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A Few Complaints Leads to Major Investigation into Price Gouging at Wyndham and
 Choice Branded Hotels in Farmington, New Mexico

By Steve Lynn, The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 31, 2008 - FARMINGTON -- Hotels accused of overcharging guests during the National High School Finals Rodeo may have skirted policies of their franchises.

Some hotel guests were charged hundreds more than what they were told they would pay when making reservations months before the rodeo.

Policies on rates at two hotels people complained about -- Days Inn, of Wyndham Hotel Group, and Rodeway Inn, of Choice Hotels International, Inc. -- prohibit rate hikes after a reservation has been confirmed, officials for those franchises said.

Allegations made by hotel guests against Days Inn are being investigated, said Richard Roberts, vice president of communications for Wyndham Hotel Group.

Amish Patel, who manages Days Inn, said people have called -- making threats and cursing at him -- since a story about the alleged price gouging was published in Tuesday's Daily Times.

"They said, You are cheaters, go back to your country,'" Patel said.

Patel said a new employee mistakenly gave customers an approximately $60 rate, which was supposed to have been $99 per night. He denied that the $60 rate was "confirmed" at that time, though hotel guests have said otherwise.

Patel called guests months before the rodeo and told them they could pay $79 a night instead of $99, he said.

"We told them, Sorry, it was a misunderstood rate,'" he said.

Hotel guests agreed to pay the former rate, but complained when they checked out, he said.

Melanie Beaty, of Georgia, said she made reservations in December to stay at the Rodeway Inn in Farmington during the rodeo. A month later, an employee from the hotel left a telephone message saying her reservations were canceled due to increased rates before the rodeo, Beaty said earlier this week.

"If in fact that happened and they booked it through the hotel, they need to get in touch with our customer support," said Heather Soule, manager of corporate communications for Choice Hotels.

"If that's where they booked and they received a confirmation number, that is their guaranteed rate," Soule added.

Tony Patela, a manager at Rodeway Inn, did not return a message left at the hotel requesting comment.

Other visitors complained that they were overcharged between $30 and $100 a night for hotel rooms during the rodeo.

Hotel managers of Days Inn and Rodeway Inn said prices were increased to make money amid soaring demand for rooms.

About 1,500 competitors and their families attended the rodeo, which was in town July 20-26. Estimates put 10,000 extra people in San Juan County for the event.

Other Farmington hotels -- La Quinta, Courtyard by Marriott and Hampton Inn & Suites -- honored original rates they promised their guests, according to general managers at those hotels. Positive reports also were shared about Best Western Inn and Suites' overall service.

"I didn't get any complaints," said Marilyn Stock, general manager for La Quinta.

Courtyard by Marriott raised its rates by $5 because the rodeo was a "special event," said Keith Barbeau, the hotel's general manager. The hotel does not increase special event rates by more than 15 percent, Barbeau said.

The hotel had 60 rooms reserved for rodeo goers, who agreed to be charged the $119 nightly special event rate in the first place, Barbeau said. The hotel does not raise its rates after it confirms them with guests, he said.

"That's a contract in our eyes," Barbeau said.

The rodeo was a great source of revenue for Hampton Inn & Suites and an even better one for the city, said Tony Debona, the hotel's general manager.

Debona called raising rates after reservations are confirmed "unethical." He hopes actions of a couple of "bad operators," whether intentional or not, don't ruin Farmington's chances with the rodeo, he said.

"(The rodeo) is something that this city ought to strive to keep," he said.

Will guests get a refund?

Jeff Fleming, who owns Fuddruckers restaurant in Farmington, said he hopes people who stayed at the Days Inn get their money back.

He wants to see the rodeo and the influx of consumers it brings to town continue. After all, his business did well selling food outside the rodeo, he said.

"We did probably twice as good as we thought we could do," he said.

The rodeo is held in three cities on a rotating basis, and will be in Farmington again next year. City officials want to host the rodeo in Farmington every year.

Lonnie Smith, of Idaho, said he paid about $231 more than Days Inn originally told him he would pay. As of Wednesday, Smith had yet to get a refund after he sent documentation of his approximately $60 nightly rate to customer service, he said.

He would have paid the higher rate if only he had been asked to pay that much when he made a reservation in January, but hotels shouldn't "jack (rates) up and gouge," he said.

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To see more of The Daily Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.daily-times.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.

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