Why Can’t I see Hotel Inventory?

Last month – while in NYC for the CleanSlate executive forum – I stayed at the Westin New York. I arrived in NYC at 1AM and knowing in advance that I’d be arriving late called the Westin to check-in earlier that day. I’ve been “walked” enough times to know that when I’m going to be arriving late at the hotel I should call in advance.

Like airlines and other service industries driven by capacity utilization, hotels tend to overbook their properties knowing that some guests will never arrive.  The practice of overbooking is lucrative for the hotel when it bets right but is expensive when it bets wrong and sells more rooms than it has in inventory. “Walking” is hotel industry parlance for the practice of sending guests to another hotel property when they’ve oversold their rooms. Airlines will buy passengers off an over-sold flight by offering them vouchers for future travel.  Rather than a voucher for future travel, hotels typically pay for the single night stay they turned you away for. When staying multiple days, they will typically have you come back to the hotel to complete the remaining days of your reservation.  Because it is expensive for a hotel to “walk” guests, some hotels do not engage in the industry practice of overbooking.

When I call earlier in the day of arrive to let the hotel know I will be arriving late most hotels will just check me in, but I have been “walked” even when calling in advance to check-in (also at a Westin BTW).

I arrived at the Westin at about 1:30AM and they didn’t have my room nor had they checked me in when I’d call earlier that day to ensure my room.  It begs the question, why won’t hotels let you check yourself in like airlines do?

There is of course a time coordination problem.  Airline capacity is measured by the number of seats on a given flight.  Because that flight leaves at a specific time the capacity of that flight goes utilized or underutilized at a very specific time.  This enables the airline to fill all available seats just short of this very specific time. Because hotel guests arrive throughout the check-in time window – which is typically 4PM to midnight – hotels are forced to bet on the last guest – the marginal guest – not showing in an overbooked situation.

But why not allow hotel guests the ability to see the properties entire inventory like airlines do?  When I check into a flight I can pick the exact seat I want.  Customers can also pay a surcharge and upgrade their seat to a “premium” seat if they so desire. This is lucrative for airlines and contributes to their profit margins.  Why not allow hotel guests the ability to pick their room? It might offer hotels a way of upselling their customers to “better” rooms.

By allowing customers to check-in their room online within 24 hours – or even 12 hours – of arrive hotels could get a better sense of what utilization will look like. Guests could specify what time they will arrive as they check-in and hotels could still sell that particular room if the hotel guests fail to arrive within 3-4 hours of they pre-specified time.