Hotwire Express: The amazing support team that is no more

May 2010 in Memphis, TN: I open the door to my downtown hotel room. It smells a bit musty, the floors a bit creaky, and the noise from the street is surprisingly audible for a hotel of this rating. I reach for a complimentary water bottle to discover that the bottle's security seal had already been broken, indicating the bottle was already consumed and then refilled.

All this comes after my first impression, where I had trouble getting into the hotel in the first place because they lock their doors at night to keep the crazies of the night outside.

I felt uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. And I didn't want to stay here for the next 3 nights that I had booked. Turns out there's more to Memphis than Beale Street!

So I called Hotwire. I spoke directly to a Hotwire Express support representative in the United States. After listening to my story, she explained that Hotwire doesn't offer refunds or exchanges (which I knew), but due to my history with them, they were going to rebook me in another hotel at their expense.

Little did I know at the time that I had access to a super secret special customer support number for Hotwire, known as Hotwire Express - one that connected me directly with their premier support team, dedicated for frequent travelers who book through Hotwire. I was honored.

In fact, I wasn't the only one. In the late 2000's, Hotwire received three consecutive awards for "Highest in Customer Satisfaction for Independent Travel Web Sites".

Hotwire already had a great product. Now that I knew they had this level of service for their best customers, I was hooked. This was a safety net. In the event the worst happens, they'll be there to make things right.

If you aren't familiar with Hotwire, it's the hotel booking site that rose to fame because they offered discounts over other sites by not revealing the name of the hotel until after you book it, only allowing you to choose the star rating ahead of time. For those of us who like living on the edge, it's kind of fun.

But Hotwire isn't without its faults. One of the things that has irked me the most is the deceptive ways in which they list resort fees, the pesky fees some hotels use to anchor their price within the range of competitors, then later making up the difference with a fee paid directly to the hotel.

Hotwire doesn't list this fee until after you've clicked through to the hotel's detail page. It's a little deceptive, but you get used to it. (The practice of showing an all-inclusive price is the vastly preferred method, like how companies such as Southwest and Stubhub present their pricing.)

But in all cases where there's a resort fee, the fee is listed directly below the BOOK NOW button.

That is... all cases, until this week.

2016 in Lake Arrowhead, CA: During my stay at Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, I woke up to a folio slipped under my door with a $20 resort fee listed. With no recollection of this fee, I double-checked the Hotwire listing where I booked the hotel. Sure enough, no resort fee was listed.

I checked in with the front desk, as I didn't recall signing anything acknowledging the fee. As it turns out, they had eliminated the registration card, since they assume the fee is listed when booking the hotel.

So now we've got a hotel that charged a fee without authorization, but really it comes down to Hotwire's lack of transparency when booking the hotel.

After a call to Hotwire, the rep, in broken English, acknowledged there was no resort fee listed. But she simply recited the policy that when you book through Hotwire, you agree to pay any resort fees to the hotel. I asked to speak to a supervisor because of the very obvious lack of transparency about this fee. Without flat out refusing, she refused to let me talk to a manager. I believe she ended up hanging up on me. (Side note: I was very calm, cool and rational - I wasn't being a jerk.)

She proceeded to tell me that, in this particular case, the fee was a "use fee" for using amenities like the pool. "Did you use the pool during your stay?" she asked. Seriously?? (Even though this suggestion sounds crazy, I confirmed with the hotel that they do not charge a fee when amenities are used.)

Emailing Hotwire support stonewalled me just like the phone rep did.
Before you complete the reservation, we provide the terms of the Hot Rate® booking for your review. The policies includes, "You pay the hotel directly for charges like room service or resort fees." Therefore, by clicking the "book now" button, we assume that our customers are fully aware of the policies governing the reservation. We regret we re unable to honor any refund at this time.

Hotwire maintains a separate section of their website that published hotel names, and offers some of the same hotels at listed prices. When looking up the listing for the hotel in which I stayed, this is the information that's presented:

For some reason, the resort fee is listed here, unlike in the Hot Rate section. I'm fairly certain this is a weird bug. I see absolutely no reason why the resort fee would be listed in one place but not another.

