Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hilton Worldwide and the lesson of bad appearances

Take a good look at this man.

This is 86-year-old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He's not the type to go on business travel by himself, so he took a group of Saudi princes and officials to New York City for his surgical visit on November 24th.

The Waldorf-Astoria bumped a number of would-be guests so the King could take up an extended number of suites there. The problem, according to front page of the New York Times, is that at least one set of guests weren't even told by the Waldorf-Astoria they were getting the boot and happened to find out by sheer accident beforehand.

The Waldorf moved that set of guests to a free stay at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue since Hilton Worldwide is the parent company of the Waldorf as well. But as one of those guests told the paper, "They assured us the Hilton was just as nice, but come on, there were people in the elevators at the Hilton carrying pizza boxes.”

Those same guests even posted a nasty review on TripAdvisor.

It looks pretty bad, right? Seems like 100 guests got booted to another hotel because the King brought a much bigger party than anybody expected for his surgery. We don't begrudge the King -- that's how things are in Saudi Arabia, even for a toothache.

But what I don't understand is the duck under the radar response of Hilton Worldwide to the New York Times: they "won’t confirm or deny the arrival of a large number of Saudi guests."

Hilton Worldwide refused to answer any of the reporter's questions, and instead issued a statement: "'On those occasions when a guest relocation occurs, it is always our intention and goal to ensure that the affected individual is totally satisfied'" and offered "'comparable accommodations' at another hotel."

When companies are painted into a corner or believe that whatever they say to a reporter will not bail them out of a jam, concocting a statement is a valid tactic. You don't have to face the heat, but you hope and pray that your words will somehow mitigate the damage.

While Hilton Worldwide may have its policies when guests are bumped, the bottom line is: it looks bad.

They were caught between a rock and a hard place -- if they admit, yes we screwed up by letting the King take up a boatload more rooms and hauling our beloved regular guests over to another place, it's doubtful they'd be seeing more guests from the Middle East in the near future.

What's worse is that they had the misfortune of not having this embarrassing episode swept under the Tripadvisor rug but plastered on the front page of a national widely-read newspaper.

Was that perfunctory policy-reciting statement going to be the shield against Krytonite? I don't think so because even if that is their policy, most of us out-of-towners who are not royalty may reconsider booking at the Waldorf-Astoria in the future, lest we find out too late that we have been transferred to a lesser venue.

What was the correct tact?

Clearly, somebody dropped the ball not calling the guests in advance. That's pure fear at work and fear will sabotage you at every opportunity.

Not apologizing to their bumped guests in their statement to the paper was unconscionable. People need to hear an apology for mistakes.

If Hilton Worldwide had to choose the king's entourage over their previous bookings, I think they should have offered some options to these guests who were bumped: arranging other dates at the Waldorf at half price, staying at the Hilton, or even locating them at a hotel that really was comparable to the Waldorf, even it was not part of the Hilton family.

This would have most likely defused much of the anger because it would have shown genuine goodwill on the same level as staying at the Waldorf. If you give people great options and they understand your dilemma, then they know you are really doing the right thing in the throes of an emergency.

If Hilton took that route, then it gave them a better reason to get on the phone with the New York Times reporter and say, "We were in a real bind. We love our guests and customers, and hate to disappoint them. We bent over backwards to give them a choice of comparable accommodations for their stay, even at venues that did not belong to us."

That's going the extra mile. It's hard to argue with that message and offer to guests.

The big lessons here:

1) If you hide behind obtuse corporate policies and make it look like a convenient "Get Out of Jail Free Card," it's going to backfire. You can go around policies and make exceptions if you really care about your customers.

2) Always be upfront with the aggrieved party. Do everything beyond the norm to make them happy so they will continue to be your customers. Even when the US Airways plane landed in the Hudson River in January 2009, and passengers had every right to be angry and upset, the airline's handling of the situation erased most misgivings. You can be a hero in most situations.

3) Always apologize.