Do Travel Service Providers "Get It?"

Travel is a largely unregulated industry. Even hawkish countries like Australia and the UK don't have travel ombudsmans. What does this mean for the consumer? Buyer beware. In 2011 alone we've taken 29 flights, 7 tours (mostly day and one longer) and stayed in 56 hotels, 39 hostels, 10 B&Bs and 7 apartments. We've taken countless bus and train rides and eaten in at least one restaurant every day. So I feel qualified to say what I'm about to say.

I am not impressed.

I've been fortunate enough to stay at some of the world's finest hotels in my lifetime and took my first business class flight when I was in high school. I'm also humble enough to have stayed in plenty of hostels and one or two star hotels. So I've observed the changes in the travel industry over the last 16 years in every aspect from budget to luxury travel. Sometimes the former make more of an effort than the places that cost hundreds of dollars a night. I know I'm not the only traveller who feels this way either, noting recent posts from Suzy Guese and Emily in Chile. That said, we've also had some remarkably positive experiences from managers, companies and brands who really get it. This post is not aimed at them.

Photo by jusben from morgueFile

When travelling full-time it isn't as big a deal when something goes wrong. But I still always complain if something is truly unacceptable. Because what about those people who are enjoying their only two week holiday for the entire year? When things don't meet their expectations it can ruin their entire trip. The staff looking after me at a hotel don't know my personal situation, that this day is just a blip in the scheme of things. Expectations may differ but the nature of people remains the same. We want to get what we pay for and expect value, comfort and a certain level of enjoyment from the travel industry providers we choose.

Travel companies market a dream: relaxation, a safe, reliable way to get from points A to B, cultural awareness, adventure or "getting away from it all." What many consumers are getting these days is inconvenience and disappointment due largely to rude staff, misinformation, false advertising, sloppy administration and cost-cutting, unless they can afford to pay top dollar for the very best. Even then there are no guarantees.

Some people spend a considerable amount of time selecting what hotel they will stay at, their travel gear, restaurants and activities at the destination. For many travellers, these are not business decisions. They are taking their hard-earned money and spending it on leisure. Their choice was to travel, not purchase a new television or other product in lieu of this activity. Travel providers should care about customer satisfaction. I won't go into detail about some of the things we've seen this year. They range from the minor inconvenience to the seriously shocking. More often than not a dignified response from management will suffice in smoothing things over. But we've also been on the receiving end of snarky, snobbish, defensive and manipulative reactions from management. And this I find surprising.

Has this bathroom been serviced properly? Photo by clarita from morgueFile.

Yes, mistakes happen. We're all human and sometimes a person has a bad day or something was simply overlooked. But there's no reason to make things worse by refusing to apologize and treating the customer like an idiot. Travellers are now often coached to lower their expectations when they travel. "Be flexible" or "it's all part of the adventure," we're told. Not at four hundred euros a night or thousands of dollars on a package tour it isn't. Someone's getting rich off these little mantras. And many of the offences are simple maintenance and communication issues: that broken arm rest or tray table on an airplane,  a broken showerhead, non-working elevators, incorrect information on websites or official communications, faulty internet connections, old mattresses, loose toilet seat hinges, slow drains, etc.  How difficult is it to check each room thoroughly after each guest leaves? Or to service your aircraft or update information on your website?

A variety of online companies exist to empower today's traveller, from review sites like TripAdvisor, Virtual Tourist and TravBuddy to travel forums and blogs. It is important to examine the effects these sites have on travel providers and customers of hotels, restaurants and services. We now have a place to vent when we have a bad experience. Unhappy customers can be passive-aggressive and dash off a bad review, never bringing the problem to the attention of the manager or someone else in a position to make decisions at the company. Customer relations personnel spend time fighting the fires of the bad reviews, pasting an "official" or "corporate" reply back to the reviewer or, worse, becoming defensive and failing to offer a solution. Even if they respond in a constructive way it is usually too late to positively impact the customer's experience at the property. I get no satisfaction from leaving a bad review post-experience; by then there will rarely be a satisfying resolution.

Special occasion, special service? Photo by seemann from morgueFile

I like to do a good job and hold others to my high standards when I've paid for something. But I am reasonable. I do not expect the same standards at a hostel as I do at a luxury hotel and can easily adjust between the two. I also tend to confront a situation when it's happening, to give the service provider a chance to rectify the situation. My approach is to contact the most senior person in the company I am aware of because he or she is the ultimate decision maker (CEO emails are easy to find online if you do a little crafty searching). I keep things nonpersonal and stick to the facts. This approach has resulted in everything from angry, defensive, unprofessional, even illegal behaviour from staff to glowing, beautiful displays of grace in knowing exactly how to handle a disappointed client. In my mind, this is what separates the winners of the travel industry from the losers. I've been transformed from a critic to a champion of a brand and just as easily from a disappointed customer to a vehement opponent of a company. It's all about how they handled my legitimate complaint.

As a person who writes about travel I evaluate companies differently than other people might. But we all have the common ground of being human in how we deal with things. Have sites like Trip Advisor made us impersonal and ineffective in dealing with each other in travel? Of course, if your complaint got you nowhere and you received poor services, complaining online may be your only recourse. Most companies are reluctant to provide the one thing they should: money back (or at least something the customer really wants). If the company only provided 60 per cent of the promised service, why should it be paid 100 per cent?

