of all of them. You need bright, independently thinking, creative, insightful execs who are good at business- even if it is a tech company- to stay at the front of the pack once you hit a certain size.

Apple does not do this. Steve surrounds himself with technically great people who will do what he tells them too without too much argument, and does not care if they understand why. It always feels ( from the outside) like he runs the company like a helicopter parent. The people following his directions are smart and from the outside appear brilliant, get hired by other companies hungry for Apple brilliance- and they fail– often spectacularly, as Rob points out in his article- as they try to repeat some of the things they saw Steve doing, but never really understood.

A good company, like a good parent, helps its employees “grow-up” to the best of their capabilities. This sometimes means giving people the chance to make mistakes, the chance to fail and putting more energy into it than if you had just done it yourself– much like teaching your kid how to do laundry. Companies who just do the laundry for their employees because it is easier and safer that way end up with employees like those college kids who ruin entire wardrobes their first week at college because they have no clue what they are doing.

John? Next time– push discussions like this all the way to their natural end— the conclusions are much more interesting than conspiracy or Occam’s Razor.