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Sitting in the Marriott Lobby at 1:15 A.M.

Arguing with a ham-fisted hotel clerk after midnight in the lobby of a Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland, about room availability while in the common space behind you the last tipsy stragglers from an Irish music appreciation convention play “The Girl From Belfast City” at the top of their fiddles is not what you want to be doing after driving nearly five hours from New York City.

But I and three friends found ourselves doing just that this weekend as we patiently, and then less patiently, tried to explain the situation.

And the situation was this: My friend Stuart, visiting the U.S. from London, had booked a hotel room at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center late last week using expedia.co.uk. He received a confirmation email to say that the two double bed corner room he’d selected was reserved. Done. Nowhere on the email did it say, either prominently or in fine print, that having used Expedia’s service, one would then be required to take the further step of also calling the hotel to confirm the reservation.

Let me set the scene. It’s past midnight when we arrive at the hotel. We park the car, grab our stuff from the trunk, and make a bedraggled beeline for the front desk. In the background a Danny O’Donnell clone does a soulful rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar.” We approach the front desk and Stuart gives his name and ID to the clerk. No reason not to expect a quick check-in. The clerk taps inscrutably on his keyboard for a few moments. He looks up.

“I’m sorry sir. There’s no double room under your name.”

“…” [blank stares]

“As I was a rovin’ over the Cork and Kerry mountains
I met with captain Farrell and his money he was counting
I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapier
Saying “Stand and deliver” for he were a bold deceiver…”

Apparently, and I’ve never experienced this before—either with Expedia or with any other third-party hotel-booking service—what Stuart had done on expedia.co.uk was put in a “request” with the Marriott rather than reserve a space. What we were then required to do, we were brusquely told, was place a call to the Marriott to actually make the booking. Silly us. We thought the email with the subject line from Expedia entitled “Reservation Confirmation” was a reservation confirmation.

Several thoughts crossed my mind during our subsequent standoff with the clerk. One, what’s the point of using a third-party website to book a hotel room if it doesn’t actually allow you to book the room? Two, why won’t the fiddlers go to sleep? And three, where was the customer service?

I wouldn’t say it was bad customer service per se; more so just inept customer service—but in the mind of the customer it’s all the same, especially as the hour tolls 1 a.m. We were told we could have a room with a single king-sized bed in it for the same price we’d been offered for the two double bed room via Expedia. Cool—but there were four of us. So, how about two trundle beds? We could have one, but two would be a fire hazard. Then the clerk tried to get us to book a second room. Telling four road-weary, penny-pinching travelers that their best bet is to spend another $119 was not the way to go.

We were continually told, in rather pedantic, condescending tones, that we should call Expedia and see what they had to say because the Marriott couldn’t do anything for us. A request is not a reservation, regardless of any documentation Expedia might have sent us.

It was all rather exhausting, especially so late at night. Stuart attempted to call Expedia’s UK line, but couldn’t get a clear connection. (He had to leave the lobby and place his calls outside to escape the dulcet twee notes of “Brown-eyed Girl” played on a fiddle.)

The upshot was, after some back-and-forth negotiation and a bit more condescension from the Marriott staffer, we got ourselves a voucher for free parking, gratis Internet in the room, and decided to sleep three to the king-sized bed and have a trundle brought up for the fourth in our party. The king bed was huge and there was more than enough space in it for three. We spent a relatively comfortable night, but we still felt pretty ticked off about the way we’d been treated. From the time we arrived to the time we were able to get into a room, more than an hour and a half had elapsed.

But the entire “situation” could have been defused with a soft touch and a few kind words. Inflexibility is to customer service what pigs are to airplanes—it just ain’t going to fly.

The following morning we spoke to a manager who was very accommodating. Apologies all around and free coffees in the hotel Starbucks. It didn’t take much to make the four of us feel like guests rather than refugees seeking shelter.

Because it’s all about customer service. Customer service is marketing—and without it, there won’t be any customers to service.

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