An….d We’re Back…

In the continuing saga of plunder and extortion that is life in the 21st century…

Son#1 and I went down to visit Son#2 and his new wife for a Thanksgiving with his “caravan of exalted, super-twinkly, international friends.” (Name that quote and you can probably figure out where I was…) This was a long-planned trip. I booked a room in the closest hotel to my son’s apartment that I could probably trust to not have bedbugs at a price I could almost afford — way back in August, so I could get early rates. Got my neighbor to cat-sit and bring in the mail. Made sure to fit the travel plans to Son#1’s work schedule. It was all worked out.

I knew the drive was going to suck. I hate driving anyway. Hate travel, for that matter. But a holiday weekend? Horrors… Took twice as long as it should have, even leaving early on Wednesday to try to get ahead of things. We found things roughly at the Connecticut border. And those things stuck to us for the rest of the trip, in which top speed was about 25mph. On the good side, I hardly used the gas-powered side of my hybrid. The bad? It was well after dinner by the time we arrived. And there had been no lunch.

Son#1 and I were exhausted and hungry and pretty much done with travel for the rest of our lives. But the drive was just the warm-up for the day.

There are so many strange stories of corporate malfeasance out there today. I’ve sent on a few of my own experiences. They rather pale in the grand scheme of things, but they add to the pile. A pile that is enormous and kaleidoscopic, running the gamut from the standard lies of Photoshop and marketing promises to murder, insurrection and toppling of governments. I know my stories are meaningless against this backdrop, but still… I feel that maybe it’s better to not sweep them under the table. To talk about it all out loud. Every thing. Every time. And if we all do that, the noise alone is going to make it harder to carry off the shenanigans. Maybe. So… another chapter.

We arrived in Son#2’s very small apartment. We went out for really good Mexican food. There were margaritas. We trundled back to the apartment, and Son#1 and I went in search of our rented beds.

I had the confirmation message. (Always print out and keep the confirmation message…) We had Google Maps and charged cell phones. We had the address. It was less than a mile away, easy to find. Except…

It wasn’t there. We drove past the building number. There was no hotel. There was no evidence of the “hotel with parking” that I had made reservations with. For a bit, we drove on arguing about having the street address entered correctly and other inane things, trying to ignore the elephant in the back seat — the lack of a hotel building anywhere in the vicinity — but when it became clear that we were getting into scarier parts of town than a car with Vermont license plates ought to be driving through, we doubled back. We found the address. But…

There was a building, but no hotel and no place to leave my car except in a delivery entrance. Now, this is a sorta sketchy neighborhood. I left Son#1 in the car and went into the building. It was antiseptic white and had a rather high level of security. Like a hospital emergency room, but without the medical staff or the patients. A young security guard met me as I was coming through the interior doors with what was likely a very confused expression on my face. Clearly not a hotel, but…

I asked if this was a hotel. The security guard shook her head. I limply held out my printed confirmation message and said, “But I made a reservation…” The guard took me to a very well protected front desk and repeated the message that I’d booked a reservation. The front desk person said that “Yes, this was once a hotel, but now it’s not” and that I needed to call the place I booked. Which… was this hotel…

But not quite. Fortunately, I had booked this hotel through the website of its corporate umbrella company, Choice Hotels. (I thought I could trust this large, recognizable corporate name. Silly me.) As soon as I showed her the paper with that name on it, the front desk person rolled her eyes to the heavens in clear exasperation and said I needed to call Choice immediately. This was obviously familiar to her. So I decided to take her advice.

The security guard bundled me out of the scary doors, telling me to be safe. We drove back to Son#2’s house. I got on the phone with Choice Hotels. And listened to elevator music for quite a long time.

Meanwhile Son#2 was looking up this not-a-hotel and discovering that, while it had been a hotel sometime in the not very recent past, it was now a shelter for battered women. (Explained the security…) Nor was I the only booking since it became a shelter. There were many admonishments in the reviews saying “Don’t book this hotel!” and “It’s not a hotel!” One Dutch lady had almost exactly my experience (except without her own car and in a different language than either the Caribbean English of the front desk person or the Spanglish of the security guard). “They were super nice,” she said, “but this is not a hotel. And it took me a long time to get help from Choice.”

Yup, my experience. In the event, I spent almost three hours on the phone with four different people on at least two different continents, neither of them this one, and got exactly… no help at all. I was almost hornswoggled into paying three times the rate that I had already booked for a hotel somewhat nearby. This happened several times in the course of the very long conversation. At no point was there any admission of wrong-doing on their part or even a “mistakes were made, let’s make it up to you”. I was strong-armed into joining their “free” rewards program “so that I could talk to the membership services people” who were supposed to be able to fix the problem — to wit, that I needed a place to stay and was not about to pay more for the service than I’d agreed to pay months ago. This was not my mistake. I decided I was not going to be the one to pay for it. But… they did nothing. (The next day, I “failed to confirm” my membership contact information…)

The membership people ran me around and passed me on to some other person on some other continent. Mind you, it’s late at night. I’m very tired after driving all day (and there was dinner with margaritas…) I’m sort of freaked out that the credit card I put down for collateral is going to be charged regardless of the fact that there is no hotel. I’m also sort of freaked out that it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow and exactly where are we going to even find a room. And so on… Several different thick accents and bad connections were not helping me cope. And the accented folks were not authorized to do anything except stick to a script which apparently was designed to end in getting several hundred more dollars out of me to stay in a real Choice hotel. (There were real Choice words on my end…)

The final person conceded that there may not be a hotel where I claimed there was no hotel. S/he found a name of a local contact for the possibly former hotel and instructed me to call that person. I had to explain about American holidays. So I also was given an email address. Which I’m sure would have helped infinitely so…

Now, this might have all just been miscommunication. Choice has a lot of hotels. Maybe they just hadn’t got the message yet. But there are a few things that make me think that this is all somewhat intentional. Or at least, if mistakes of this nature are made, it is corporate policy to try to make it worse.

