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It's Story Time: No Walk In the Park
By Steve Cokkinias
A chilly February 1999, and I was the Front Desk Manager at my 729-room hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. It was the time of year for College Basketball's Regional Conference Championship Tournaments, and we were the host city for the "Big 12 Conference" that year. And as such, we were one of the "host hotels" where a few of the teams and their supporters would stay. The tournament ran Thursday through Sunday, with the finals on Sunday afternoon, so each team made reservations for the whole weekend, just in case they won the entire tournament.
Similarly, I was told by the more experienced managers in the hotel, as soon as a team lost, they would check out and go home, rather than staying and paying for all 3 nights. And on Saturday afternoon, two of the teams that were staying with us were playing against one another. The loser, I was told by our confident Sales team, would check out late Saturday afternoon and go home, along with most of their fans. Apparently, it happened every year...
Now one thing about hotels is this: in order to "sell out" on any night, and actually fill all of your available rooms, you usually have to over-book the hotel a bit. So if you have 729 rooms, you probably need to sell 740 reservations for that night to actually fill all 729. Why? Some guests don't show up, some guests call and cancel the same day, and some guests check out early. Airlines frequently do the same thing, and are occasionally forced to "bump" passengers off of an overbooked flight. And what happens IF all the hotel guests show up? In the hotel business, we call this a "walk situation."
"Walking" a guest is what happens when a guest arrives to a hotel in the evening with a confirmed booking, and the hotel has no more rooms, because they took a chance, over-booked, and then not enough guests cancelled or checked-out early. So despite the confirmed reservation, there are just no rooms available. As compensation for this lost gamble, the hotel then reserves the guest a room at another similar, close-by hotel, pays for all charges for the night, including transportation to the other hotel and breakfast the next morning, and if the guest was booked for more than 1 night, arranges a return pickup and brings the guest back the following day. In some hotels in busy cities like New York or Chicago, it is fairly common to "walk" a few guests per night, while always striving for the "perfect fill" of 100% occupancy.
And on this fateful Saturday afternoon, our hotel Sales Team, knowing that one of the teams would be checking out after losing, even though their reservations were until Sunday, continued to accept bookings according to the annual tradition. And as it was my first year at the hotel, I was getting extremely nervous. By 1pm that day, we were over-booked by 110 rooms. Or as we would say in the hotel biz, we were "negative 110". That has to be some kind of record. "Don't worry Steve" the Director of Sales kept telling me. "Whichever team loses this afternoon will come back to the hotel and check-out, along with all of their fans. 100 Rooms will check-out early, and you will be FINE."
And that's when it started to snow.
We all watched the game on a small TV in my office, and Oklahoma lost. It would be a few hours drive for the team and their fans to get home from Kansas City, so we started planning for their departure and hoped the snow would stop. But it didn't. And when the Oklahoma team busses reached the hotel, I was standing at the front entrance to meet them and confirm with the coach that they were indeed leaving. And I was standing in a blizzard. The first bus stopped, the coach got out, shook my hand, looked up at the dark gray wintery skies, and said to me "The weather looks a bit too dangerous to drive. We are going to stay overnight, and check out tomorrow on Sunday as originally planned." I stood staring at him frozen and shocked, with my mouth hanging open collecting snowflakes, as the realization that we were over-booked by 110 rooms and nobody was going to cancel, began to wash over me in cold waves of horror.
"Ok" was all I could muster, and I ran inside in "panic mode", gathered my team, and began calling around to other nearby 5-star hotels to secure additional rooms. We were going to have to "walk" at least 100 people in the next few hours. And it wasn't going to be pretty. I was going to kill that Director of Sales, who was safely at home with his family.
Many of the arriving guests that we would have to move to other hotels (against their will) were also at the game that afternoon, and had been drinking and cheering. They probably planned on checking-in after the game, resting, and then heading out for dinner. And when they were told the bad news at the Front Desk, they were NOT happy. And the worst part was, most of the "good" hotels in town were also sold-out because of the big basketball tournament. We only managed to secure a few rooms at each of the other 5-star hotels in town, which went to the first 20 or so lucky guests that arrived. And then we started calling the 4-star hotels. And took all of their rooms. And then the 3-star hotels. Until there were no more rooms left. And then we started calling the 2-star hotels. We had no choice.
We set up a separate table off to the side of the lobby with a telephone and a stack of taxi vouchers, and started sending guests over to this desk, where they would be administered with an apology, an explanation, a transportation voucher, and the name of the hotel they were going to. It was quite a production line. After "walking" the first 60 or so guests to other hotels, the crowd waiting in line began to get loud and unruly, as the word started to spread that the hotel had no more rooms. The drunk, impatient, angry guests began shouting and throwing things. We actually needed to call the police to assist us with "crowd control" as the lobby was turning into a riot scene. Four guests were arrested for "drunk and disorderly behaviour". Women and children cried in the corners. At one point a fight broke out between two guests who were tired of waiting in line and couldn't decide who arrived first.
By the time we reached the 80th guest to "walk", we were sending them to hotels I had never even heard of. But if they had a room available, we booked it. When we reached the 90th guest, after about four hours of this process, we were sending guests to hotels in neighborhoods that I would not even drive through in my car with the doors locked and the windows rolled up. It got SO bad that we actually "walked" the SAME guest TWICE that same evening, something I don't think many hoteliers can say that they have ever done. What happened? We sent a guest to a 2-star mystery hotel, and 30 minutes later he was back in my lobby. "What happened, why are you back here?" I asked. "I thought I was clear that we unfortunately don't have any rooms available tonight." His reply was memorable:
"I refuse to stay at the hotel you sent me to. The front doors had bars on them, and when I got into the lobby the lady at the front desk was behind a glass wall and was talking to us through a small round speaker, like at a movie theatre...or a prison. She asked me to ‘slide my I.D. under the glass'. I said ‘no way' and came back here. So you need to please send me somewhere else."
The final body-count that day was ninety-six. 96 Guests relocated from my hotel to at least 15 other hotels in town in an awful five-hour stretch of madness. It was easily one of the most memorable and stressful nights of my hospitality career. And that Sales Manager? Lucky for him, he was really good at begging for forgiveness.
About the author
Steve Cokkinias is the Founder & CEO of InnSense Leadership (www.innsense.com)which he established in 2012 after a successful 17-year career in the hospitality industry that included senior positions with Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and Sheraton in the U.S.A, Caribbean, and Asia. An inspiring and sought-after speaker and executive coach, Steve has delivered energizing programs on service, leadership, and talent management to a wide range of international companies. During his 9 years as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur, his hotel was named "Best Employer in Malaysia" 4 times consecutively by Hewitt & Associates, earning him a place on Human Capital Asia's "Hot 40 - Asia's H.R. Superstars". In 2010, Steve was named Malaysia's "General Manager of the Year" by the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards. His new book, "InnSanity - Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Luxury Lodging", is due for release in early 2013. Steve can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow Steve on Twitter: @stevecokkinias.
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