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McGrath: Summer travelers should be wary of misleading ads

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Updated: August 15, 2013 6:13AM



Because I frequently travel cross country by car in the spring and summer, I have stayed in hundreds of the 50,000 or so hotels in the United States, many of which I’ve also written about.

And I cannot be accused of being partial to any hotel or chain because I have skewered many over the years.

Such as when our room was burglarized at the Holiday Inn. Or when I had to wait three hours to check in at the Marriott and another 90 minutes the next morning for the parking valet to locate my car.

Then there was the outrageously inflated phone bill at the Baymont Inn. Or the heated pool at a Ramada Inn that turned my kids’ lips purple with cold.

The latest target of my frustration is the Comfort Inn chain owned by Choice Hotels Corp. Their sin was not illegal nor did it reflect poorly on the quality of the accommodations. But as an advertising gimmick that I fell for, it was highly irksome.

Coincidentally, a couple of years ago, the chief executive of Comfort Inn, Stephen Joyce, appeared in the TV series “Undercover Boss,” posing as an intern — struggling and sweating profusely while learning about maid service, reservations and other aspects of the hospitality business.

But thinking back about that TV episode, I conclude that when he was being “taught” by one of his underlings in Indiana to use the telephone to solicit hotel business from private companies, he may have learned the art of the “hard sell” a little too well.

My reference is to their recent Internet promotion for a free night’s stay that reads as follows: “One night free. First trip, second trip, free night! Take two separate trips between Feb. 28 and May 15 and earn one night free at over 1,500 hotels.”

I was close to embarking on a trip within those dates, so I thought I’d take advantage of the free night and booked rooms totaling around $500 in compliance with dates and terms of the promotion.

But it wasn’t until my trip concluded and I tried to cash in on the freebie that I was told that I did not qualify because the Comfort Inn where I stayed was not among the “select” hotels.

When I called customer service to protest, a representative whom I’ll call “Malcolm” and then another, “Betty,” were sympathetic, acknowledging the ambiguity and omissions in the ad. They apologized for not having the power to “override” the refusal, after which Betty referred me to her supervisor.

Supervisor “Chad” who turned out to be better suited as a nightclub bouncer than as someone in charge of customer care, informed me that I should have searched for and read the small print, which was on another web page.

When I asked Chad why the ad itself did not indicate that the free night was only at certain of the hotels, he said there was not enough space for it.

When I asked him whether there was more than enough space to insert the word “select” in front of the word “hotels,” he evaded the question and subsequently hung up on me.

Intrepid journalist that I aspire to be, I wasn’t going to let a simple hang-up stand in the way of warning the public, so I searched for and finally reached the office of CEO Stephen Joyce.

His spokesman, Mr. M., politely insisted that the terms and the conditions of the free-night promotion were “clearly defined.”

How could you say such a thing, Mr. M., when your ad for the free night failed to mention the exceptions, and customers have to go to a different web page to find the small print, if they’re lucky?

“We changed the wording several times over the past few years,” he said, “to make it as clear as possible so there is not confusion for our guests.”

Methinks yet another change is due, and I believe the Federal Trade Commission just might agree.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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