First, the picture of the hotel that I had booked was not the building at that address. The picture showed a newish building in an open setting, with a large parking area in front of a glass building face. The building at that address is brick and shares a wall with an auto-body shop on one side and shares a very narrow alley with a squat cinder-block building of uncertain purpose on the other side. There are more brick buildings in back, facing the next road over, with no visible break for an alley between them. It is definitely not the building in the website picture next to the “Book Rooms” button.

That, too, could just be a mistake, but then there was all that pushing me to take a hotel room at a much higher price. It was not only higher, it was odd. This was customer service and then member services and then someone supposedly even higher up, but none of them could seem to offer me a room at a fixed rate. The rates started at one level for Wednesday and went up each night through the end of our stay. Which is weird for a non-touristy area. But this was one hotel chain with a limited number of hotels in the area and not once did I get the same rate offered. The first person I talked to quoted me two different series of rates for the same room. Maybe the rates were going up as she spoke to me? At 10pm local time. On the night before Thanksgiving. Hmmm… It seemed off. By the time I got to the last person, I pre-empted the pitch by saying I was not going to pay anything more than I had agreed to back in August, and I just wanted confirmation that I was not going to be charged for that amount now that they clearly could not meet their end of the agreement.

But also, I looked at those Google reviews. The last person on the phone with me had said that this address was part of the Choice hotel chain as recently as October. I don’t know how a homeless shelter would have erased all traces of a hotel in less than a month, given the average budgets of homeless shelters… But ok, maybe it was still part of Choice for longer than it was still a hotel. Except for those reviews. This has been going for much longer than October. Longer than August. The oldest warnings I read were from May, and the list continued beyond that. I think even a snail mail message ought to have penetrated the corporate crust in that amount of time. There is no reason for Choice to not know that this is not a hotel. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that they didn’t have that information in August when I made the reservation. Unlikely or just really bad business. Either way, it seems like there are some shady dealings going on. And it didn’t start with me… and it probably won’t end there either…

Meanwhile, there was no hope of getting a hotel, so Son#1 and I crashed in Son#2’s non-bedroom room. (It’s a two-room apartment… there is the bedroom… and this other room…) I got the couch because I’m old and needed a place to set out my nighttime heart medication. Fortunately, my daughter-in-law’s mother had been there recently and invested in a twin air mattress, or Son#1 would have got the floor. But it was late and we were tired and so we both passed out.

The next morning being Thanksgiving, I was not happy about making more phone calls, but I hit upon a plan in the night. I reckoned that getting a hotel out of Choice was not a choice, so my new goal was to make sure they did not charge my credit card — because the customer service people for Choice could not even tell me definitively that this had not happened yet, never mind make some effort to stop it from happening — and then try to find another hotel on my own. So I went to the credit card people.

Normally, this is not known to have any better results in getting help, but I had an ace up my sleeve. The credit card I had used as collateral to reserve the room was an LLBean Visa, so there is a special number… one that connects to Maine. Yup! I reeled out my sob-story, apologizing for having to call at all on Thanksgiving Day, and found a sympathetic, if somewhat sleepy, audience in the young person who answered (after I broke through the automated system). Upon hearing my pathos, she was only too happy to block Choice Hotels from ever being able to charge anything. (It probably helped that we were able to chat about the weird recent weather…) We both wished each other a better ending to our badly begun Thanksgivings and went our separate ways.

So I did not get charged. But we also couldn’t find a hotel with availability on Thanksgiving night. So we stayed in the not-bedroom room. It was not comfortable, but it was shelter and sort of a bed. I wonder who else was booking rooms in this not-a-hotel. How many of them actually had local options for shelter. Imagine if the Dutch lady had booked for this weekend. No place to stay and little familiarity with the area. And the language and the dialects. Given that she used the first-person plural, she probably had someone to help her. But imagine a single woman traveling alone in this situation! She’d probably end up needing that battered women’s shelter…

So I am thoroughly pissed off at Choice and am here to say “Don’t trust them!” Maybe don’t trust any corporation in these days of late capitalism and increasing desperation to wrench revenues out of all us turnips. But certainly do not book a hotel unless you are talking to that specific hotel’s front desk. Because that’s the only way, apparently, to verify that there is a front desk…

Again, only a minor graft in the list of daily offenses committed by corporations. But I for one am done with keeping quiet. About any of it. It is time we stop giving them a pass. Call them out. Tell each other. Send out warnings. And then stop giving them money to just perpetuate the nonsense. This is me, calling them on it. Don’t give Choice your business. You’re probably being swindled. And they are probably doing that with full intent. Because they can’t make increasing profits any other way.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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