There is recourse for customers who arrive at a hotel and are surprised to find a boisterous picket line waiting to greet them.
There is no word that quite captures the opposite of hospitality, but I can describe what it feels like.
I pulled up to the W Los Angeles — West Beverly Hills hotel last month and found a picket line of hotel workers in front. There was shouting. Drums were pounding. My stomach churned, and a slow-boiling rage took root.
Having walked a picket line before, I try not to cross anyone else’s. The W and its parent company, Marriott, know there are lots of people like me. So why hadn’t they disclosed in advance what would greet me upon arrival?
“If behind the scenes we are doing what’s necessary to ensure that there is no service disruption during a guest’s stay, there is no notification to guests,” said Sara Conneighton, a Marriott spokeswoman.
Marriott apparently doesn’t care how you feel about labor disputes and picket lines. As long as the room is clean, it has provided its service. If you decide not to cross a picket line, walk away and find someplace else to stay, I assumed, you will face last-minute cancellation penalties.
But will you?
UNITE HERE Local 11, the union behind a series of hotel strikes in Los Angeles, thinks there ought to be a law requiring a warning. And in New York City and Washington, D.C., there are indeed rules.
The New York law discusses a “service disruption” that could “reasonably affect” a guest’s stay. The Washington law mentions “potential disruptions to service at, or use or enjoyment of, lodging establishments.”
The specifics vary, and hotel company lawyers have no doubt found loopholes. That hasn’t stopped Los Angeles City Council members from proposing a similar rule. It would also prevent hotels from penalizing customers they had not warned “where a service disruption could reasonably affect their ability to use the hotel room or service.”
So what is reasonable here? The W Los Angeles has experienced intermittent pickets and outright work stoppages, and the incident I encountered had started about four hours before I arrived. A last-minute heads-up would have been nice, and I don’t think I’m being unreasonable.
The local hotel industry association points to the fact that pickets and strikes have been intermittent. Hotels often receive no warning, either. In an interview, Peter Hillan, a spokesman, wondered whether the next request might be for earthquake and fire warnings, which seemed to suggest that I was taking hotels’ prediction skills to an extreme.
That feels like the wrong question. The situation in Los Angeles is more akin to a hurricane watch. It’s reasonable to believe that the hotels in question could experience disruption. And as the hotels do with construction that may or may not cause noise, they ought to mention labor unrest when people are booking. They could do it again in the welcome email that often comes a few days before you arrive.
Marriott didn’t do either for my reservation, and I did not cross the picket line. I asked a guy with a bullhorn if that was the right move, and he seemed to want to give me a hug. Indeed, boycotts were already in place.
When I got to another hotel, I called the W directly to cancel my stay, and a nice person on the phone waived any charges without pushing back. “My team is empowered to do whatever they need to do,” said Damien Hirsch, the general manager. “We all feel no reason to have you come in if you don’t want to come in.”
Hats off to him. That is how you do hospitality, even if your corporate overlords have not quite gotten the memo.
Mr. Hirsch’s approach seems like a great policy. But it isn’t the chainwide policy, though hotels “may also consider guest requests related to a range of issues on a case-by-case basis,” according to Ms. Conneighton.
I pressed Hilton, Hyatt and the IHG chain to confirm that any unaware customers who show up and experience something like what I saw — or have it happen midtrip — can also turn and walk without penalty. Hyatt didn’t respond to several requests for comment, and Hilton and IHG forwarded my queries to Mr. Hillan, who couldn’t answer my questions about individual companies’ policies.
Hiding behind an industry association is cowardly. Once I explained that I was going to say so, Hilton replied to a message but did not actually answer my questions. IHG did not respond to any follow-up questions clarifying its position.
In the interim, I propose the following: If you run into a situation like mine and choose to divert, call the original hotel immediately and ask that it not charge you.
Do the same thing after the stay if you must cross the picket line and stay there after all, for whatever logistical or other reason, but would not have if you had known about it ahead of time or been able to find someplace else to go. And if a picketer makes you feel uncomfortable for crossing the line in that situation, ask for a refund then, too.
If the hotel says it’s going to charge you anyway, get that in writing and forward the exchange to me so I can write more about this. Then dispute the charge with your credit card company.
Perhaps, then, we can attract the hotel industry’s attention, and it won’t take a bunch of local laws to compel them to be reasonable.