When a reservation is not a reservation: On the ‘keeping’ of reservations

This is a story about reservations. It’s about what they are, why discerning travelers make them and why it’s a problem when a hotel, car rental agency or – in the case of this particular story – restaurant doesn’t seem to have the same understanding.

Before we begin, though, let’s have a bit of a primer on what a reservation means, and no one says it better than Jerry Seinfeld in the old scene “The Car Rental.”

Unless you’re fond of those spur-of-the-moment trips where you’re happy to just get in the car and go, every travel experience starts with a reservation of one sort or another. There are different kinds of reservations.

When we “reserve” an airplane ticket, we have about ten minutes to complete the transaction and pay. In these cases, we expect the reservation to be “held” because we have a fully paid ticket which we expect to form a contract for the airline to carry us where we plan to go. Well, it does – but not always in the way that we might have liked. Have you ever been “bumped” on an over-sold flight? The airline still has the obligation to get you to your destination, just not necessarily on that flight.

We make hotel reservations without paying up front. However, in most cases, they require a credit card to “guarantee” the reservation. This is their guarantee of payment, not your actual guarantee of a room. If you fail to show up, they will charge you the first night’s fee. If you arrive and they have no room for you, you have little recourse. We all hope this won’t ever happen, but it can.

Years ago we were flying to London for a European tour with our then ten-year-old son. It was an overnight flight arriving in London around 6:30 am. We had been through this before, arriving at a hotel and having to stow luggage for hours while we dragged our jet-lagged selves around until we could check in. This time we thought we were smart. We booked the hotel room for the night before so that we could have the room the minute we arrived – albeit late, but we had a reservation and knew we’d be paying for the room. It turned out that the hotel took our reservation, charged us for the night and promptly sold the room to someone else. When we arrived they had no room for us – not even the room we had paid for. Naturally we were not happy. So this brings us to our most recent “reservation” issue.

marriott san diego waterfront
The Marriott Marquis on the San Diego waterfront. Roy’s is right along here.

Three weeks ago we found ourselves in downtown San Diego for a few nights. We’re great believers in Open Table for finding interesting dining spots, and love the ease of use and how happy we’ve been with the results. So we went on Open Table and booked a dinner reservation at Roy’s.

 

One of the few fine dining spots on the San Diego waterfront, Roy’s is also “conveniently located at the Marriott Hotel”[1]. Since Art is a lifetime Gold Marriott and we carry a Marriott credit card when we travel in the US (no extra exchange fee and extra Marriott points are among the features), we were delighted to make this reservation and looked forward to it. We were set for 6:45 pm.

We arrived at Roy’s at 6 pm so that we could enjoy a pre-dinner drink at their lovely bar. We checked in with the hostess who said she’d be along to get us in due course. We enjoyed a gin and tonic in the bar watching people come and go to the dining room. By 6:50 pm we had not been summoned so we paid our bar bill and went back to the hostess stand where we received some surprising information.

“Oh,” she said, “there is no table available.”

“Excuse us? We have a 6:45 reservation,” about which we informed the hostess on our arrival 50 minutes earlier at 6 pm, at which point a manager presented himself. No table at present; no table in the foreseeable future (foreseeable in our view being the next five minutes).

We indicated to him that we make reservations so that there can, indeed, be a table available at the appointed time. He had the audacity to stand directly in front of us, beaming from ear to ear in the smarmiest of ways and said, “We have lingerers tonight.”

Well, need we say it again? But we did inform him again of the purpose of a reservation. We might have even mentioned the Seinfeld scene. He stood there smiling. No table.

It is true that restaurants cannot always be assured that the tables will empty at the time they expect them to, but they also have an obligation to the patrons who make reservations. This is a management issue.

The thing that was most infuriating about this whole scenario was not the unfulfilled reservation, rather it was the attitude and arrogant nature of the manager who stood in front of us grinning like a Cheshire cat. Good customer service practice would suggest first apologizing, indicating when a table might be available and offering us a free drink, or the like, while we wait. None of these things happened.

Roy’s advertises itself as being “at the Marriott Hotel” and the Marriott Marquis Hotel web site lists Roy’s under their “dining at this hotel” which, regardless of whether the Roy’s employees are Marriott employees or not, clearly associates the brand with Marriott. Based on our many years of Marriott stays, the customer service mentality displayed that evening did not do Marriott proud. They should be ashamed of their association.

So, what did we do?

We said good evening and turned on our heel to seek another place to eat. We were rewarded by finding Sally’s just a short way down the boardwalk. Sally’s had a table and treated us wonderfully.

To add insult to injury, the staff at Roy’s indicated to Open Table that we were no-shows for our reservation, a situation that we never would allow to happen. Thankfully, Art was able to straighten things out with Open Table, but it seemed like a bit of a slap from Roy’s. We had indeed, shown up for our reservation. Roy’s, as Jerry would have said, knows how to take a reservation, they just don’t know how to keep a reservation – which, as we know, is the whole point of a reservation. Shame on them.

[1] Exact wording from their web site: https://www.roysrestaurant.com/locations/ca/waterfront

A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!