Sheraton, Bedbugs and how NOT to do Customer Support

Saturday, April 2, 2016
Adventures in Bed Bugs
I've traveled enough to know that bed bugs are always a risk at any hotel stay. Generally, I do a pretty reasonable check of the room on arrival. When I find them, I insist on being put up in another hotel. Finding bed bugs is usually difficult. They hide well and the best approach is to look for fecal matter (little black/brown spots -- blood of past guests -- on the bedding and box springs).
Usually, I won't leave bad feedback on one of the travel sites, tweet, or otherwise publicly shame a hotel. Very few things are more damaging because people have no idea how common of a problem it actually is (if they knew, they might just stay home and skip traveling all together). And usually the property handles the situation well.  This time is different. I've never had a hotel and hotel chain so completely disregard such a serious problem.
Sheraton Lake Beuna Vista Hotel, Orlando, Florida
We failed to notice the problem until our very last day, and considering how bad it was I can only plead laziness on my part. When my wife and I arrived and saw the room adorned with bright white sheets, bedding and even comforter, we were lulled into a false sense of security. We stayed there 4 days and on the final day, my wife shot out of bed after she scratched at her leg and found the small sting had a source -- a bed bug.

It was about 8:00 AM and I had been looking forward to sleeping in a little bit after a hard week of work at a conference. That idea was instantly shattered. My wife grabbed one of the Zip Lock bags we put our toothbrushes in and captured the bugger. We brought it down to the front desk and returned to the room to get some more photos. It didn't take but a few seconds to find the second bug hanging around the head board.

Up came the mattresses. What we discovered was nauseating.