This entire scenario is incredibly disappointing to me for a number of reasons:
  • How can I be expected to pay a fee I wasn't aware of? (I likely would not have booked this hotel, had I known about the resort fee.)
  • How are multiple channels of their support team unable to understand a customer's perspective here?
  • How are they not willing to let me talk to someone in charge?
  • Uhh, what happened to their premium customer support line (Hotwire Express)?

I tabulated how much money I've spent with Hotwire over the past 7 years: $16,327.06. This isn't to say that I deserve better support than others, but many companies do keep tabs on the lifetime value of their customers in an effort to keep the more profitable ones happy.

What's more frightening than the fact that this fee wasn't disclosed, is the fact that the people on their front lines have zero compassion or sympathy for their own customers.

As a business owner myself, whenever a customer experiences a problem, I always try to make it right from their perspective, even if that means sucking it up or losing money on the customer. Obviously that level of support doesn't always cascade down to lower-level employees, but for pete's sake, what has happened to Hotwire over the years?

The experience I had with them in 2010 is what has made me stick with them all these years. They did what I was just talking about. They lost money on that sale, but made the effort to make it right, and I think it's paid dividends for them.

But as it turns out, I'm finding out Hotwire has discontinued the Hotwire Express program, the program that boosted their customer loyalty by providing great customer support in the first place.

I'm not sure what's changed over the years. I'm guessing corporate repositioning, a shift in management, and an effort to become more profitable. It seems as if Hotwire has changed their focus to be more on the bottom line and less on their customers. It's sad to see, especially when they used to be known for their customer service amongst their most frequent of customers.

I'm hoping this is a one-off experience that I had, but sadly, this experience will make me think twice the next time I'm booking a hotel.

"We're all about tolerance, unless you disagree with us."

I'm deeply disappointed at the response that the Presidential election has evoked from my industry. Today, the CEO of a food delivery service, Grubhub, wrote a letter to his employees that essentially paired Trump voters with "hateful politics" and, while he didn't directly say it, inferred that if you support Trump, you should resign.

Everyone has a right to their own opinions, but in the same letter, he contradicts himself by saying, "I firmly believe that we must bring together different perspectives ... including ... cultural or ideological preferences."

The mantra of the left seems to be, "We're all about inclusiveness, unless you disagree with us." The hypocrisy of this mindset is ridiculous.

This party of "tolerance" is the same party whose supporters ruthlessly beat up Trump supporters. Before the election, anti-Trump demonstrators protested right here in Orange County by destroying police cars.

Quite honestly, I'm sick and tired of the hypocrisy of the left. Tolerance and inclusion needs to extend beyond the things that they agree withIt seems as if they lose all civility when people disagree with what they've decided is the difference between right and wrong.

Democrats have put themselves into this frenzy by misinterpreting statements by Trump and assigning new meanings to things he's said. Let's look at three Trump statements and analyze them without yelling and screaming at each other.

Misinterpreted Statement #1:

What Trump actually said:

" and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

What Democrats say Trump said:

"Trump wants to get rid of all Muslims!"

If you'll recall, Trump made this statement shortly after a terrorist attack by a Muslim extremist. While an ill-advised statement, I fail to see the part where Trump says he wants to ban all Muslims from America. (It's unfortunate that the only groups who want to cause mass destruction to America come from a small subset of an extremist Muslim viewpoint, and that's what Trump was referring to.)

Misinterpreted Statement #2

What Trump actually said:

"They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists." (On illegal immigrants from Mexico)

What Democrats say Trump said:

"Trump is anti-immigration, hates Mexicans and wants to break up families!"

Completely ignoring the fact that this statement holds merit (read on), Democrats have hijacked this statement to somehow encompass anyone from Mexico.