What can managers and CEOs do to improve? Putting themselves in the shoes of their customers would be a good way to start. If your customer is so worked up about something that they're angry when they complain, don't get defensive and take the same tone with him. Listen quietly, understand that this is supposed to be HIS relaxation time (after all, he's paying for it). Apologize for the problem - just saying that you're sorry can make such a difference. Offer him something (of real value) and do whatever you can to make the situation right. Appreciate the amount of time you've taken away from him on his holiday. Do the right thing by your customers or you may one day find you've lost them to the competitors who get it. I'm pretty sure this is Customer Service 101.

I am, of course, a capitalist, so I understand the bottom line and why these companies are in business in the first place. But I can't help but feel that cost-cutting measures have gone too far in many corporate (and even independent) travel businesses. I suspect low pay is the cause of many zero care-factor employees. I've even heard a staff member complain about how little she was paid to her customers (yikes!) Whatever it is, I ask every person working in the travel industry to ask himself, "What do I expect when I am on holiday? Am I really being fair to my guests? And if I don't have the power to change things, or if my bosses won't listen to advice like this, should I be moving on to another company that does?"

What are your thoughts on the current state of the travel industry? And what's your style of handling complaints when you travel? Do you rely on sites like Trip Advisor? In general do you feel that travel providers do a good job, either in service or the handling of complaints and disputes? Who shines in this area?

***A note on comments to this post: please do not mention specific business names or people if you have something negative to say. For legal reasons we cannot allow naming and shaming on this website (the stories are fine minus the identifying details of the parties involved, however). We're responsible for all content on this site, even comments. Thanks and we look forward to your responses!***

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9 years ago

One hotel I recently stayed at, The Marriott in Naples, was excellent in all aspects but their room service left me a tad disappointed. They didn’t even throw away trash and arrange my stuff in a neat order! They seemed to do this every “two days” rather than every day to save costs. This is a “call to action” post for the industry–well done.

Reply to  Charu

Thanks, Charu! Cost cutting seems to be the norm these days – what was their response when you asked them why they did it that way? Did they say “to save money?”

Reply to  Charu

Also want to add that housekeeping is one area that really seemed to need improvement across the board in many places we stayed at.

9 years ago

As you said, at least acknowledging the complaint and seeing it from that persons view sometimes goes a long way. I also think an improvement could be seen if the front line staff were given more power to manage a situation gone wrong, and being able to rectify the situation there and then, rather than feeling there is nothing they can do.  I worked in the front lines of travel for over 10 years. Dealing with the public and their sometimes out of whack expectations is difficult.  It used to be that one worked in travel, even though the stress was high (one can’t control the weather, late… Read more »

Reply to  bluenosegirl

Thanks so much for sharing this insight – the best companies probably do empower their staff . I’m interested to know why travel perks are no longer offered to employees in the industry? Is it just the economy?

9 years ago

I don’t think it’s the economy, it has been like this for years now. It is more of a change in the industry. the Familiarization trips for agents are few, those that organize them no longer have the airline backing they used to to get space on flights, so there is usually a fare to pay.  Agent rates at hotels are all but gone (forget comps!).  When I started I was told it’s not like it used to be, now there is very little in the way of perks.  After the airlines stopped paying commission that is when things made… Read more »

9 years ago

Terrible service is one of my major pet peeves.  I get that not everyone working in the service industry is happy to be there, but how do people keep their jobs when they’re not actually, y’know, doing them?  Blowing customers off, being rude directly to their faces, and doing everything they can to not be helpful (all things we’ve encountered by various folks in the travel industry) is just not acceptable if I’m paying to be helped.  I’m the type of person that won’t stay at a particular hotel chain if I’ve had a horrible experience with them in the… Read more »

I think training and management are major factors – and in large chains, if people aren’t complaining the overseeing corporate management probably doesn’t know there is a problem. We also will boycott a chain if we have a bad experience at one location. Good to know we aren’t the only ones with a travel blacklist…

I rely on reviews from sites like TripAdvisor, Agoda,, etc, but I also rely on reviews from other travel bloggers. In both scenarios, I like to speak to the hotel owner too if there’s a few poor reviews that really stand out. One hotel owner I spoke with in Siem Reap had a scathing review on TripAdvisor. Turns out the commentor had used Hostelbookers (you only pay their fee to make a booking) so the hotel owner doesn’t get a dime until you show up. It creates a Catch 22 for the hotel owner — he has to hold… Read more »

I agree, Raymond – we take reviews with a grain of salt and I’ll only write a review if I’ve had a really bad experience, not just if there was one bad thing (unless that thing was truly unacceptable). Generally I think places that really require improvement will have several bad reviews saying the same thing. If there are only one or two (and particularly if those are very old) then we still give the property a chance if everything else looks good.

9 years ago

Excellent post, Andrea.  Like you, I know that when I’m doing the budget travel thing I have to accept that I am getting what I pay for.  And if I don’t think a hostel is living up to the $7 a night I am paying, it is usually not a problem to move to one down the street that will.  And when I have to ask 5 different people to figure out how to find the right local bus, that’s just how things go with this travel style. When you are paying a lot more for better service and quality… Read more »

Reply to  thetravelchica

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get to see your room before committing? We only got to do that a few times last year but I love the idea of staying flexible…unfortunately as you mentioned it’s not always feasible…

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