Hotel Booking and Regulation Challenges for Federal Travelers

» Posted by on Nov 2, 2014 in Hotels | 0 comments

Whether traveling by air, car, or train, Government travelers often require the use of a hotel room.  Due to federal regulations and E-Gov Travel Service (ETS) complications, the hotel reservation and booking process involves many challenges.

Some travelers mistakenly think that the “Government rate” at hotels is the Government lodging per diem rate.  Yet this “Government rate” is not managed by the Federal Government at all.  The rate that is managed by the Government is called the FedRooms rate.

Hotels that offer the FedRooms rate participate in the Government’s FedRooms program.  What some Government travelers might not realize is that they should give “first consideration…to government lodging agreement programs such as FedRooms” (Federal Travel Regulation §301-11.11).  This passage in the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) was recently updated, since it used to read that Government travelers “must” give first consideration to FedRooms lodging facilities (cf. FTR §301-50.8).  In either case, what “first consideration” means to a particular traveler can vary.  I know many travelers have their hotel brand preferences, and to my knowledge, no consequences or enforcement is exercised against travelers who blatantly ignore the available FedRooms hotels.  Perhaps this is why the FTR was amended to remove the mandate of using FedRooms properties – it was too difficult to enforce.

Many travelers like to stay at a particular hotel chain, for example, which I will call “Hotel Chain A”.  As a general rule, “Hotel Chain A” has chosen not to participate in the FedRooms program.  Evidently this decision has something to do with hotel commissions.  From the data I have read and observed, “Hotel Chain A” is nonetheless a popular choice among Federal Government travelers.  According to the statistics listed in Government Executive magazine dated August 15, 2009 (Top Travel Vendors), “Hotel Chain A’s” properties were the most frequently used brand in Fiscal Year 2008 sales.  Overall, this family of hotels made up 23.2% of the Government market share that fiscal year.  So if Government travelers are going to stay at “Hotel Chain A”, regardless whether or not they are FedRooms hotels, why would “Hotel Chain A” choose to participate in FedRooms and pay the participation fee?

In regards to the FedRooms rate, I was taught that we were guaranteed to get a room at or below per diem when the FedRooms rate was chosen.  In reality, though, there can be a problem getting the correct per diem rate when the FedRooms rate is booked around the start of a new fiscal year.  If the per diem lodging allocation changes from one fiscal year to the next, some hotels’ computer systems are not always updated with the new per diem rate.  So I would recommend that if there is a change in the lodging per diem allocation between fiscal years, verify that the FedRooms rate falls within the lodging per diem amount.

Another regulation that travelers do not know (or blatantly ignore) is that of the mandated use of the Travel Management Service (TMS) to book their lodging accommodations (FTR §301-11.11).  There are exceptions to this rule (FTR §301-50.4; FTR §301-73.102; FTR §301-73.104; FTR §301-50.7), but it’s hard to imagine that most travelers fall under one of the exceptions.  When booking hotel rooms, some travelers choose to book their room directly with the hotel by calling the hotel or going to the hotel’s website.  Yet the FTR clearly states that travelers “must” use the TMS to book lodging (save for an exception).  Again, I think this is an area that is not enforced or followed, and I wonder why the Government keeps this regulation in the FTR when it seems to be a rule that is generally ignored.

After using my agency’s cumbersome ETS online booking engine, it is easy to understand why travelers choose to contact a hotel directly to make their lodging reservations.  Sometimes it is difficult to find a particular hotel in the online booking engine, and it takes additional work to get accurate room rate information.  It is very frustrating when I am trying to find a hotel within per diem, and our online booking engine will not reflect the correct room rates.  One screen in the online ETS will show a hotel with rooms at per diem, but when the hotel is selected, the next screen will show the actual hotel rates (usually above per diem).

Another step which is better to manage directly with the hotel is the cancellation process.  If a traveler cancels his reservation directly with the hotel, this can save the agency the extra expense of service fees sometimes charged by the ETS’s Travel Management Center (TMC).

In addition, our online ETS does not always have updated FedRooms information.  I have seen some hotel properties listed as “out of policy” (i.e. not FedRooms hotels), but they still offer a FedRooms rate.  Why would they appear out of policy if they offer a FedRooms rate?

Another problem with booking a hotel through the online ETS is that any hotel can be added to the online booking engine.  If there are problems in terms of hotel safety or quality, these hotels can still show up in the booking engine.  I have even seen a non-FEMA safe hotel show up in the online ETS search.  I would have thought that any non-FEMA approved hotels would be blocked from the ETS search engine, but perhaps this is a GDS error.  Needless to say, there are a number of reasons why travelers would rather skip using the online booking engine to manage their hotel reservations.

Unfortunately, I also had a bad experience when using the website.  The site clearly stated that I must call the hotel directly to cancel the rooms, even though the initial reservations were booked online.  When I tried to cancel my reservations as instructed by the website, the hotel had no record of my booking.  My credit card was charged for the rooms, even though I attempted to cancel the reservations in a timely manner.  Thankfully, FedRooms customer service was able to help me get a refund for my charges, but nonetheless, all of the hassle in attempting to cancel my reservations seemed unnecessary.  If we want Government travelers to use the online ETS or to book hotels, we need to make sure that the booking and cancellation process runs smoothly.  Sadly, I cannot recommend either our ETS’ online booking engine or as user-friendly websites to book hotels.  Overall, I wish that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) would remove the mandate to use the ETS to book lodging accommodations.

This fiscal year, I have noticed another challenge in regards to booking a hotel for Government travel.  Many urban locations, such as New York City and Washington, DC, have had their lodging per diem allocations lowered in Fiscal Year 2011 (FY11).  In FY09, the highest lodging per diem amount in Washington, DC was $233 per night.  This fiscal year, the maximum lodging per diem allowance (at the height of the season) only reaches $211 per night.  Similarly, in FY09, the Manhattan lodging per diem allocation during peak season reached $360 per night.  Yet in FY11, the highest lodging per diem allowance only reaches $295 per night.  The lowering of the per diem lodging allocation was probably caused by lower hotel rates prevalent in a hurting economy.  When GSA based their per diem analysis during an unusually lower-priced hotel year, it seems to have skewed the hotel rates for the upcoming fiscal year.  Thankfully, there was recently a re-evaluation of per diem rates, and certain locations (like Manhattan) had their lodging per diem allocations increased.

Unfortunately, the Washington, DC area did not receive a per diem rate adjustment.  This fiscal year, it has sometimes been difficult to find available hotels in Washington, DC within the per diem rate.  I don’t blame the hotels, since they obviously want to make a profit, and offering a large number of rooms at the FedRooms rate may constitute a loss.  I’m afraid that if the lodging per diem rate becomes too low, though, many hotels will choose not to participate in the FedRooms program or may not offer any rooms within per diem at all.

With the wealth of lodging booking options available to Government travelers, it behooves the Government to make regulation-compliant hotel booking as user-friendly as possible.  In addition, if GSA  wants to write regulations regarding the booking of hotel rooms, there needs to be better enforcement of these mandates.

By K.J. Martin

*NB: The above post is my own personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of my agency or of the Federal Government.*

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