But what Trump is actually referring to is vetting people who come into America (just like the Muslim statement) to ensure their intentions for coming here are pure and simply want a better life. As an example, there's the time last year where a Mexican national, who had been deported 5 previous times, shot and killed a woman in San Francisco. That's what Trump is talking about.

I don't see how people can claim Trump is anti-immigration when his wife came from another country. I guarantee you Trump doesn't want to ban people from coming into the country. He just wants to get our house in order before we can be the savior of the world.

Misinterpreted Statement #3

What Trump said:

"Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

What Democrats say about Trump:

Trump is misogynistic and sexist and hates woman.

Really?? Obviously this another horrible thing for Trump to say, but to somehow draw the line between this statement and say that Trump hates woman is an absurd stretch. I'd also like to point out that I've heard plenty of similar statements by my liberal friends when in certain social circles. (This is a douchey guy thing in general, not limited to our President-Elect.) The left has construed this statement to be something completely different in order to smear him and create a false narrative so as to sway potential voters away from him.

This is closely tied to overuse of terms like "racist" and "sexist". The left has managed to hijack these words and generalize them for the purpose of smearing people. They also seem to use race and sex as the primary lens they use to interpret things. I'll give an example:

Yesterday I saw a tweet that referred to the person in the screenshot below being a "racist jokester":

I failed to see the racism in that statement, so I followed up for clarification and the poster said this:

"maybe "racially insensitive" to talk about a civil rights political prisoner on a day when a bigot was elected us president"

If I follow his train of thought, it's something like this: Nelson Mandela is a minority, so talking about his time in jail and talking about it in context of Hillary going to jail is... racist? I honestly can't even follow the mental logic. It makes zero sense!

By and large, the left sees race and sex as the basis for everything. If someone does something they don't agree with, and the victim of the statement or action is a minority, they instantly jump to the conclusion that it was racially motivated. But if we look at both of the above links (the Trump supporter being beaten or the woman being shot and killed) where both victims were white, I don't hear a single mention of race being a factor there. If the situation were reversed, race is the only thing the media would be talking about.

Paul Krugman recently said this:

"We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time. It turns out that we were wrong."

Krugman's worldview assumes the misinterpreted definitions of "racial prejudice" and "misogyny" described above.

Race and sex are used as trump cards (bad pun) when they are factually inaccurate. But by simply making the accusation, they win.

A couple more tweets I've seen:

"Most qualified woman in the world loses to the least qualified man in the world. In case If you were confused about what misogyny looks like"

"It's not about Trump or Hillary. It's about the fact somebody ran on a platform of straight up racism and the U.S. liked it."

If you've read this entire section, you'll know what I have to say. Not electing Hillary has zero to do with being a woman and has everything to do with substance of policy and character, and voting for Trump has zero to do with racism and has everything to do with fixing things seen as broken.

The left needs to stop assuming people don't agree with them because of sex and race. It's bigoted to believe that's what we're voting on.

The left has managed to create this sort of absolutism where if you don't agree with them, then you're wrong! They build their platform on "tolerance", but what they practice is far from that. They essentially believe that if you don't agree with them, then you're uneducated and dumb. (Or deplorable!) Name-calling doesn't sound much like tolerance to me. You can't have a conversation with someone who refuses to hear an opposing viewpoint.

This post was from a Facebook friend of mine yesterday:

Sounds pretty tolerant to me!

I want to make one thing clear, and I believe I speak for President-Elect Trump when I say this: We want assimilation. We are not against anyone coming here. We want America to be the greatest country in the world. People I've met who have come here through the proper channels are some of the best people I know. They've studied American history (for their citizenship test). They understand the Constitution and the principles of America that made it great - the freedom of religion and speech. They come here because they realize it's the best system in the world and they want to be part of it. They have made America their own. Those are real Americans!

People come to America because they want something better! What Trump wants to curtail is limiting the people who don't understand what makes America so great. If we ignore this problem, it will continue the slide to make America just like everybody else. There is a difference between embracing American culture while holding onto the good parts of your own culture, and coming here and trying to make it just like where you came from. (Living in Southern California, I see this often.) If you want to make America just like where you came from, what was the purpose of coming to America in the first place?

