Bad Bills, Poor Check-Out Etiquette Potential Danger To Lodging Industry

SHELTON, CT? Little things mean a lot to hotel guests, especially at check-out time. A simple ?thank you? or ?come again? goes a long way toward ensuring repeat business. On the other side of the desk, little charges that are overlooked can mean a lot of lost revenue for the owner. A recent survey analyzed check-out procedures and found that billing errors and poor etiquette are not only common but actually increasing in the lodging industry. Incorrect billing for in-room movies, postage, fax charges and other miscellaneous small costs occur about 46% of the time, according to a recent study by Richey International, a hospitality industry performance-rating firm located in Chevy Chase, MD, and New Castle Hotels, a hotel management and ownership company based in Shelton, CT. This compares to errors happening 27% of the time when Richey and New Castle surveyed the same areas in 1997. The current survey showed that phone charges were wrong almost 7% of the time; mini-bar charges 27% of the time; and food and beverage costs? such as the breakfast the guest charges just prior to check-out? were incorrect on 20% of the hotel bills surveyed. For the latest study, Richey representatives posed as guests at nearly 400 hotels in the United States, ranging from five-diamond facilities to roadside properties. ?The survey says, ?Hey, hotels, take a look at your operations and tighten up,?? said Stephen Stearns, senior vp of Richey International. Stearns observed that most hotels have in place point-of-sale technology to help reduce billing errors. The dramatic increase in incorrect billing ?may mean some are not taking full advantage of the technology,? he said. In 35 years in the lodging industry, Gerald Chase, executive vp/COO of New Castle Hotels, has seen a lot of changes in technology. ?There have been tremendous advances and improvements,? he said. ?While this has been a good evolution, it has also been a little bit of a curse.? Chase explained that rapid postings sometimes lead to errors in bills. As an example, he cited restaurant operations. ?Years ago, the bill was done manually. It would be written up by the waiter or waitress and signed by the guest with the appropriate room number. It would then go the front desk and be checked by the night auditor,? he said. Now, once the guest gives a room number, everything is done electronically and very quickly. If an incorrect room number is given or any other information cannot be interpreted, there will be an error. ?There is not the same type of follow-up,? Chase said. But he is hopeful the situation will improve. ?I think at some point in the not too distant future someone will come up with a way to swipe the room key and this willhelp with inaccurate postings,? he said. While many mini-bar charges are now tracked electronically, some properties still rely on manual inventories by hotel staff. ?That makes it difficult if a guest who is checking out doesn?t mention they took something since the last inventory was done,? Stearns said. Sometimes staff malfeasance is the problem, he added. Some check-out time errors may benefit the hotel but the overwhelming majority? 85% to 95%? are in the guest?s favor, according to Stearns. ?When they?re checking out, many guests aren?t really paying attention,? he said. Those on expense accounts are usually not overly concerned about small charges, he added. ?When it comes to maximizing efficiency and profits at check-out time, attention to detail is vital,? Chase said. Mini-bar, movie and postal charges ?may amount to a few dollars on individual bills, but they can add up to a substantial loss for the whole industry,? he noted. While it is difficult to estimate the total loss for the industry, Stearns said, ?It?s easily in the six figures and perhaps seven figures.? The survey revealed that cashiers frequently fail to observe basic check-out etiquette such as telling guests to ?come again.? In fact, of the front desk staffs sampled b