Ten years ago, when I walked into a hotel, I almost always encountered a cheerful, can-do attitude from everyone, be it the doorman or the general manager. Rude and apathetic staff members were a rare exception. The customer was always right.

Not lately. I recently ran an informal poll among my fellow meeting planners, and they feel the same way as I do: Attitudes have changed, primarily among hotel staffs in the stronger market regions (San Francisco and Silicon Valley, for example).

Let me illustrate what I mean with a story from a meeting I recently held at a major property in the heart of Silicon Valley. The day of our reservation cut-off, the rate jumped from $135 to $259. While we had expected a substantial rate increase, we were not made aware that only concierge-level suites would be available for our group (hence the exorbitant increase). A number of people wanted to extend their stays, but the hotel held out for mid-week transients who would pay higher rates. Reservations would not even waitlist members of my group. Not only that, but since the hotel was actually "full" only two nights, they still charged us full attrition for the shortage, even for the nights they could have filled had they let our attendees stay.

As per our contract, the hotel upgraded my VIPs to floors that were not indicated as club level. But they weren't told that using their keys would take them to the club level, so they never enjoyed the concierge-level privileges.

While I was shopping for audiovisual, I was warned that this particular hotel would try to tack on a $700 penalty per day for using outside vendors. Yet the in-house AV company's quote was almost double that of the outside vendors.

Then there were the gratuities. The rate jumped from 19 to 19.5 percent during our meeting. The food and beverage prices were so inflated, I had to pay $44.95 per gallon of coffee.

Even worse, the so-called "service" I was tipping was anything but attentive. And just take me over the edge, this four-star, four-diamond property frequently left room-service trays sitting in the hallways for 24 to 36 hours.

What Should I Do? Ever since this meeting, I have been asking myself: What happened to service? Also, what can I do to avoid this from happening again? A few ideas:

* I'll start looking at second-tier cities, as well as markets that are hungry for business. Runzheimer Inter-national Senior Consultant Rolfe Shel-lenberger gave me this advice: Con-sider desert properties, many of which welcome meeting business. Also consider the employment rate; where unemployment exists, demand for hotel rooms outpaces supply. "Where it is over eight percent, better service is likely," he said.

* In my hotel contract, I'll insist on a 10 to 15 percent discount on any breaks that arrive more than 15 minutes late.

* I'll demand waiter-to-attendee and bartender-to-attendee ratios. I'll also apply this to front desk and bell staffs.

* I'll ensure that my contract includes a clause that the hotel will operate in the condition that they advertise. In other words, I will never again see refurbishing.

* John Foster III, a lawyer specializing in meeting industry issues, also had the following advice for me: Identify service "hot buttons." While service is subjective and difficult to articulate in a contract, the more precise the parties can be, the better. Also, he said, never pay the master account in advance. If you have problems, you can always withhold payment to discuss them with the general manager, and then deduct the appropriate amount.