No excuse


Q: I made a reservation through Orbitz for a night at The Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.

It ended up being quite possibly my worst hotel experience I’ve ever had in this country (there was one in Venezuela that will forever hold the spot of very worst ever hotel – a metal cot and naked light bulb; I’m sure many prisons provide better accommodation).

I arrived at the hotel only to find out that I had to cross a picket line to enter. That was very stressful. Working my way through this sizable hotel, I found my room and was already cringing at the grim and peeling paint that was found on every surface in the building.

The room was awful, and in fact my 13-year-old got tears in her eyes and asked if we actually had to stay here. The room was as filthy as it was huge. The paint was falling off the ceiling in three-inch chunks, the curtains looked as if they’d suffered some sort of natural disaster, the carpet was filthy, heavily stained, and had actually ripped away from the wall at the door causing huge wrinkles.

I asked the concierge if he could please help us get reservations at a restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He grabbed the phone book and said “You got a cell phone right? Here ya go.”

Gee, thanks.

The toilet in our room was on permanent flush, the beds were awful – the spreads were dirty and worn and every single movement on this horrifically uncomfortable surface produced loud squeaks and whines all night long. As a result of this constant noise we got very little sleep.

In the morning we found that there was no water to take a shower. There was water flow in the sink but the tiny trickle of water in the tub was insufficient to turn on the shower. I called the front desk, and the person who answered the phone, “Oh, you don’t have enough water pressure, right?” They promised to send an engineer but after 45 minutes no one showed up.

The final topper to all of this was that both my daughter and I now have serious fungal infections on our feet – and believe me, the only time we had nothing on our feet was the time spent standing in the shower trying to get any water to come out at all. The skin on the bottoms of our feet has literally split open; it is very painful and will take weeks to cure.

After I checked out, I contacted Orbitz immediately by e-mail. I received an automated message stating they received the complaint and would investigate. After a week, I called the phone number provided for customer service in my automated note. I spent the better part of 45 minutes on hold, talked to three different people and to my complete amazement got absolutely nothing from them other than “humm, let me put you on hold,” and “humm, why did you wait to contact us?” (I didn’t), “Humm, well someone will have to get back to you” – click.

At a minimum I would have expected some sympathy and an apology for the bad experience, followed by a return phone call with a resolution. I was charged $146.05 for the room, and I don’t think I should have to pay for it. Can you help?

— Kathleen Pierz

A: I cringe whenever I read a story like yours. I know the folks at Orbitz cringe, too. And the good people at The Congress Plaza Hotel, for that matter.

No one wants you to have a bad experience. I don’t think there’s anyone reading your letter who would doubt that you had a very unsatisfactory stay at the Congress Plaza.

I’d like to put this into some perspective, though. First, the hotel was built in 1893 and there are a total of 852 guest rooms. It’s old and it’s huge, and when you book a room through Orbitz, there is very little left to the imagination when it comes to its age and size.

Second, regarding the strike. Did you see the travel advisory at the top of every page when you book through Orbitz? The one that says, “The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 1 is currently conducting a strike against The Congress Plaza Hotel.”

That may also explain the lack of service. When replacements are brought in during a strike, quality invariably slips. Remember the 1987 NFL season, in which substitute players were hired? That was probably no more football than the place you stayed at was a hotel.

But that’s no excuse. It’s still called the hospitality business, and if the Congress Plaza isn’t up to it, it shouldn’t stay open. I mean, come on. Concierges who throw the book in your face? Snippy hotel operators? Paint peeling off the walls?

No excuse.

(It’s even more disturbing that Orbitz, your travel agent, is based in Chicago. You would think someone from the company would know that the hotel isn’t up to standards. I would find it difficult to believe you’re the first customer to complain about the hotel, too.)

The way I see it, Orbitz should have been more discriminating about selling the Congress Plaza. When I do a search for hotel rooms in Chicago on Orbitz, it’s one of the first properties to pop up. The deals are good, but you have to remember, when the prices are so low, there’s usually a reason for it.

As a travel agent, Orbitz is recommending these properties, so it shoulders some of the responsibility when your expectations aren’t met.

The Congress Plaza, as I’ve already said, needs to get its act together – on many levels. Deal with the labor problems, clean up the hotel, and for goodness sakes, don’t let your employees talk with guests unless they’re properly trained to do so.

You shouldn’t have waited to get home to tell someone you were unhappy. Before checking out, you should have mentioned your dissatisfaction with your room to a manager. There were 851 other rooms, many of which I’m sure were available. If a hotel visit isn’t going your way, you owe it to the property to give it a chance to make it better.

I contacted Orbitz on your behalf and asked it to take a look at your file. This time Stephen Sedlak, a customer relations manager, responded to you within hours. He apologized for taking so long to get back to you (although I think one week is a perfectly reasonable response time, at least by travel industry standards) and for the unpleasant stay at the Congress Plaza.

“We are very disappointed that the Congress Hotel has represented themselves and Orbitz in this manner,” he wrote to you. “From your description, the quality of the property and the level of service is not what we expect of ourselves and our partners.”

Orbitz refunded you the entire $146.05 for your stay and offered you a $100 voucher towards your next airline ticket booking.