2010 Unsuspecting Travel Hero and Travel Zero Awards

Recognition of the best and worst travel industry performances and practices of the year normally falls to major brands and/or high profile news events. The Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award and Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award are not about the bravado of highly promoted marketing strategies or dramatic customer service provided during times of crisis.

Winners and Losers

The best in travel faced off against… all those other guys… when the dust settled, the winner was…
Photo Credit: Claudio Gennari | Flickr

Instead, winners are recognized for exhibiting the foremost examples of customer centricity or customer hostility that occurred as a direct result of company policy or standard practice.

The awards recognize organizations that “get it” or “don’t get it” when it comes to customer engagement, eliminating unnecessary obstacles, and most importantly, unexpected performance that travelers would not normally associate with the typical travel experience.

For example, last year, Four Seasons Santa Barbara won the 2009 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award due to its gracious handling of a turn-down music mix-up and AirTran Airlines was saddled with the 2009 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award for unnecessarily harassing customers with its draconian advance seating policy.

Of course this past year it would have been simple to take rave about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or malign Steven Slater’s JetBlue slide ride; perhaps whine about Icelandic volcanic eruptions or marvel at the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas; it might even be easier to simply take sides on the American Airlines versus the OTA & GDS distribution war.

Each of the above stories dominated headlines, but my 2010 travels revealed two much smaller stories that went unnoticed. This year’s two honorees again illustrate startling customer orientation dichotomy arising within the travel industry. The best example was Enterprise Rent a Car’s exceptionally personalized check-in experience, and the worst was Hotwire’s incomprehensible decision to remove all meaningful content from it hotel star-rating categorization.

2010 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award – Enterprise Rent-a-Car – Seattle/Tacoma Airport

Enterprise Rent-a-Car - Seattle/Tacoma International Airport

Enterprise Rent-a-Car: Winner of the 2009 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award

How did a rental car company beat out the luxury hotels, cruise lines, attractions and a certain low cost air carrier that refuses to charge for bag fees? Not with a fancy web page, unfathomable discounts or unnecessary, but complimentary, value added bonuses.

Enterprise Rent a Car won the 2010 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award because they deconstructed the car rental counter experience to personalize a process to provide undivided attention to customer engagement and satisfaction.

Their secret? I am guessing that somewhere along the way, it was discovered that focusing on providing outstanding customer service normally reveals the key to ensuring operational excellence.

Enterprise’s operation at SeaTac Airport already has the odds stacked against it. It is an off-airport location and they operate their own shuttle buses. The Seattle Airport even makes car renting passengers ascend an escalator/elevator cross a sky bridge and descend an escalator/elevator so they can wait for the shuttle bus outside after collecting their luggage.

It is safe to assume most renters are not in an optimum state of mind when boarding an off-airport rental car shuttle. Fortunately, Enterprise does almost everything in its power to counteract the traditional obstacles that ensnare the traveler. Let’s run down the service enhancements:

  • First, the shuttle driver was not only personable, but bounded out of the shuttle, insisting on helping load bags. Based on personal observation, this once standard activity seems to be increasingly rare at major US airports – especially with communal rental car shuttles servicing large shared rental car service centers.
  • Next, the driver asked for the names of anyone renting under a government rate. The explanation for this request was simple – government bookings require special paperwork and if names were provided, the paperwork could be prepared in advance while the van was enroute.
  • The shuttle bus was met at the car lot by personnel outside waiting for the shuttle to arrive who insisted on helping with the luggage, including assurances that the bags would be watched while the rental formalities were completed.
  • As it turned out, these helpful peopleturned out to be the agents responsible for completing the rental transaction. Contrary to common practice, they were not stationed inside behind a counter. Not only were bags unloaded for the passengers, but the rental agents introduced themselves with friendly handshakes and pleasantries about destination, flights or planned activities.

    This was a far cry from the typical serpentine queue with periodic shouts of “next” as an endless stream of drivers trudge in turn toward the counter. It may also, for some, be an improvement over the absence of agent-driver interaction when a driver is merely directed to a parking space by a lighted board cycling through names.

  • The check in process went smoothly as I was escorted inside to a desk where the standard check-in process took place. Yes, they asked about coverages, refueling and upgrades to higher car categories, but there was no pressure, counter-proposals or complicated opt-outs required to get the paperwork straight.

    Ancillary revenues are a key source of profitability for car rental groups, so one can not blame them for asking – the trick is to do it professionally and listen to the customer for potential buying cues. Enterprise handled this perfectly.

    Most thankfully, the amount of head-down, keyboard-based data entry was kept to a minimum.

