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NerdWallet: If your next hotel stay is terrible, this is probably the reason

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This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet

There’s no shortage of complaints about hotel stays these days, and one reason why is pretty clear: Many hotels are still severely understaffed.

In 2018, U.S. hotels directly employed more than 2.3 million people, according to an Oxford Economics study funded by the American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Foundation. But the AHLA forecasts that hotels will end 2022 with just 1.97 million employees, which is 84% of pre-pandemic levels.

If your last hotel stay was terrible — perhaps it felt like there was no one around to help you or the lines were too long — the worker shortage might be why. But it’s not all bad news; it’s more a tale of two hotels. While staffing shortages can certainly be brutal, they’ve brought about new technology to step in. And sometimes, the tech is an improvement over processes that relied on workers.

Read: The real labor shortage is looming, and everything we’re doing is making it worse

The messy effects of hotel worker shortages on travelers

Unsurprisingly, the staffing shortage has led to a decrease in customer satisfaction. The American Customer Satisfaction Index’s Travel Study interviewed 6,200 travelers from 2021 to 2022 and found that hotel guest satisfaction fell 2.7% during that time period.

Respondents rated specific reasons for their dissatisfaction, and among the most common were:

Loyalty program (-4 points).

Quality of hotel amenities, like pool, spa and fitness center (-3 points).

Quality of food services, like restaurants and room service (-3 points).

Quality of in-room amenities, like refreshments, toiletries and bedding (-2 points).

Ease of making a reservation (-1 point).

Courtesy and helpfulness of staff (-1 point).

Call center satisfaction (-1 point).

Many of the top reasons for upset hotel guests have clear connections to staff shortages: long hold times for call centers or terse, overworked employees.

Read: The U.S. does not have a national heat standard for workers. Advocates say it could save the lives of agriculture, construction, kitchen and factory workers.

You might chalk up the reduced quality of hotel amenities to reduced hours, facilities that haven’t been cleaned, or a cutback in staff-heavy offerings like kids clubs and pool parties.

Hotel breakfast buffets were largely paused, necessitated by efforts to social distance, and also because fewer staff made it difficult to refill and clean messy buffet counters. Instead, most hotels that previously offered all-you-can-eat, free breakfast turned to simple brown bag meals.

At many hotels, housekeeping has been reduced from everyday service, and sometimes there’s none at all — save for turning over rooms between guests. That’s left guests with overflowing trash bins and forced them to do their own chores (like making their bed), something many feel they shouldn’t have to do on a vacation.

The positive ways hotels have responded to worker shortages

Tough times often incite opportunity to evolve — and many hotels have done just that. ACSI found three aspects of the hotel experience that have improved from 2021 to 2022:

Quality of mobile app (+3 points).

Reliability of mobile app, such as minimal downtime, crashes and lags (+2 points).

Ease of check-in process (+1 point).

Two of those three improvements are about hotel apps. The third, ease of check-in, is likely tied to tech, too, as most apps now let you bypass the front desk and check in through your phone.

Many major brands, including Hilton
HLT,
-4.53%
,
Hyatt
H,
-3.79%

and Marriott
MAR,
-3.60%
,
allow you to use your phone as a digital key at most properties. Hyatt’s digital keys work on Apple
AAPL,
-5.87%

Watch, too. Hilton lets you choose the exact room you want, up to 24 hours in advance of check-in.

And better apps aren’t the only tech-related improvements. Some hotels are replacing room service with tech-forward alternatives, including partnerships with food delivery companies. Others are installing high-end vending machines capable of serving fresh meals inside their lobbies, allowing guests to access food at any hour of the day.

Be sure to read: These are the airlines with the most delays and cancellations

What to expect from future hotel stays

While technology in hotels is likely to continue evolving, there’s hope for human staff, too. AHLA expects hiring to come back. The problem? It doesn’t anticipate staffing levels to catch up until at least 2024.

But for travels between now and then, temper your expectations. Understand that things might move a little slower and that amenities might not be up to par with what you’re used to. That said, there are a couple of things you can do to improve your hotel stay.

First, hold elite status. While elite status benefits vary by tier and exact property, they can mean free meals and room upgrades. Even the lower tiers tend to grant you access to member-only check-in lines or route you to a dedicated customer service number with shorter hold times.

And no, you don’t need to live out of a suitcase to enjoy elite status. It’s often automatically awarded to holders of certain hotel credit cards — even if you’ve never stayed at that hotel before.

See: Four travel card perks that might not be worth it anymore

Second, it never hurts to ask. Some amenities like housekeeping often aren’t advertised or preemptively offered, but they may still be provided upon request. And the short-staffed hotels may appreciate the chance to make it right, rather than get a bad review later.

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: sfrench@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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