The biggest challenge to hotel guests' privacy rights may not come from government investigators fighting terrorism. It may come instead fromcharges. With sizeable attrition bills becoming commonplace, many planners are requesting that hotels provide information about their guests to ensure that all meeting attendees are properly counted in room blocks.
Consider this common scenario: Planner Smith signs awith Acme Hotel committing to use 1,000 rooms, with 10 percent permitted slippage. After the meeting, the hotel calculates that only 745 rooms were used by Smith's group — 155 rooms fewer than the 900 guaranteed — and it sends a bill for attrition equal to lost profits on those unused rooms. Facing a sizable bill, Smith asks to see the hotel's rooming list to verify that all her guests were counted in the block. The hotel refuses, citing guest privacy concerns.
For hotels, protecting guests' privacy is a matter of good business practice. Many guests want their personal business to remain confidential. This includes information about their credit cards, their personal preferences, and even the fact that they stayed at the hotel. Regardless of the reasons, it is certain that a hotel known for freely divulging guests' personal information would have little business.
But Is It Legal?
Many professionals in the meeting industry believe that hotels are prohibited by law from divulging guest information. This is only partly true. A hotel might be liable to a guest if it gave out guest information for no good reason, or if it negligently divulged information that caused a guest to suffer an injury. For example, a hotel might bear legal responsibility for giving out a guest's room number to a person who then visits the guest's room and commits an assault. A hotel might also incur liability if it negligently provides a guest's credit card information to a thief who then uses it for thousands in unauthorized purchases.
On the other hand, it is a well-known and accepted practice for hotels to divulge certain guest information. Unless a guest specifically requests privacy, all hotels will connect a caller asking for a guest by name to her room. The hotels in effect will confirm to virtually anyone who asks that a particular person is staying there.
The legal lesson is that hotels must take reasonable measures to maintain the confidentiality of guest information, but they may divulge that information to the extent appropriate for legitimate business purposes. And returning to the attrition scenario, there is generally no legal prohibition on hotels sharing their rooming lists with meeting planners.
Comparing lists is perhaps the only way for planners to ensure that a hotel has counted all appropriate guests in a group's room block. A hotel might argue that its staff can check a group's guest list; however, as a practical matter, few planners facing attrition would trust a hotel to make a complete count. Planners want to verify that they are paying the right amount, and they have a legal right to do so.
A planner's right to check hotel guest records is not without limits, however. Most importantly, the right to compare records should be written into the meeting contract. If it is not, a hotel might successfully argue that it has no duty to divulge guest records to the planner. The contract also should include reasonable restrictions to ensure that the information shown to the planner is not put to unauthorized use.
By creating simple guidelines for reviewing guest lists, the planner will obtain the information she needs to verify attrition charges, and the hotel will respect the privacy rights of its guests. This is a sound balancing of each party's rights and obligations.
Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., is a lawyer with a nationwide hospitality practice. He is a frequent speaker at meeting-industry events. His clients include meeting planners, associations, hotels, convention/conference facilities, and industry suppliers. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 772-5070, orvisit www.grimeslaw.org.