For the first time ever, I was in green, rainy Portland, Oregon, and there wasn't enough water.
More specifically, there wasn't any water in the pipes serving my family's room at the DoubleTree hotel. We were in town for a youth dance competition when a plumbing crisis struck the hotel November 18, putting scores of guest bathrooms out of commission on short notice and raising at least two questions:
What does a hotel owe guests who lose use of their bathrooms from 8 pm to 6 am?
And if the hotel falls short, how can a guest get satisfaction?
When I went to check out (as scheduled) the morning after that waterless night, the DoubleTree front-desk attendant volunteered nothing about the major inconvenience we had just dealt with. When I asked what the hotel was doing as a make-good gesture, she offered me three free breakfast buffet coupons, a $45 value.
That seemed a bit stingy, but I was willing to accept it until a few moments later, when I met a friend, staying in the same block of rooms, who had complained vigorously and received a free night.
Then I spoke with another friend who raised a little less ruckus and was offered a 50 per cent discount.
Once I got home, I sent an email to Paul Peralta, the hotel's general manager. In the first sentence I told him exactly what I wanted: $US144.10 (the cost of a night's stay plus taxes, less the value of the breakfast vouchers). I did not tell him I was a travel reporter for The Los Angeles Times and emailed him from my private account.
In that communication, I laid out the details as clinically as I could, with this wrap-up:
"By making no compensation offer and instructing desk representatives to dole out settlements only when pressed, you're treating guests poorly. In fact, you're effectively training us to distrust you and complain loudly. Now that I know other guests in $US149 rooms got a full night's refund, I believe my family is entitled to the same thing. After all, we suffered exactly the same inconvenience."
Half an hour later, the manager replied: "I acknowledge your comments and concerns. I'm sorry about the lack of communication and for the way you felt about our service recovery options." He was referring the matter to his director of guest services, he added.
So now I had a boilerplate apology, and my complaint was being bucked downstairs. That didn't sound good. I wrote back, said I would look forward to hearing from the guest services director and braced myself for an extended campaign.
About five minutes later, my phone rang.
It was Grace Lial, the guest services director, apologising profusely. She said she "would like to just take off one night completely" — that is, refund $US171.80 rather than the lesser amount I asked for. Then she apologised again. All I could say was thanks.
Six days later, the $US171.80 was credited to my credit-card account.
This was a snappy recovery. Kudos for that.
But what about the guests who didn't speak up? For them, and anybody else who has walked away from a hotel feeling thwarted, here are a few lessons I learned from the exchange.
When something goes wrong, speak up and be prompt and firm but polite about it.
Start by saying exactly what you want, preferably in writing, and follow that up with the facts.
Go easy on the drama and invective.
Keep an eye out for allies. If we had been staying on our own in that Portland hotel, I might never have learned about the settlements other guests were getting. This, of course, may be why the hotel chose the squeaky-wheel, case-by-case strategy that it used. (It's also why employers would rather you didn't talk with colleagues about how much you're paid.)
But because we happened to be part of a close-knit group of families that tend to know way too much about one another's business, we were able to trade information and get a better response from the hotel.
Being part of a group isn't just a chance to negotiate a discount rate on the front end; it's also a chance to work together when something goes wrong.
In other words, teamwork isn't just for the kids.
Postscript: If the Portland DoubleTree sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because after my misadventure, another guest there had a far worse problem: Employees ejected Jermaine Massey, a black hotel guest who was talking on the phone in the lobby.
He had been out for the evening, and when he returned to the hotel, he saw that his mother had called and assumed it was serious. Instead of returning to his room, he called right away from the lobby, media reports said.
A security guard approached him and asked him what room he was in. He said he didn't know but was having a conversation and asked to be left alone, Instagram videos show.
When he pointed out that he was a hotel guest, the security guard said, "Not anymore." Massey was allowed to collect his belongings, then left the hotel.
After details of his situation got out, an uproar ensued, and on December 29 the hotel announced it had fired two employees over the incident.
See also: $3100 for hotel pre-authorisation?
See also: The five dumbest things we do in hotels