Danny King
Danny King

When I was a kid, my family had a hard and fast rule about road trips: Don't unpack the car until Mom sees the hotel room. The rule may not have always been in effect before I was old enough to digest its brilliance, but by the time I (the family's youngest) became sufficiently cognizant of human behavior and family dynamics, we all recognized the Look that informed my dad to start making phone calls real quick while preparing my middle sister to fake an illness with enough theatrics to both make Tatum O'Neal proud and generate the prerequisite cash-free, last-minute cancellation. It became a semiannual tradition of sorts.

While such activity might strike some as a little immoral (though, with my father owning a business in the hospitality industry, not completely guilt-inducing), it might also have been intelligently preventative, judging by one experience management company's recent poll of hotel guest experiences.

And, apparently, we weren't alone with our histrionics.

Provo, Utah-based Qualtrics did the honors, taking a poll in April of about 1,000 people who'd recently stayed at a hotel and generating visions of Mr. T in the film "Rocky III" by publishing what it called its first Hotel Pain Index.

Dirty rooms, rude employees, lumpy or sagging beds and unwelcome fees were the primary reasons some hotel guests didn't feel they got what they paid for. Then there were the real oddball situations, including one guest who said the hotel switched his room while he was having dinner, and a number of guests who had a hard time sleeping because they thought their room was haunted.

What jumped out, though, was that about one in seven of those polled said they'd had such a bad experience that they were -- to borrow the title of the Police's 1980 album cut decrying hunger in developing nations -- driven to tears.

Further driving home the point of this decidedly First World problem, the percentage of those who'd stayed at luxury hotels recalling a literal sob story jumped to 34%, suggesting that those teardrops, which are about 1% salt, represent problems 99% of us would probably love to have.

Still, the poll results could be instructive by illustrating the importance of what Qualtrics head of insights Mike Maughan termed "the experience gap" -- i.e., when a guest has an expectation of service, room and size of amenities in mind but the lodging operator falls short.

"One person talked about heading to a hotel and finding padlocks outside of the guestroom doors," Maughan said. "That would be enormously disconcerting for anyone."

Stay at a five-star hotel, where expectations ratchet up even higher, and that gap can widen very quickly. Hence, the rather pricey handkerchiefs, not to mention the scathing Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews, or what are likely more than a few late-night phone calls to the travel agent.

Of course, there are two sides to that gap. For example, the airline industry has been rattled by a spate of recent public relations snafus, including well-publicized issues this spring with Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, American Airlines and, worst of all, United Airlines.

Judging by that (dis)honor roll, one might assume that airline approval ratings would be hovering around those of the current commander in chief. Yet J.D. Power reported last month that North American airlines achieved their highest-ever passenger-satisfaction scores, suggesting that airlines might have collectively and paradoxically set the expectation bar far below cruising altitude. Last year's 8.5% drop in average airfare didn't hurt, either.

"It's impossible to think about airline customer satisfaction without replaying the recent images of a passenger being dragged from a seat," Michael Taylor, travel practice lead at J.D. Power, said last month. "But our data shows that as a whole, the airline industry has been making marked improvements in customer satisfaction across a variety of metrics, from ticket cost to flight crews."

Meanwhile, Maughan was quick to point out that, title notwithstanding, the survey wasn't an indictment of the hotel industry because the Qualtrics poll didn't factor in any sort of frequency figures tied to these bad experiences.

Respondents merely recalled whether they'd ever had a bad experience at a hotel, not how often those experiences occurred.

And such gripes don't appear to have put much of a damper on hotel room demand, as U.S. occupancy figures reached record levels in 2016 and are expected to hold steady this year.

"I don't think this study in any way indicates that hotels are doing a bad job," Maughan said. "It'd be unfair to extrapolate. It's just that [guests] had that particular experience once."

In fact, J.D. Power's most recent results for North American hotel satisfaction levels support Maughan's theory. Last summer, J.D. Power recorded its fourth consecutive increase in guest satisfaction scores, with more guests giving positive shout-outs for amenities such as free WiFi and complimentary breakfasts. According to Qualtrics, room cleanliness is the most likely factor in a guest's positive experience, followed by that all-important WiFi.

Moreover, scores for the luxury segment, where guests have been more likely to tell those sob stories, rose faster than any other sector.

That said, such perks have their limits in terms of offsetting the impact of something negative happening during the stay.

Last year, Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power, said, "Customers have responded well to the enhanced offerings provided by some hotel brands to create value, but as those perks become standard, customers are quick to ask, 'What have you done for me lately?'"

With Airbnb taking a progressively larger chunk of those travelers looking for a more unusual lodging experience, major hotel chain operators such as Marriott International and Hilton appear to be taking U.S. market share, indicating that more guests who are seeking rooms are opting for tried, true and teardrop-free types of stays.

For example, on a recent "bleisure" trip with my family to New York (I was there to work, while my wife and kids were there to explore), we resisted the urge (this time, at least) to try out one of the dozens of newer, nonbranded and/or boutique hotels with compelling backstories and funkier vibes. Instead, we opted for the recently opened Hyatt House Chelsea. Not the sexiest choice, mind you (OK, the views from the room were pretty sexy), but it was clean, well designed, well located and well WiFi'd. With two kids in tow, you do limit the chances of pain where you can.

Maughan did note that his company focuses a substantial chunk of its efforts on understanding millennials, and it works with companies to best manage that demographic's oft-cited expectations in order to best eliminate the gap in question.

That said, he noted that millennials weren't much different from older generations when it came to voicing or writing of their displeasure with a hotel (or breaking out the tissues).

In fact, it's the older crowd that's been more likely to gripe about one particular issue.

"Guests over 50 were almost 50% more likely to complain about how loud their neighbors are in the hotel, while younger guests may not be as bothered by it," Maughan said. "You can extrapolate what they may be hearing."

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