  • I was then offered a chilled water bottle and we both went outside to select a car. The two of us took a quick walk around the car to check for anything that a driver would not want to turn up upon inspection when the car was returned. The agent recorded a few areas that I would have never noticed. Another simple demonstration of the operation’s commitment to serving the best interest of the customer.
  • Finally, the agent asked if I had any questions about the operation of the sound system, seats, mirrors, etc. He then provided directions for both leaving the lot and finding the highway, as well as simple instructions for finding the lot upon my return.

End-to-end, great customer service was provided. The process was swift – certainly faster and more pleasant than most rental processes. The personalization and one-to-one attention eliminated any source of confusion or stress and provided far superior when compared to standard rental counter experiences.

I do have to admit that walking straight to a car or aisle where I can pick a car has long been my personal preference with car rental groups where I have frequent renter accounts – especially in familiar destinations. However, if this process reflected the standard counter experience, I might not possess the same degree of foreboding that accompanies my approach to other car rental counters.

Most travelers do not have high expectations for the car rental experience – that’s why Enterprise Rent a Car’s highly personalized and surprisingly efficient rental process at Seattle’s SeaTac Airport was deserving of the 2010 Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award.

Twitter Summary:
“Enterprise Rent a Car wins Unsuspecting Travel Hero Award by reinventing rental counter process + personal focus”

2010 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award – Hotwire.com – Nonsensical Hotel Rating Policy


Hotwire.com: Winner of the 2009 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award

This year’s Travel Zero Award was hotly contested. An early leader was the combined ineptitude of Delta Airlines and US Airways subverting a Silicon Valley consulting trip that I recapped in Story of Two Deaf & Blind, but Mostly Dumb Airlines. I still stand by my assertion that these organizations have by and large, lost their souls.

Again, it would have been easy to target US airlines jacking up baggage fees, the aforementioned Steven Slater, or the Icelandic volcano, but the award had to go to Hotwire, who truly personified the spirit of an Unsuspecting Travel Zero.

Over time, Hotwire has transitioned from one of the most complete, well defined and logical hotel rating systems to what can only be generously described as an incomprehensible mess.

This is an important strategic decision on the part of Hotwire, as the foundation of their opaque product is to off a hotel within a specifically defined quality category at a particular price. The consumer decision process is predicated on assessing the relative value presented by the hotel categorization as compared with the pricing of other properties in higher and/or lower quality grades.

In the absence of clear criteria that differentiate categories of product located across various neighborhoods, Hotwire’s brand value is fundamentally subverted. Hotwire’s customer-hostile hotel category descriptions have been eviscerated to the point of conflicting wildly with sister companies Expedia, Hotels.com and TripAdvisor. Their ratings even conflict with primary competitor Priceline.

The painful details of this debacle are chronicled in Hotwire Breaks Brand Promise by Gutting Rating System.

Why would Hotwire elect to take such a bone-headed approach? Simple – it makes customer complaints regarding incorrect categorizations nearly impossible. This was proven to me when I complained about being booked into a LaQuinta that had been characterized as a 3-star property.

Two irrefutable points should have helped me prevail:

  1. Expedia, Hotels.com, TripAdvisor and Priceline all rated the hotel as 2.5-stars
  2. Due to my booking frequency, Hotwire places me in one of their top client tiers

Instead of triumphing (in my case, simply asking that the LaQuinta be filtered from the 3-star search results, to give me an opportunity to book a different 3-star property,) my complaint not only fell on deaf ears, but one insolent customer service agent suggested that if I didn’t like their policies, I should book elsewhere.

I could only suppose that my patronage, including 20 bookings over the previous 12 months, was not valued by the organization – especially since my initial request would have cost them nothing aside from the time spent by a customer care associate to resolve my issue.

Even better, the Hotwire twitter team, always quick to respond earlier when I recognized a particularly great deal, suddenly fell into radio silence when I informed them of my challenges and the ensuing blog post.

A direct comparison between the policies is startling.

Previous Hotel Rating Classifications:
Below is an example from July, 2008 – the last date a valid Hotwire archive is available from The Internet Archive:

Midscale 3 Star
Examples: Holiday Inn, Radisson, Doubletree

  • These midscale establishments place a greater emphasis on style, comfort and personalized service than hotels with lower star ratings.
  • These full-service properties usually feature traditional lobby décor, baggage assistance, on-site dining, room service and a gift shop.
  • Additional onsite amenities — such as a business center or fitness center — may also be available.
Value 2.5 Star
Examples: Holiday Inn Express, AmeriSuites, Country Inn and Suites