I often see behavior of people who don't go through the proper channels as the following (not just immigrants but also visitors): They trash our country, commit acts of violence, and have a sense of entitlement to be here.

When something is yours, you treat it differently. Trump isn't against people coming here. He simply wants people to come here the proper way, because when you do that, you act differently.

I'll end this with a great post from another Facebook friend of mine:

Hillary lost in part because she and her supporters called all the non-racist, non-misogynist, non-homophobic, non-bigoted everyday ordinary people racists, misogynists, homophobes, and bigots every day. Well, ordinary people got very sick and tired being called that, went and voted against Hillary. Hillary has lost. Now her supporters, instead of re-evaluating their personal conduct and strategy of convincing people to share their views, continue to scream, throw tantrums and call everyday people racist, misogynists, homophobes, and bigots for not voting for Hilary. Maybe look in a mirror and see what hate looks like.

I implore you to re-evaluate the lens in which you see the world. There are bad apples everywhere, but in general, people who voted for Trump are not racist, misogynist, homophobic or bigoted. We just want to continue making America the best place in the world, and now after eight years, we finally get to try a different strategy to go about it.

iOS design is falling apart

In recent years (really, the post-Steve Jobs era), the designers on iOS have become lax. In an effort to add new features or "improve" design, they have crippled usability and crammed buttons into places that shouldn't even be places. And without someone like Steve Jobs to send them back to the drawing board, these train wrecks now make it into production. A few examples:

"Back to App" button

When clicking a link that takes you to another app, iOS now crams a "Back to ____" link in the status bar. There are several problem with this:

  • Can't check my reception - If something isn't loading, I don't have an easy way of troubleshooting the problem.
  • Can't see if I'm on wifi or cell network - If I'm clicking on a video link, I might want to double-check to make sure I'm not going to eat through data from my cell plan.
  • Way too small of a tap area - If you read even Apple's design best practices (under Hit Targets), they'll point out that you should allow a good amount of padding for finger tapping.

And now they're a "Forward to ____" button?! Great, now I can't check my battery or diagnose why my sound isn't playing. ("Am I connected to a bluetooth device somewhere?")

Google solved this adequately within their own suite of apps, like in Chrome, by overriding the app's Back button with a button that would return you to the Google app where you came from - a very elegant solution.

Cramming in way too much, and for no good reason

Seriously? 6 apps across? And that tiny little search box? What's even the point? (I'm secretly hoping this is a bug.)

Butchering usability in Podcasts app

Try scrubbing to a specific time using your finger. Oh yeah, YOU CAN'T. The latest Apple Podcasts app makes it impossible to actually drag the time nub when it's near the edge of your screen. And if you have a case on your phone, forget it. (This is another example of Apple completely ignoring their best practices for tappable regions.)

For comparison's sake, here's a screenshot from the old Podcasts app:

It's almost like the people designing iOS these days don't even use this stuff themselves. If they actually used iOS like normal people, they'd realize that these "improvements" in design are huge steps backwards in usability.

Even more than that - with every little design inconvenience, I love iOS less and less, and while this isn't quantifiable in a focus group or user testing session, over time, I guarantee you this will begin to wear on people.

My thoughts on $TWTR, senseless IPOs, and public internet companies

I just read this headline: Twitter Falls Below IPO Price as Concerns Mount Over CEO, Growth source

Surprised? I sure hope not.

It continues to astound me that websites with a large user base and trajectory seem to be a good enough reason to go public. Many of these sites are the fad of the month but happen to catch mainstream hype at just the right time.

Zynga, anyone?

Let me say this: Because you write software and attain a large audience and good traction and get decent mainstream press, these reasons alone are not a good enough to go public.

