Monday, July 29, 2019

Florida hotels have been charging deceptive, hidden fees for decades. Two state attorneys general are suing to stop them

Posted By on Mon, Jul 29, 2019 at 11:52 PM

click to enlarge Orlando World Center Marriott - PHOTO VIA MARRIOTT ONLINE
  • Photo via Marriott online
  • Orlando World Center Marriott
Anyone who has traveled in recent years knows how difficult it is to find the true cost of a hotel room when booking online, thanks to resort fees which are often revealed well into the booking process. These fees have continued to climb as hotels battle to display the lowest listed prices on online booking sites.

In the past month, two separate attorneys General have filed lawsuits to block the misleading practice. The first lawsuit came out of the District of Columbia, where Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a lawsuit against Marriott International due to what he called deceptive fees.

“Marriott reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by deceiving consumers about the true price of its hotel rooms,” A.G. Racine said in a prepared statement. “Bait-and-switch advertising and deceptive pricing practices are illegal. With this lawsuit, we are seeking monetary relief for tens of thousands of District consumers who paid hidden resort fees and to force Marriott to be fully transparent about their prices so consumers can make informed decisions when booking hotel rooms.”

On the same day Racine announced his lawsuit against Marriott, the Consumer Protection Division at the Nebraska Attorney General announced new radio spots designed to build awareness of these hidden fees.

The 60-second radio spots encouraged travelers to ask “some key questions” including, “are the cancellations and refund policies clear? Can you get a copy of these in writing? Do you know the TOTAL price of the hotel stay per night, including any 'resort fees' or other mandatory charges?” and, “Can you trust that review? Look at different websites for reviews so that you can evaluate comments from different sources.”

Then last week, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson went a step further, joining D.C.’s Attorney General in filing a lawsuit, this time against Hilton.

In a press release regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Peterson alleges Hilton company concealed the actual total price of hotel rooms for at least 78 of its properties in the U.S. The press release goes on to argue Hilton failed to clearly disclose all fees and misled consumers to what the fees actually paid for.

Both attorneys general reference a 2012 letter that the FTC sent 22 hotel operators which identified resort fees as potentially breaking the law due to drip pricing, or not revealing the full price upfront. But in 2015, the FTC seemingly reversed course when a staffer told the LA Times that “at this time, we don’t have evidence to prove that not including the resort fee in the room rate is deceptive if a hotel prominently discloses the resort fee upfront.”

Lauren Wolfe, the founder of Kill Resort Fees and counsel at Travelers United, the nation's only travel-consumer advocacy organization, says resort fees can be especially harmful to an economy like Orlando’s, which is dependent on the hotel and lodging industry.

“It could be easy in Orlando to dismiss resort fees as an issue that only impacts tourists. However, hotel resort fees are increasing demand for Airbnb and similar hotel alternatives," says Wolfe.

"They are driving down overall tourism numbers … Resort fees repel convention and conference planners who don't want to plan large events at hotels with such deceptive fees. When areas have a resort fee surge, there is also a surge towards Airbnb and VRBO. It makes sense."

It’s not just the travelers who are disadvantaged due to resort fees. Wolfe explained that the fees could impact the coveted hotel taxes that many municipalities use to pay for a multitude of tourist-related expenses since the listed price of the room is less than what a guest will end up actually pay, and the fees can be especially harmful to employees working at hotels that use resort fees.

Travelers' United has called Florida the "unofficial home of the mandatory hotel fee" with it having some of the highest resort fees in the nation. The Fisher Island Club and Resort in Miami Beach, which has a $160.50 per accommodation, per night resort fee, is the highest in the country according to Kill Resort Fees.

While Florida’s Attorney General Moody has yet to indicate if her office will follow others in pursuing legal action against resort fees, in an unrelated case she settled earlier this year regarding misleading fees by rental car companies she stated, “companies owe it to their consumers to be upfront about all of their services and the prices and fees that accompany them.” For now, that sentiment doesn’t seem to extend to Florida’s powerful lodging industry.

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