  • These limited-service establishments offer more than the basic level of accommodations and are ideally suited for the value-conscious traveler.
  • Additional features may include on-site dining, a residential look and feel in the lobby, larger-sized guestrooms, and a fitness or business center.
  • Guestrooms are comfortably appointed and may offer a few extras, such as additional space or a dedicated desk or work area.
  • These properties are usually located within walking distance of shopping or dining facilities.
Economy 2 Star
Examples: Days Inn, La Quinta, Comfort Inn

  • These limited-service establishments are expected to offer clean, basic accommodations with a few extra features, such as a coffee maker.
  • These properties may offer some business services but usually lack meeting rooms, baggage assistance and fitness facilities.
  • Onsite dining is usually limited to coffee or Continental breakfast; offsite dining is usually located within walking distance.
  • Public access and guest reception may not be available at all hours.

The delineations are both logical and obvious. Representative hotel brands are listed only once. Key points of differentiation are identified. Customers are provided with reasonable expectations for property features and service delivery.

Modified Hotel Rating Classifications:

Replacing the ratings with the “new” Hotwire hotel categorization policy provides a stark contrast.

As one can clearly see below, the star rating descriptions used to merchandise the product are now indecipherable generalities. Even the brands provided as examples epitomize the problem – La Quinta Inns and Suites are featured as 3-star, 2.5-star and 2-star hotels.

Midscale 3 Star
Examples: Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, Hyatt Place, Radisson, Best Western, Doubletree, Four Points, La Quinta, Wingate, Hilton Garden Inn, Staybridge Suites, Ramada, Sheraton, Wyndham, Coiuntry Inn & suites, Hampton Inn, aloft

  • These mid-range hotels offer a relaxed and inviting environment. Extra amenities and clean rooms will make your stay comfortable.
Casual Comfort 2.5 Star
Examples: Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Best Western, La Quinta, Ramada, Country Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Candlewood, Baymont, Clarion, Comfort Suites, Days Inn, Howard Johnson

  • These clean and comfortable establishments offer more than just the basics. Limited service makes your stay affordable without compromising on quality.
Economy 2 Star
Examples: Best Western, La Quinta, Ramada, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Candlewood, Baymont, Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Super 8, Travelodge, EconoLodge, Microtel, Rodeway Inn, Red Roof Inn

  • These wallet-friendly establishments offer clean, basic accommodations for the budget-conscious traveler. You’ll have access to limited services and amenities, often free of charge.

Yes, Hotwire has successfully transformed its previous reliable hotel rating scales into a steaming pile of gelatinous goo. Congratulations – you win a prize.

Ironically, when Expedia sells Hotwire product through its Unpublished Rate Hotels, it uses a rating scale remarkably similar to the earlier Hotwire categorizations. Before booking on Hotwire, you might check to see if the same product is available on Expedia – you will be able to book with much greater confidence that Hotwire won’t get away with sneaking a lower grade hotel into the higher price point.

As a result of their customer hostile policies, I have now shifted the vast majority of my hotel bookings to Priceline. I am happy to report that with a little additional work, I am typically securing hotels with reliable ratings on Priceline at lower pricing than Hotwire.

Actually, Priceline could capture 100% of my leisure travel business if they would get the Name Your Price hotel process in order and enable pricing for triple/quad occupancy bookings. Until that happens, I still sparingly use Hotwire, not because they are good, but because they are cheap for triple & quad occupancy hotel rooms.

That is a distressing sentiment from a formerly loyal customer. Hotwire’s hotel rating policies (or lack thereof) disrespect the intelligence, and undermine the trust, of its customers – A stance that deservedly earns them the 2010 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award.

Twitter Summary:
“Hotwire wins Unsuspecting Travel Zero Award with uncaring automatons supporting moronic hotel rating policies.”

Enterprise dramatically exceeded expectations by transforming a frequently annoying process into a personalized conversation. Hotwire undermined its brand promise by eliminating a guest’s ability to accurately set expectations. These contrasting policies provide considerable insight into two dramatically different approaches to customer relationship management. Winner: Enterprise | Loser: Hotwire.

Are there other examples of other deserving Unsuspecting Travel Heroes or Unsuspecting Travel Zeroes? Please share them by adding a comment. Remember, the ground rules require that the actions must be based on company policies – As brainlessly ridiculous as Steven Slater’s sliding exit may have been, that was a personal decision – obviously not standard JetBlue policy.

Competition Details: The 2010 Unsuspecting Travel Hero and 2010 Unsuspecting Travel Zero Awards were created by and are judged solely by Robert Cole, author of the Views From a Corner Suite blog. The judging criteria are confidential and all decisions are final. There is no application process and organizations promoting their own accomplishments are immediately disqualified from consideration.

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.