Those "fecal matter" inspections, had I bothered to do them, would have immediately had me leaving the room. On top of fecal matter, we found four bugs that were smashed under both beds' box springs. My assumption is that the infestation had been present in the room when things were being moved around and nobody in housekeeping had noticed. Considering the large, smashed, blood stains and pieces of dead bug that were very easy to see, I'm terribly disappointed that staff paid so little attention, though after my experience dealing with Starwood in general, I can't say I'm surprised. Housekeeping should be trained to identify fecal matter and other secondary evidence of the presence of bed bugs and should never have allowed a guest to occupy a room suspected of having an infestation. Had the hotel been paying any reasonable amount of attention, though (or had I), they would have seen the critters actually walking around.
Working with the hotel
The hotel staff kept our luggage and gave me a new bag to place that I could use to bring the three computers I had traveled with home. They assured me the items would be returned to me via FedEx with the clothes heat treated. They explained that the other items could not be heat treated but did not explain what would be done with them. We had to fly out that morning so I couldn't stick around long to ensure things were handled correctly so we trusted the hotel. In retrospect, I should have been less trusting.
Lesson 1: FedEx doesn't mean fast, anymore
Years ago when someone said "we'll Fedex that to you", it meant overnight. The delivery business has changed a lot--a fact I know well--but that didn't stop my mental picture of receiving my belongings in a reasonable amount of time from kicking in. I mean, obviously, these are my things and I expected to go home with them the night I returned so I assumed the hotel would understand the urgency of returning my belongings quickly. I don't travel enough to warrant buying "two of everything". The hotel sent our luggage back FedEx ground, which took a week. All of my wife's makeup was in the bag as was my shaving products. We had to buy replacements.
Lesson 2: Expect others to treat your stuff with little respect
I kind of expected my suit coat was going to need a pressing after its week-long journey. But I didn't expect my belongings to be destroyed.  Because they placed my wife's makeup, a pen, and the rest of our toiletries in an unsealed bag, we found a mix of interesting stains on many of our clothes.  My suit coat has a large black ink stain and pinkish-brownish sain from hairspray-mixed-with-pen-and-makeup.  Most of the rest of the clothes suffered similar fate.  Worse, being in an unsealed bag and not knowing what was done with those items, I didn't know if they were safe to bring in my home, so the luggage went from the porch to the shed (where it remains today).  I'm out about $500 in destroyed clothes (this doesn't include the original bill for the stay)
Customer Service in an Age Without Humans
It's been about 4 years since I've had to work with a hotel to get something like this resolved. My past experience was with a different chain, so it's possible this is related only to Sheraton, but my sense in dealing with other Customer Service related things is that customer service has suffered greatly in the age of text. My first instinct was to send a message via e-mail. Visiting Sheraton's Web site yields a contact form -- nothing I can attach photographic evidence that truly explains the severity of the situation to. I started there and replied to the auto-reply with 8 photos I had snapped (we took a video also). Both cases yielded an e-mail reply with a reference number (different for the sent and replied). Both assured that I would be contacted. Neither were ever replied to, so after two days I made my first call. I referenced the e-mail and was given a reference number and was told that the team who deals with this sort of problem is being engaged and I'd hear back from them soon. I also received an e-mail stating that I'd receive a reply "in five days" (not business days but I had figured this might be the case). Nine days later, I called back hoping this would get me to someone who could directly address the problem.
I started off the call explaining my situation (which left the CSR speechless for a moment) and asked for a manager. I was passed off to "the manager" and explained what had happened. After a bit of hold time to review the problem (given a reference number I had to hunt down), I was told that it was being handled by Consumer Affairs. Ok, so can hand me off to whomever is handling it at Consumer Affairs? No. They gave me an e-mail to reply to. I explained that I'd now had six different messages ignored by them via e-mail (one directly to the hotel I stayed at) and that I would really like to talk to someone who's job it is to actually solve the problem (I was far more polite than my writing makes it sound like). I asked to speak to her supervisor.
Supervisors In Name Only
It's long been a game in the CSR world that "Manager" and "Supervisor" really means nothing anymore. Most people get frustrated enough to ask for Supervisors and CSRs are already at a disadvantage having to field more calls than they have people to field them. If every call has to be passed to a Supervisor then they have to have a lot of supervisors. This last supervisor was the least helpful, explaining again that there is absolutely nothing she can do and the only option I have is to e-mail the magic, general, e-mail box for Consumer Affairs. No, thanks.
Finally, I took to twitter, posting 5 of the photos I had taken and @ing Starwood. I received a reply from SPGassist claiming I'd "gotten their attention" and to DM them my reference number. They failed to follow me, though, so I couldn't. I replied with my reference number immediately after they sent the tweet and asked them to follow so I could DM. I sent my phone number to their twitter account expecting, as had happened with other situations where I'd involved Social Media, to get a call that day. It's been 24 hours and *crickets*.
Contrast with Another Property
I'd experienced this at another property four years ago. This time I discovered the problem when I arrived. I went to the front desk and asked for them to put me up somewhere else. Without even an argument, my request was granted. They, too, took my bags and sanitized them, returning them to me that evening as well as providing me with a new toothbrush and razor. The guy who delivered my luggage hung around while I went through everything to make sure it was all there and done to my satisfaction. They gave me 4 times the points for my stay. When I arrived home, the hotel manager at the first hotel called me to not only check in that everything was in order, but to assure me that they have completely stripped/sanitized the room I stayed in so that future guests would not have the problem I had. To this day they are among the two brands I am loyal to. Look, bad things can happen when you travel and Bed Bugs are one of the common "worst" things that can happen. But when it's handled well it's not going to keep me away -- if anything, I now know that "Another Property" brand not only takes the problem seriously, but should that problem happen to me again I know it'll be addressed in a professional, prompt manner. What I've learned from this experience from Starwood is that even in a serious manner such as Bed Bugs, I can expect to have to chase Customer Service around for a month and ultimately have to write, in vein, about it which tells me there's little-to-no hope should something less serious happen to me. No thanks.  I'll be sending a few more e-mails elsewhere and one snail mail, certified letter, but I'm done with chasing general mailboxes and the non-existant people behind them.