Amid Coronavirus, Hilton, Other Large Chains Put Reputation At Risk By Not Doing the Right Thing

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The Coronavirus has thrown hotels, airlines and travelers for a loop as conferences and business travel are cancelled, often on short notice.  Some businesses are stepping up, even when it’s painful for them, choosing not to hold their customers responsible for the circumstances and showing flexibility with cancellation or rebooking policies. Those that don’t do the right thing threaten long-term damage to their reputation.

Some companies are doing the right thing

When I went to cancel a series of reservations I had made with the new Riggs Hotel in Washington, DC via Hotels.com, I was worried.

I knew the window for free cancellation had passed a few days earlier and, given that I had booked through a third party, I figured I was out of luck.

While it took a 30 minute wait on hold with Hotels.com Welcome Rewards Silver customer service, and another 20 minutes on the phone with a representative who had to cancel each booking individually by calling up Riggs, I was able to cancel all 5 of my reservations without a fee.

My takeaways from this experience:

  1. I will absolutely book guests at the new, super-impressive-looking Riggs Hotel in Washington, DC’s Gallery Place again when we reschedule our event.
  2. I will continue to use Hotels.com to book my stays. Their stay-10-nights-and-get-1-night-free Welcome Rewards program is straightforward (and great for someone who stays at properties from multiple brands), and customer service has always been stellar if occasionally hard to reach.

I then called the historic Tabard Inn in Washington, DC, where I had booked a non-refundable dinner that was scheduled to take place in about 34 hours.  Tabard, which had every right to pocket the money and say that they had already purchased the food for my event, instead agreed to allow me to defer my deposit to hold an event at a future date.  This is the latest in a series of positive experiences there, and I’ll definitely keep going back.

Other travel providers are also stepping up:

  • The InterContinental Hotels Group is forgoing all cancellation fees globally for all of its IHG properties between March 9 and April 30, 2020. Skift points out that IHG’s policy “is currently the most generous of all the big global hotel chains.”
  • Southwest Airlines deserves special mention: They are allowing changes or refunds-for-credit without fees because that is their policy every day, not just during the current global pandemic. (Other airlines are stepping up, at least temporarily, as well.)

Trying to do the right thing even when the right thing is hard

You get the sense that many companies are doing the right thing, or trying to, even when the right thing is hard.

Airbnb updated their extenuating circumstances policy on March 14 to guarantee refunds to travelers affected by the coronavirus. CEO Brian Chesky noted in a tweet that the majority of hosts had been flexible even before the official policy change, even though it’s a hardship for Airbnb’s hosts, many of whom rely on that income to pay their rent or mortgage.

The gigantic music, film and technology conference SXSW announced it would allow 2020 badgeholders for the cancelled festival to defer to a future year as well as take 50% off the walk-up rate for a future year. Some people on Twitter aren’t fully satisfied with that outcome, but this is a huge hit for their company.  SXSW announced it would lay off one-third of its staff and is still assessing the full extent of the damage.

It was impossible to make everyone happy here: SXSW could have given full refunds to everyone and, I assume, jeopardized their ability to operate, or stuck by their original, draconian no-returns-even-for-an-act-of-God policy and angered the entire community they seek to support.

They wound up somewhere in the middle.

As a 2020 badgeholder, I know this is difficult for SXSW, and understand why they made the decision they did.  I’ll be back in a future year.

Hilton, others, need to step up or risk damage to their reputations

That brings me to Hilton. I booked a room for 3 nights at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Convention Center Austin for SXSW, using the conference’s online booking portal.  The cancellation policy indicated the hotel would take a deposit of the first and last night’s charges, which would be nonrefundable within 7 days of arrival.

Then, on March 6, the Mayor of Austin declared a “local emergency” due to the coronavirus, forcing the cancellation of SXSW.

When I attempted to cancel my booking, local staff at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Convention Center Austin indicated that they would not refund the deposit, which amounts to two-thirds of the entire bill.

I then approached Hilton’s corporate office, and received the following, wholly-unsatisfying response (which, hilariously, ended with the company thanking me for my “ongoing loyalty and understanding.”):

I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. I understand your position, as the coronavirus matter has affected many of our valued guests such as yourself.

Hilton has developed policy and procedures to handle reservations in specific countries regarding this matter. Currently, the COVID-19 policy allows for modification and cancellation waivers for leisure guests to, through or from China, Israel, Italy, South Korea and Saudi Arabia with stays from specific dates from January to April 2020. At this time cancellations are still subject to the cancellation policy when your reservation was booked. Unfortunately, we must adhere to this corporate directive with no exceptions.

Furthermore, all cancellation fees decisions are a hotel policy that cannot be overridden by the corporate office. The waiving of the fee is strictly in the hands of the General Manager of the hotel and the availability of the hotel is also taken into consideration at the time the reversal request is made.

Hilton has since updated its coronavirus cancellation policies though, as I read it, it still does not apply to my situation. (And Hilton has yet to refund my deposit.)

I know this is an unprecedented situation, but it seems like a massive mistake for Hilton to send the message to its customers that they’re just going to take their money, notwithstanding local emergency declarations.

This is a global pandemic that, in the case of SXSW, forced the cancellation of the entire conference. For corporate to say this is out of their hands is inexcusable. Their shifting corporate-wide coronavirus cancellation policy demonstrates that corporate has the ability to force top-down policies on properties — they’re just choosing not to.

The thing is, I would have been fine with less than a full refund.  The Hilton Garden Inn in Austin could have offered me credit for a future stay and asked for my understanding, or told me they would only take one night’s deposit rather than two.

It’s the inflexibility and lack of understanding amid this unprecedented situation that really bothers me. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the brand that won’t go away anytime soon.

I should say that Hilton is not the only example. Other major hotel chains and travel providers have been called out for similarly-inflexible policies.

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary had an excellent article on this exact topic in the Washington Post’s business section today, “Refund policies and coronavirus: Companies and colleges should be prepared to be generous.” Her take:

Companies shouldn’t shift losses to their customers…The spread of the coronavirus is an extraordinary event. A pandemic of this magnitude requires considerations that are also extraordinary. Out of an abundance of fairness, companies and colleges should implement the most generous refund policies possible.

My experience with Hilton is clearly not isolated.  I’ll end here with a collection of tweets from others’ recent experiences with Hilton.

Next year for SXSW, I’ll go back to booking with Airbnb or Hotels.com.


About Jake

Jake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age.  Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.

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