There's a catch-22 in the internet business: Salaries are often subsidized with equity. This traditionally works well with traditional, brick and mortar companies. We're talking about companies that build hotels, chains like Starbucks, or the company that makes the straws that we all use in our Starbucks drinks. But it seems as if internet companies now feel pressured to cash out or go public because of the amount of options they've given away to their early hires, and the number of people relying on them who expect an exponential return. Also layer in the fact that VC firms expect to turn theoretical value on paper into real, cold hard cash in a relatively short period of time. As a result, you're left with a whole slew of companies who aren't ready to be scrutinized in the public financial market.

The old criteria for an IPO candidate used to be businesses with remarkable traction and revenue trajectory. But when the internet came along, everything changed. Suddenly, companies could see exponential growth almost instantly. (Come on, that's pretty easy. When you go from 0 to X...) But as we've seen, that doesn't necessarily ever last. Anybody remember the .com bubble? It almost seems like user adoption maybe isn't the best metric for long-term financial success. Crazy!

Back to Twitter...

For those who don't remember, Twitter didn't start out as a startup with hopes of ever going public. In fact, the founders of Twitter, in 2006 at the time it was created, worked at a podcasting website, Odeo, and things were headed downhill. They realized they needed to reinvent themselves and ended up creating the concept that Twitter is today.

When it comes down to it, Twitter is a marketing site where its audience (users) is sold to advertisers. Let me say it differently: the users are the product and the advertisers are Twitter's customers. Unfortunately, that's nothing unique to Twitter, nor to many internet startups and their stocks that have flatlined. Twitter hasn't built a railroad, nor a coffee chain like Starbucks, nor those straws that we sip out of every morning on our way to work. How is Twitter different than Facebook, from a monetary perspective? Not much, except that Facebook has done it better. Twitter has built a website that millions of us visit on a daily basis (and yes, I use it all the time) but when it comes to financial investors who don't understand crap about the internet, they're looking at a different metric. "Did you hit the growth potential we expected? Did you hit the advertising dollar figure we were looking for?" If not, you're screwed.

"But Cory, what about company X that was super popular?" Let's take a look.


Hmm, what about Retailmenot? (Whaat? Retailmenot is public? Yes.)

Are we sensing a trend?

Oh, one more for you, ladies and gentlemen. Yelp:

In Yelp's case in particular, when their user growth and revenue flatlined, they had to find other ways to keep the charts looking like hockey sticks (up and to the right) and that's when it came out that sales reps were writing negative reviews about businesses, then calling them to upsell them to a plan where they could manage their reviews. How's that for a business model?

So for those of you who put money into Twitter, or Yelp, or Groupon, just because of their upward growth... did you really think they would become the next Google? Or Apple?

Put your money into a company like Salesforce, a company that continues to spread its tentacles into the hearts of businesses across the world. Put your money in Tesla, a company that's changing how we build cars. Or give your money to Google or Amazon, companies that continually create products that increasingly hold the data that we all depend on. Dropbox is an ideal candidate for an IPO - an established business with customers who pay for their services directly, and who continue to expand into other markets (B2B) as they become a more mature business. Uber is another company that has reached such critical mass and has such a large customer base with potential to move into other markets that they also will do incredibly well at an IPO.

Let's move away from putting our money into companies that rely on us visiting their webpages, to survive. Real intellectual property is created when a company builds something better and more unique than anybody else.

I wish companies like Twitter, Groupon and Yelp stayed private. These companies are immensely useful for a large audience, but when those growth numbers wear off, they shouldn't be penalized by investors who don't understand their value. Instead, they should stay private until the point where they are such a critical part of our lives where growth metrics don't matter, and instead, we value them upon their contribution to our lives.

An open letter to Flightcar

Dear Flightcar,

I tried. I really tried. When I found out about you, I was stoked. "Finally!" I thought, "A company that's going to disrupt the miserable car rental business!" And in theory, the concept is great. The only problem: The car rental business is a customer service-intense industry. Translation: your customer support has to be on point.

Unfortunately, the customer support department at Flightcar seems to be largely non-existent. (Quite frankly, this is the last thing I expected from a well-funded Silicon Valley startup with top tier investors.) But before I detail my laundry list of personal experiences (including the phone call that put me over the edge), let's check some recent tweets.

