Saturday, September 25, 2004

Unexpected Hurricane Hazards

This is one I hadn't thought of, and seems to be an unexpected hazard of shifting so much business on-line. The New Orleans Times-Picayune is reporting that there were significant numbers of cases of people evacuating the area because of Ivan, sometimes whole families packed in a caravan of cars and driving for twelve hours, only to arrive at their destination to find their reserved hotel room was not available, had been rebooked. This was particularly the case for people who had reserved their rooms through online third-party reservation services like or

These services operate by booking blocks of rooms in advance, based on what their experience and stastical analysis tell them the demand is likely to be for that location and date. Since most people book at least a few days in advance, as soon as they decide where and when they're going, the rule is that if a room in one of these blocks is not reserved by 24 hours before check-in time, the service releases the room back to the hotel, which is free to book it independently. This system works fine under normal conditions, but totally broke down during the crisis, as hordes of people decided they had to get out right now. As walk-ins took room after room, people went online trying to get reservations for that same day, clicked "reserve" and thought they were safe. By the time the system processed the request and found there was nothing available, there was no way to contact all those customers and tell them. They were already on the road.

It almost happened to us. Alden made a reservation, not through a third-party service, but by going to the reservations website of the La Quinta Inn chain. He made a reservation on Monday for Tuesday evening, assuming the storm kept coming and we did have to evacuate. Monday evening we phoned to confirm. Sorry, no reservation. So I got on the phone and waited until I got a live La Quinta reservations operater, and he and I found that room in Clute.

I guess the lesson in this for the new world of online business is that if the transaction is critically important or involves your actual safety, don't trust to a mouse click, if at all possible talk to a human being.

With all that said, I really should mention that at every stage of the game the people at La Quinta treated us wonderfully. When it was getting to 5 pm and we hadn't even made Baton Rouge, I called the Clute motel to warn them about the delay. The lady on the phone said, "Don't worry sir, we have people coming from New Orleans not even as far along as you are. No matter what time you get here, the room will be ready, and if you arrive after 1 am we won't charge for the first night." I thought that was above and beyond the call of duty. Everyone was very sympathetic, even the cleaning staff. But then, Clute is five miles from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, a little south of Galveston. They know what hurricanes can do.

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