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Sun 1 Oct 2006 12:00 AM

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Independent hotels cut out middle man

The Arabian Travel News mystery shopper found that Dubai’s independent hotels can be ruthless when it came to securing direct sales

Dubai’s independent hotels appear to be cutting out the middle man – the agent – by offering cheaper room rates for customers who book direct, according to the results of ATN’s latest mystery shopper survey.

ATN compared the room rates of five Dubai hotels; the independently operated Arabian Courtyard Hotel and the new five-star Dhow Palace Hotel in Bur Dubai, as well as three hotels operated by large international hotel chains; Le Royal Meridien in Jumeirah, (Starwood Group), the Grand Hyatt in Oud Metha (Hyatt Group) and Madinat Jumeirah Al Qasr in Jumeirah (Jumeirah Group).

The mystery shopper called the hotels direct, checked out prices on each hotel’s web site and also gained at least two quotes from some of Dubai’s most prominent travel agents including Al Naboodah Travel and Tourism, Al Rais Travel, Al Arabi Travel, Al Majid Travel Agency, Sharaftravel, The Travel Market, Al-Tayer Travel Agency and Belhasa Tourism.

ATN found that while the bigger hotel chains offered the same rates as travel agents and in some cases, were more expensive, independent hotels offered cheaper prices for customers who rang the hotel direct or booked online.

However, the prices quoted by the indies were inconsistent and confusing.

At Arabian Courtyard for example, the price quoted for a standard room by the hotel’s reservations department was US $131, including service charges, taxes and breakfast.

This compared to three different web site quotes; $95 (promotional rate), $102 (corporate rate) and $327 (rack rate), all excluding taxes and breakfast.

Travel agent quotes ranged from $177 to $182, both including services charges, taxes and breakfast.

ATN’s mystery shopper asked for both a week day rate (October 9) and a weekend rate (October 13) and found that hotels and agencies quoted the same price for both nights.

The mystery shopper also inquired whether or not taxes, additional charges and breakfast was included in the rate to ensure fair comparisons were made.

What the survey did discover was that the deals agents secured with the hotels varied.

For example, agent one quoted $159 for a deluxe twin room at the Dhow Palace, including taxes, charges and breakfast, but agent two quoted the same price excluding breakfast.

The $159 was slightly higher than the $147 quoted by the hotel, but far cheaper than the $544 quoted online.

As far as the chain hotels were concerned, Le Royal Meridien was the most consistent.

Online, phone and agent quotes for a deluxe double room with a sea view were $343 across the board, except for one agent who quoted $406, but that included breakfast.

Agent quotes for the Grand Hyatt and the Madinat Jumeirah proved cheaper than booking direct, but again, not all agents quoted the same rate, indicating that hotels were either being inconsistent with their agent contract rates or some agents were forfeiting their commission in order to give the customer a better price.

ATN’s mystery shopper also identified vast discrepancies in customer service.

Hotel telephone reservations systems proved efficient across the board, but some travel agents were not always as efficient.

Despite numerous attempts to get room rate quotes from Dnata and Kanoo Travel, ATN found that phones were not answered or that travel consultants who could deal with hotel reservation requests were either “eating their lunch” or had “already left for the day”.

There were no attempts to think outside the box by other agents who did answer the phone in that they were not willing to take request details or help the customer in anyway.

In effect they were turning down good business.

ATN’s mystery shopper was also asked on numerous occasions to provide details of the customer’s nationality.

One agent told ATN that as a European citizen, the hotels would quote a cheaper rate than if they were a GCC citizen.

ATN was told by several hotels that this pricing strategy was applied worldwide.

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