Lost In Transition

After Wyndham International was sold this summer to The Blackstone Group — which repackaged some hotels into a new brand then resold the Wyndham brand —some of the affected properties suffered from a lack of management oversight and operational missteps, meeting planners said.

Now, Cendant Corp., the new holder of franchise agreements with 82 Wyndham hotels and management contracts with 29 others, is trying to mend fences and improve the brand's customer service.

Property-level officials at hotels folded into Blackstone's new brand, LXR Resorts (MeetingNews, Sept. 26), are also working to iron out any kinks.

Debbie Baker, account executive at TWI Extras, a Las Vegas-based destination management firm, said, "The Wyndham name has a bad taste in my mouth right now."

Baker had booked some rooms at the Wyndham Orlando Resort for clients attending the National Business Aviation Administration conference, which relocated to Orlando this fall after being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

The overbooked hotel cancelled those guests' reservations just two weeks prior to the meeting and rebooked them into a hotel that, unlike the Wyndham, was not along the convention center shuttle route. Baker sought compensation for the added ground transportation costs and was denied; she said she then left a message for the general manager that was not returned.

Then she called Wyndham headquarters and was told that the general manager was her only recourse — and also was told, she said, that "no one is in charge."

After contacting her attorney, she said, she heard back from the general manager, who told her, "We can't help you now that you've called a lawyer."

Tracey Ford, meeting planner at Strategic Analysis Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based government contractor, was also disgruntled.

Last spring she booked a February 2006 meeting for about 30 high-level, international military personnel at Orlando's Wyndham Palace Resort & Spa. In October, when reviewing the hotel's website in order to prepare meeting invitations, Ford discoveredseveral significant changes: The hotel's name had been changed to the Buena Vista Palace; the property now was part of the LXR brand; and one restaurant has been changed so that it now hosts only catered functions.

The changes created serious issues for Ford. For one, since the program does not include breakfast and lunch for attendees, the restaurant closing leaves them with fewer options on-site during their short breakfast and lunch breaks, Ford said.

Even worse, she noted, "If I hadn't gone online that day, the invitations would have had the wrong information, hurting our reputation. Meeting planners are responsible for details, and the hotel's name is a pretty significant one to get wrong."

Wyndham Worldwide president Peter Strebel, appointed to that job after Cendant acquired the brand from Blackstone, was apologetic for such incidents and is aiming to avoid any repeat performances.

"I'm disappointed to learn that the general manager didn't call [Baker] back," he said, adding, "I hope that anyone who answers the phone now knows who's in charge — it's me."

Strebel said he would contact Baker directly to remedy the situation but later recanted after learning it had become a legal matter.

Strebel admitted that service at Wyndham hotels suffered during the transition, and many in the industry reported a decline in the hotels' condition as resources became depleted in the months leading up to the sale. "There was some relaxation of standards," he said.

As for Ford's experience, Buena Vista Palace general manager Greg Hauenstein said, "I'm sorry this happened to her, and we're going to get in touch with her and make sure that we can make her more comfortable."

But he said, "We're working hard to inform customers of all changes that are being made and, in fact, have partnered with Wyndham and Blackstone to make the transition go as smoothly as possible."

According to Hauenstein, LXR "has more resources available to listen to customer concerns and invest in its assets." He said his property had been planning a renovation prior to the transaction, but Blackstone told hotel officials to scrap that plan and come up with a bigger and better one. The hotel's 1,000 guestrooms will undergo a transformation next year costing more than $25 million.

Cendant, said Strebel, has increased its group sales staff and is meeting this month with all owners and general managers to discuss the brand's issues, including service. "We're going to come out of the box strong," he said.