1. "In tough times we have to discount -- creatively."
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For the hotel industry, 2009 was the worst year since the Great Depression, and last year was only slightly better. At its low, the average daily room rate was $97, down from $107 in 2008, and occupancy rates fell below 55 percent. "This recession has been so traumatic across the board for all types of hotels," says Robert Mandelbaum, research director at Colliers PKF Hospitality Research. In turn, hotels have slashed staff and cut corners. Michael Aschoff, a retired compliance officer from Tampa, Fla., stays in hotels 30 to 50 nights a year and has noticed they've stopped replacing soap and providing body wash and mouthwash. "They have really cut back on little amenities," he says.
But hotels are holding the line on rates, says Travis Rank, director of worldwide sales at Best Western International. Instead, some hotels offer free parking, gift cards or other perks, like a free extra night for customers who book a certain number of nights in a row. Check hotel websites to find these deals -- which are likely to be available until 2012, when the industry is expected to recover.
2. "Book with us to get an upgrade."
When you book your room through a third-party site like Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE - News) or Travelocity, the hotel typically pays a commission -- up to 30 percent. Through their own sites, hotels will usually match the best rates and may offer specials, and many will let you change your reservation without penalty if you've cut out the middleman.
What's more, book directly with the hotel and your "chances of getting an upgrade are vastly improved," says Rank. Hotels also like to save perks for their loyalty-program members. Chris Jones, the general manager of Hotel Indigo in San Diego, says he gives upgrades to about 35 percent of customers, with priority going to loyalty-card holders. "The hospitality industry is all about relationships," says Fredrik Korallus, executive vice president for global revenue generation at Carlson Hotels. "If you want something, it never hurts to ask."
3. "We can be sneaky about our best deals."
Since most hotels are franchises, individual owners offer the best deals. They're promoted online, via e-mail newsletters and, more recently, through social networking sites like Facebook and Foursquare. Hotel Indigo had 500 followers on Twitter before it even opened, and Jones says last fall he offered $185 rooms to followers for $99 -- and booked 45 rooms in two hours. Robert A. Rauch, a managing partner at a San Diego Hilton, says he offers time-sensitive deals and restaurant or spa specials online. Hotels also offer discounts through partners like Visa (NYSE: V - News) or American Express (NYSE: AXP - News), but since hotels aren't always enthusiastic about those, "sometimes it takes some effort" to find them, says Matthew Stone, a professor of travel and tourism at Prince George's Community College in Washington, D.C.
4. "Your room won't really look like this."
There are plenty of places to find reviews of hotels, from newspapers and magazines to websites with traveler reviews. But when you want to see what the room or the pool looks like, you often have to trust the hotel -- which may not be trustworthy, says Eli Seidman, founder of travel site Oyster.com. There, Seidman posts a hotel's image next to one taken by his own photographers to show readers how deceiving hotel marketing can be. "It's pretty bad, in varying degrees, across the whole industry," says Seidman. And when it comes to the description of the room, "the square footage is complete nonsense," he says.
Most hotels are not out to actively deceive customers. "We want to ensure that the images are accurate," says Jeff Wagoner, president of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. But, he adds, "we have no specific written guidelines."
5. "Kiss your credit card data goodbye."
Hotels have become a favorite target for credit card data thieves. According to digital-security firm Trustwave, 38 percent of the credit card hacking cases it worked on in 2009 were in the hospitality industry -- far more than any other industry the company works with. Hackers (usually organized crime outfits) access a hotel's network by guessing the administrator password, then place malware on the network, which then transmits guest's card numbers back to them. They can also steal other info about you -- home address, phone number, license plate number -- to aid in identity theft. Nicholas J. Percoco, director of Spider Labs, a unit of Trustwave, says he had his own card data stolen and used just minutes after he checked into a hotel last year. "It can happen really quickly," he says.
"This has become a priority in the industry," says Wagoner. "We are putting a lot of effort and energy toward data security." His company, like others, has basic requirements in place that franchisees are expected to follow. Visa has also worked with the industry to improve its data security. And things are getting better: Percoco says the hospitality industry fell to become the second most targeted industry in 2010.