|By Chris Jones, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 2--It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
And unfortunately for Sean DeFrank and Melissa Nunnery, the story of their wedding night unexpectedly became a tale of two cities.
After celebrating their July 17 marriage at a reception hall in northwest Las Vegas, the newlyweds headed to the Strip to spend one night at Paris Las Vegas before embarking on a weeklong honeymoon in Hawaii. Instead, they encountered untold frustration when they tried to check into the French-themed hotel shortly after midnight.
"The limo had just dropped us off when I heard someone say they were booting people to other places because they'd oversold the hotel," said DeFrank, who, like Nunnery, works for the Review-Journal. "But I went up to the counter anyway, and when they told me we were bumped, I just went nuts."
Still dressed in his bow tie and black tuxedo, the groom protested that he'd booked a room more than a month in advance. His credit card had already been charged, and -- come on, already -- it was the couple's wedding night.
Still, no bed was made available within the 2,916-room hotel that mockingly towered above them.
Though unpleasant, and in this real-life example, perhaps a bit extreme, guests somewhat regularly find no room at the inn despite this city's nearly 129,000-room inventory. Industry sources attribute overbooking primarily to hotel operators' collective desire to run as close to 100 percent occupancy as possible.
"We want to book our hotels as full as possible without overbooking them," said MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet, whose company relies on no-shows, early departures and cancellations to accommodate customers who might otherwise be turned away.
MGM Mirage's five Strip hotels seldom run out of rooms, Monet said, adding it's never happened at Bellagio, while MGM Grand "walked" less than 20 guests this year. Maintaining such performance isn't easy, however.
"It's a mathematical formula (to determine how many extra rooms to sell), but you also have to have a lot of experience in the business to assess this accurately," Monet said. "We spend hours every day analyzing our reservations pace on a property-by-property level."
Representatives of several other large local hotel companies declined to discuss how often they're forced to send guests elsewhere, but front desk-level sources at three local resorts said hotels routinely sell more rooms than are vacant to maximize room revenue.
In most cases, extra customers unknowingly replace others who failed to fulfill a reservation. But in situations like DeFrank and Nunnery's, more travelers sometimes claim a reserved room than their chosen hotel can accommodate.
A longtime front-desk worker at The Venetian, who spoke candidly on the condition he not be identified, said his hotel uses employees called "forecasters" to maximize its ability to oversell. Monitoring everything from historic booking patterns to which flights include incoming guests, these workers help determine how many extra rooms should be sold on a given night.
"If you've got 1,000 scheduled check-ins and your historic average is 2 to 3 percent no-shows, they'll OK reservations to sell 20 or 30 (additional) rooms on a night that's already 100 percent booked," the clerk said. "It helps to keep occupancy up in case people cancel at the last minute."
Bad weather in the Midwest, for example, might cause forecasters to approve a 20 percent oversell should The Venetian expect a significant number of guests to arrive via flights through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Likewise, fog or flooding along Interstate 15 could drive a larger adjustment if many check-ins were expected to come from Southern California.
"Anything that could be going on, they're paying attention to," the clerk said of forecasters. "And once they see a problem, they will let us reopen for sales" to make up for potential no-shows.
The Venetian's forecasters are typically accurate, and the clerk said the hotel walks customers elsewhere once every few weeks. But unforeseen interruptions are always a potential risk.
"Usually (we overbook) when a group extends its reservation, but even something like painting, room damage that can't be fixed overnight, can cause a problem," he said. "If someone leaves the water on in the bathtub and floods the carpeting, that's one less room available than we were planning for."
When told no room was available, DeFrank became agitated and told nearby friends and family not to spend money at the hotel-casino. He said a clerk asked him to be quiet or risk eviction.
"So I told him, 'Not only did you guys give up our room, now you're going to throw us out while my wife's still in her wedding dress,' " said DeFrank. "Go ahead. That'll look great to your other customers."
A solution was finally brokered when an upgraded room was offered -- this one in another city.
After much haggling, DeFrank and Nunnery agreed to stay at the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas. But getting there required a 20-mile journey to the outskirts of Henderson, a detour that kept the couple from settling down until well after 3 a.m.
And while Paris Las Vegas paid for their trip to and from the alternate hotel, refunded DeFrank's credit card and awarded another free night sometime in the future, the unexpected hassle was an imperfect end to an otherwise pleasant evening. More than five months have passed, and DeFrank said he's still bitter about the experience.
"The clerk was apologetic, but when push came to shove, they turned us away despite a reservation," he said. "I'm more OK with it now, but at the time it was not worth the trouble."
DeFrank's minitirade may have landed him a better room, albeit a far away one. That's because the compensation a customer receives when sent to another property varies based on the situation, said another anonymous front desk veteran who works for an MGM Mirage resort on the Strip.
"If you've oversold, you know about it ahead of time," that source said. "And if you wait to the last minute to try to fix things, you're going to get screwed."
On oversold nights, afternoon check-ins are offered the standard compensation for being bumped: one free night's stay at another local property, and transportation to and from their intended hotel. Extras like a limousine ride to the secondary hotel, or free meals or show tickets, are sometimes thrown in, the MGM Mirage worker added.
"I would treat it like a salesman," the worker said. "The guest comes up and I say, 'Today's your lucky day. You've just won a free night's stay in Las Vegas and a free limo ride to one of our sister hotels.'
"If they say they still want to be (at my hotel), I'll check them in and make my offer to the next one. ... But each guest who accepts that offer reduces our chances of running out of open rooms at the end of the night."
A late-night rejection like DeFrank's typically calls for added compensation, hence, the two free nights and upgraded accommodations at the Ritz, the MGM Mirage worker said.
The Venetian clerk said about 25 percent of bumped guests remain cordial, "But the other 75 percent get up in your face. ... In those cases, the extent of how much they complain usually affects how much we'll give them."
Angry guests usually want to be upgraded to a larger room, should they return to their original hotel after being bumped for one night. Others ask for as much as they can get, said a front desk worker at a Mandalay Resort Group hotel on the Strip.
"It's always, 'What are you going to give me?' " the Mandalay clerk said. "Free upgrades, free show tickets, free meals. ... They'll ask for everything under the sun."
Do they always get what they want?
"No. We'll do what we can to make it up to them, but there are obviously limits," she said, adding the majority of guests she encounters are also pleased to receive a free night and upgraded accommodations.
Those who don't want to be bumped aren't without options, all three clerks said in offering tips for guests who hope to stay at their preferred hotel no matter what. They include:
--Check in early, particularly if your arrival date is a Friday.
"We get a lot of late arrivals that night, people who are coming from California but don't get in their cars to drive here until the end of the work week," The Venetian clerk said. "You want to be in your room before that crowd arrives."
--Try not to follow a large convention. Members of large groups that wish to extend their stay are given special considerations, and should those guests opt to stay an extra night or two, they'll remain in place while new arrivals are escorted to other hotels.
--Money talks and others walk. The Venetian clerk said guests willing to pay a "sold out rate" that's often double or triple what others paid for a standard room will be checked in, even if it means another reserved guest is sent elsewhere.
"It becomes cheaper for us to send someone to another hotel," the clerk said. "If you'll pay us $899 for a $299 room, we can rebook a guest at another hotel that costs $400 or $500 a night and still come out ahead."
--Agree to check into a dirty room. Guests willing to wait an extra 30 to 60 minutes for housekeeping, often over a complimentary meal, can usually avoid a trip to another hotel, the Mandalay clerk said.
"If we're short on housekeepers, we'll even send (front desk) workers upstairs to get rooms ready just to keep from walking a guest somewhere else," she said.
-----To see more of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lvrj.com.
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