Notice the timestamps on these tweets. These are all from just the past few weeks.

The quote from @andrewjiang is spot on: "The human element is broken."

I can safely say the encounters I've had with the people at Flightcar (non-sales related) have been some of the worst experiences I've ever had with support teams. We're talking along the lines of AT&T, Verizon, and dare I say Comcast?

Flightcar, you have to fix this if this business is going to continue.

The encounter I had tonight is just icing on the cake, but before I get there, let's just review some former personal experiences with Flightcar that come to the top of my head. (These are largely the same as many other complains that can be found online. Just read some Yelp reviews or do a search for @flightcar on Twitter.)

Summary of previous issues

  • The first time my wife and I rented through Flightcar, we waited for our airport pickup for 45 minutes before giving up and Ubering ourselves to the Seattle station.
  • We ordered a 2009-2015 luxury sedan and were given a 2004 Audi A6. (Build-in navigation - what I was hoping for? Fat chance.) I returned the vehicle the next day. Getting our refund took 7 emails over 8 days.
  • Deciding to give Flightcar the benefits of the doubt, we entered one of our vehicles in the monthly rental program. We were told the max monthly mileage put on the vehicle would be 1,800 miles. Our Jeep was pummeled with over 2,300 miles in less than a month, so we pulled it out.
  • Within that time period, email notifications stopped working for a portion of it and we received no updates about when our Jeep was returned or rented, and no notice from Flightcar about the issue.
  • There were multiple encounters of waiting a week for a response to emails, and on several occasions, no responses at all. On at least two occasions, I was told my emails went into the spam folder. (Seriously? The Zendesk spam folder??)
Tonight's phone call(s)

But the latest issue in my series of terrible interactions, and quite frankly, my breaking point, involves a support call about missing floor mats from the Jeep we loaned to the monthly program. Getting no response in over 3 days, tonight I decided to call.

  • I called the Flightcar support line, explained the missing floor mats, and asked to be transferred to the Seattle office so I could find out if anyone could locate them.
  • The woman on the phone, bless her heart, believing my name to be Clory, couldn't find my account. (Really? Clory?? And yes, I clarified several times but it just wasn't processing.) After the battle to get that figured out (Cory with an i like igloo or y like yo-yo?), she asked if I could describe what a floor mat is. Let me repeat, and I quote: "Can you explain more what is a floor mat?" Ma'am, I think you might be in the wrong business.
  • BUT, it gets better. After getting transferred to the Seattle office, I can overhear the male representative talking to someone (possibly the woman from the call center), but he didn't know I could hear him. Some of the phrases I overheard included: "I've seen some floor mats but I don't touch them." "Yeah that's a lost and found thing." "This is the second person who's asked about floor mats."
  • After several minutes of me listening in and waiting for him to address me, the call was disconnected. Not dropped. Disconnected.

At this point, I decided to record the call when I called back. The recordings aren't nearly as money as the first call, but you'll get the gist.

I believe the woman at the call center is the same woman I had previously talked to, though having talked to me literally 10 minutes before, it didn't ring a bell for her. And this time, she thought my name was Troy.

Once transferred to Seattle, I was again able to hear the other end of the call. He didn't say anything this time, though. And so finally, a few minutes in when I realized the rep had no intention of introducing himself to me, I decided to speak up. Sure enough, he could hear me and responded. Although, seriously, those phone skills... :-/

Toward the end of the call, we got disconnected AGAIN. Hoping to give him my phone number so he could have someone call me back in the morning, I called the support center a third time. Except this time, the call center was closed for the night.

Great. Still no resolution to my missing floormats.

I had intended to try to loan Flightcar another vehicle, but seriously Flightcar, enough is enough. I'm done, and I hope you can clear up these amateur mistakes up very soon. You've lost my business for good, and from what I'm seeing on social sites, I'm not the only one.

Thanks for listening and I wish you the best.