KTVQ: Billings hoteliers say phony booking sites harm tourism industry, Daines sponsors bill

When Steve Wahrlich, the owner of the Clock Tower Inn, went to check in at his room at a Bozeman hotel, he discovered that his reservation was never actually made.

It may sound like a minor nuisance, Wahrlich, like many other hotel guests pre-paid for his room using a third-party booking site.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) visited with leaders of the Montana tourism industry in Billings on Tuesday to talk about his newly proposed legislation to tackle phony hotel reservation websites.

Thousands of online hotel reservations are made every day in the U.S., according to Warlich, which accounts for about 75 percent of the bookings made.

According to Katie Longo, the Senior Director of Government Affairs Communications for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, there were 15 million booking scams in the U.S. last year, which totaled $1.3 billion in lost bookings.

Last year, tourism income increased in Western Montana, with the Tourism Advisory Board noting that bookings for Yellowstone and Glacier are already up 50 percent for next year from what they were a year ago.

But the eastern part of the state saw a slight decrease in tourism, which is why industry leaders say legitimate bookings are so important.

“Tourism is as strong as ever,” said Alex Tyson, the executive director of the Billings Chamber of Commerce. “But there’s definitely a little influx with the downturn of the energy sector and we’ve just added one thousand new hotel rooms, so there’s a new normal shaking out.”

Billings just closed on a deal to bring the NAIA Women’s Basketball championships to the Magic City.

“We’re very proud of that,” said Tyson, who explained that Billings beat out Spokane and other bigger cities to play host.

Tyson said major events like the basketball championship contribute to the $400 million in tourism dollars spent in Billings last year.

More broadly speaking, 11.7 million tourists visited Montana in 2015 and spent $3.66 billion in the state, according to tourism leaders.

The tourism industry represents 64,000 jobs in Montana and more than $1.43 billion in salaries.

“Any threat to the tourism industry is a threat to Montana,” said Daines.

Northern Hotel Executive Director Mike Nelson said that prior to the meeting he tried out some online booking sites to better understand the customer experience.

“I called and got the robot,” said Nelson. “Then I was put on hold and had to listen to Abba for about two and a half minutes. You know, this just isn’t my company standard and I can actually lose money for leaving the customer waiting on the line that long.”

Nelson said that once he got to speak with an actual person, he asked if she represented the Northern Hotel and she was reluctant to explain her role.

“If I were a customer, I’d be upset with this experience,” said Nelson. “Then after all that, the customer goes on TripAdvisor and gives you a bad rating because of it. And you can’t remove that or have it taken down. So (the booking sites) get you coming and going.”

Each of the hotel representatives present at the meeting said there is a need to hold these websites more accountable if not only to protect the hotels’ reputations, but to prevent any trickle down impact on other members of the tourism industry, such as restaurants.

Daines explained his Stop Online Booking Scams Act, which he is co-sponsoring with a Florida senator.

Daines said the bill would allow attorneys general to prosecute operators of websites that create phony reservations.