Saturday, July 25, 2009's Phone Rates and Manner Fall Flat

I briefly and unscientifically tested the call center experience and wasn't impressed with its unpublished rates over the phone and its customer-service style.

Hotwire offered much steeper discounts for properties with the same star ratings and city areas in two instances, while's phone rate bested Hotwire's opaque rate by a few bucks in a third test.

That being said, I can see how's value proposition would be attractive to some consumers.

As you may recall, is the brainchild of founders Bob Diener and David Litman and, as I reported, their business model has raised eyebrows. offers published rates on its website and then, for certain properties, advises consumers to "call for lower unpublished rates." Alas, it is a means for properties to off-load distressed inventory without publicizing their discounts and diluting their brands.

However, the website pitch to phone for lower rates certainly is a tip-off that the brands have a penchant for discounting.

So, I tested the value proposition on three hotels: the 3-star Hotel Rex in the Union Square West section of San Francisco; Swisshotel in the Magnificent Mile area of Chicago; and the Regal Sun in the Lake Buena Vista-downtown area of Orlando.

I compared:

--'s published website rates;

--'s unpublished phone rates;

--'s published rates;

-- and Hotwire's unpublished rates.

For the Hotel Rex in San Francisco,'s website published rate for an Aug. 4-6 stay was $160.50 per night, the same as the published rate.'s unpublished rate over the phone was $146.40, but Hotwire offered an unpublished rate of $113.00 from one of its unidentified hotel partners in the same section of the city.

Incidentally, while listed the Hotel Rex as a 3-star property,, and showed it as a 3.5-star property, so I went with the 3.5-star rating for Hotel Rex to come up with the $113.00 Hotwire rate. Hotwire's 3-star rate was even lower, $79 per night.

But, perhaps this face-off is a tad unfair because it is a bit of an apples to grapefruits comparison.

Here's the difference: I phoned the call center and the agent, Todd, went into a spiel about how getaroom has it all over Hotwire because with Hotwire you don’t know the identity of the hotel before you book.

So, with Hotwire the consumer must place some trust in the company that its hotel ratings are accurate and that you won’t end up in a fleabag property.

Regarding the face-off, I was measuring the unpublished rate for one property versus Hotwire's entire roster of properties with the same star rating in the same section of the city. Obviously, Hotwire would have an advantage of scale.

Hotwire gives you the price up-front, and the system is a bit different with competitor, where you enter a bid and wait to see if your offer is accepted. And, with both Hotwire and Priceline you select the star rating and city area, but learn the hotel's identity only after booking.

I’ve often taken advantage of great unpublished rates on Priceline and Hotwire and feel comfortable with booking on both websites.

But, I believe there is a large subset of consumers who would feel much more comfortable getting a sometimes-smaller discount with over the phone than gambling that Priceline or Hotwire will put them in a suitable room.

Although Priceline and Hotwire usually offer hotels from household-name brands, at least with there is no mystery about which hotel consumers will end up in.

And, I also think that some consumers may be unaware that the unpublished rate they can get over the phone from may be substantially higher than if they booked at Priceline or Hotwire.

I continued my rate-testing for the 4-star Swisshotel in the Magnificent Mile section of Chicago.'s published website rate for an Aug. 4-6 stay was $206.10 per night, and the published rate was $229.'s unpublished rate over the phone was $150.81, but Hotwire offered an unpublished rate for a 4-star property in the Magnificent Mile area of Chicago for $92.00, or about 38.7 percent cheaper than's unpublished rate.

In contrast,'s unpublished phone rate of $57.72 per night at the 3.5 star Regal Sun in the Lake Buena Vista-downtown section of Orlando was cheaper than Hotwire's $62 rate for a 3.5-star property in that area on the same dates, Aug. 4-6. and's website both displayed the same published rate, $66.60 per night.

So, score two big wins for Hotwire, and one narrow victory for

I'd also like to make a couple of points about my experience in phoning the call center, which I did twice today. I didn't identify myself as a journalist, and passed myself off as an ordinary consumer looking to book a room.

Hey, I'm sleuthing for you, but I digress.

The first agent I spoke with, Todd, was congenial, but a bit pushy.

And, I understand why.

After all, call center distribution costs are higher for than the online channel, especially if the consumer attempts to engage the call center agent in conversation or wants to do some comparison shopping.

I had informed Todd that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in San Franscisco or take a quick getaway to Orlando instead. So, after quoting me the unpublished rate for Hotel Rex in San Francisco, I said I wanted to find out the unpublished rate for a hotel in Orlando.

"OK, which hotel quickly?" he replied.

So, I felt a bit pressured and certain that the agent, anxious to make a booking and move on to the next customer, wasn’t about to go out of his way to satisfy my deal-hunting desires.'s call center is not a place for comparison-shopping, but a venue for wham-bam-thank-you-mam bookings.

Todd warned me, as did a second agent, Tammy, who likewise had a pleasant manner when I called again later to inquire about Swisshotel in Chicago, that I'd better book now because the rates might not be available if I phoned back in a couple of hours.

Thus, a little more pressure, and not a leisurely shopping experience.

So, I think, with its website and call center propositions, might be an effective way for some properties, particularly smaller ones, to put some heads in beds during slack periods.

But, I think many consumers looking for real "deals" will probably stay online rather than phone and find greener pastures and more substantial discounts elsewhere.

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