Marriott saga shows hotels must stop the WiFi racket

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Set of Flat Design Icons. Mobile Phones, Tablet PC, Marketing Te

Set of Flat Design Icons. Mobile Phones, Tablet PC, Marketing Te

In October, Marriott International paid a $600,000 civil penalty for jamming its US customers’ WiFi services.

Just before new year, the hotel group pleaded for understanding, saying it was only trying to protect its guests’ online security – attracting the scorn of technology writers who said people looked after themselves all the time without Marriott’s protection.

The story began in March 2013 when someone attending a function at the Marriott-run Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that staff were “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them”.

These hotspots were the conference goers’ own WiFi connections. Why were they using them? Because they did not want to log on to the hotel’s WiFi, which would have cost anywhere from $250 to$1,000 for each device.

The FCC announced it wasn’t having this. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own WiFi network,” Travis LeBlanc, the FCC’s enforcement bureau chief, said.

In its end-of-year statement, Marriott said it was just trying to prevent cyber attacks and that it was only asking the FCC to let it disable, where necessary, conference goers’ personal WiFi, not that of guests in their rooms or lobbies. They could use their own WiFi connections. “As a matter of fact, we invite and encourage our guests to use these internet connectivity devices in our hotels.”

But most of us do not want to use our own internet connections. We want to use the hotel’s WiFi – and we do not want to pay extra for it. The cost to room guests may not be $250 to $1,000, but it is often not cheap either.

When I inquired at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall (where I could have a weekday room for £285 a night), I was told that it would cost me £15 to connect to the hotel’s WiFi for 24 hours. Everything has to be paid for in the end and “free” WiFi, or anything else, is reflected in the room price, but this seems excessive.

For most travellers, WiFi is no longer an add-on. We need it to do our work, receive emails and communicate with our families. This is particularly true when we are travelling outside our own countries and are terrified of data-roaming charges if we try to use our mobile phones while on the move.

The appearance of a WiFi symbol on the screen as you walk into a hotel is comforting. It grates to be charged extra for it, particularly when you can get WiFi for the price of a beverage in the coffee shop or pub next door.

It is puzzling that hotels that spend so much advertising money promising guests a warm welcome then try to gouge some extra out of them. Who treats their guests that way?

Why boast, as Hilton Worldwide did last year, about giving guests “the ability to check in and choose their exact room from digital floor plans, as well as customise their stay by . . . making special requests for items to be delivered to their room, on their mobile devices, tablets and computer” when, according to the company, some of its hotel brands still charge them to use those devices?

It is not just WiFi, of course. Hotels have been hitting their customers for extras for years. It is easy to avoid the room minibar, although some hotels still charge ridiculous prices for mineral water. Hotel telephone charging is a longstanding racket and, as the HotelChatter.com website said, “charging for WiFi is the new charging for telephone calls”.

The site said a number of hotel chains had stopped charging for WiFi, but in April it listed 10, including Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Starwood Hotels brands such as W, Westin and Sheraton, that still did.

Shaming seems to be having some effect. Several hotel chains have announced they will offer WiFi at no extra charge, provided you join their loyalty scheme and book through their app or website. Starwood will do so from February. Ritz-Carlton said it already offered it. And Marriott, subject of the FCC legal tussle, is doing so from today.

This is not the same as offering no-charge connections to every guest. It excludes those who book through discount sites. And many hotels still charge extra for “enhanced” access, allowing streaming and the transfer of large documents.

But it is progress. How much further hotels go depends on how ready guests are to take their business elsewhere.

michael.skapinker@ft.com Twitter: @Skapinker

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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