Ever since hotels began tacking on resort fees to room rates, guests have been kvetching on comment cards and in TripAdvisor reviews.
“Guests hate, hate, hate resort fees,” says Barbara DeLollis, the Washington D.C.-based hospitality expert who founded Travel Update.
Often considered the most insidious of hotel fees, the resort fee is a mandatory charge not included in the advertised rates that ostensibly covers amenities such as your morning newspaper or access to the pool or gym.
But guest complaints can fall on deaf ears in an industry where resort fees and surcharges make up an ever-growing slice of the revenue pie. Hotels in the U.S. collected an estimated $2.1 billion in fees in 2013, about double the amount from a decade ago, according to research from the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.
Many luxury properties that charge a resort fee will also charge for Wi-Fi, valet parking, and sometimes even self-parking. They may charge you to visit the spa and use the sauna or steam room, or to make s’mores by the fire pit.
Over the years, many guests and industry experts have become resigned to hotels fees being here to stay. “Resort owners are used to the revenue that comes in from them, so they're slow to give them up,” says DeLollis.
Indeed, it’s extremely difficult to find examples of properties that have bitten the bullet and given up on the nickel and diming. And yet when a hotel does take the leap of faith, it can turn out to be a very good move.
“It was one of the smartest decisions we made,” says Chris Pulito, general manager at The Whiteface Lodge, an all-suite luxury property in Lake Placid, New York. Nearly three years ago, the plush Adirondacks resort began looking at ways to improve guest experience by adding value and relaxing protocols.
First to go was the resort fee, which had been $40 a night for a one-bedroom suite and higher for larger accommodations. “We began to receive positive feedback almost immediately,” says Pulito. “We did at one point charge for spa usage and we got rid of that. We didn’t include breakfast in the room rate and we added that.” Among the wide array of fun complimentary features at the Whiteface Lodge are a bowling alley and a 56-seat movie theater that screens family-friendly flicks three times daily. Even the popcorn is free.
“The comments we get are unbelievable,” says Pulito. “Guests feel better about being here because when they arrive they already have a number in their head about what they are going to spend per night, and that number does not get exponentially larger for trivial items.”
Another resort with no regrets about dropping its resort fee is Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts, an adult-only luxury property on Aruba’s Eagle Beach. “People get so aggravated by extra charges,” says Ewald Biemans, the resort’s owner and managing director. “We used to get feedback that guests wanted us to get rid of them.”
So, about a year ago, Biemans made the decision to eliminate the resort fee and bundle more value into the base rate. Now one flat rate includes accommodations, breakfast, Wi-Fi, taxes, service, and even local phone calls.
“When you pay a high room rate, and then you have to pay $15 a day for Wi-Fi and another $35 for the breakfast buffet, guests become dissatisfied,” says Biemans.
Both The Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid and Bucuti & Tara Resorts in Aruba raised their rates rise slightly when they dropped their resort fees. And in both cases, one risk was that other competitive resorts would now appear less expensive in comparison—at least until it is time to check out.
But there’s a lot to be said for transparency. “Guests really appreciate knowing how much they’re going to have to pay,” says Biemans. “I’ve stayed in hotels where the room rate is almost doubled by all the extra charges by the time you check out. We don’t give our guests any surprises when they check out.”
“We really pay attention to as many of the luxury guest service studies as we can get,” says Pulito, who sees an easing of fees as just part of the value equation. After tackling surcharges, he and his team investigated ways to further relax the guest experience at the Whiteface Lodge.
“We never charged for valet parking but we used to give a ticket,” says Pulito. “But studies show it causes stress. From the minute you pull into the hotel, you’re afraid of losing the ticket and not getting your car back.” Now when a guest needs her car, she can simply call the front desk and the valet will pull the car around.
The Whiteface Lodge has even taken free Wi-Fi a step further. “Even if it’s free, it shouldn’t be difficult,” says Pulito. “So we got rid of the logon screen and password to make accessing the Internet seamless.”
What Pulito calls the ‘resort-inclusive experience’ is about maximum value and ease of use of all the amenities. “When you want to make s’mores by the fire pit, you don’t have to go buy a kit first,” he says. “When you go fishing here, you don’t have to sign out a fishing pole at the trout pond.” As a result, he says, guests experience a more stress-free and hospitable stay.
It turns out that a little bit of good karma can yield big, tangible results. “All these changes have paid off in every measurable way possible, including increased revenue,” says Pulito. “Not only have our previous guests become more frequent visitors but we now get more and more new guests via referrals instead of through expensive marketing campaigns. Guests return and tell their friends, and it pays for itself many times over.”
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.