How a promise of hotel satisfaction led to more dissatisfaction

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the “100% satisfaction guarantee” was all the rage at many hotels. The bottom line was simple: encounter a problem and receive your money.

In theory, this approach solved some pretty serious issues like early morning pool renovations that made the jackhammer an unwelcome wake-up call. Drawing pins. No hot water.

But some hospitality experts say that promise – a 100% refund if guests weren’t 100% satisfied – could have made matters worse for both the guest and the hotel.

“A toddler spilling yogurt can take staff longer to clean up, escalating to a bad review about a dirty lobby and a request for a refund,” says Bijoy Shah, an Indiana-based travel consultant. “The ‘customer is always right’ mindset created these guarantees, but it seems the customer has also learned to abuse them.”

These days, travelers are unlikely to find such confident promises. Meanwhile, satisfaction rates are lower than ever. But it’s not because the warranty is gone. It’s because he was there in the first place.


According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index 2021-2022 Travel Study, which surveyed 6,000 travelers between 2021 and 2022, satisfaction dropped 2.7% over that time. Meanwhile, many hospitality workers say complaints are skyrocketing.

Things got so tough in 2021 that the Rhode Island Hospitality Association launched a “Please Be Kind Toolkit” containing mental health resources and information on handling unruly customers. Some attribute particularly high levels of dissatisfaction this year to differing opinions about whether the pandemic is over.

“At the start of the pandemic, customers were sympathetic to frontline workers,” says Andrea Stokes, hotel practice manager at JD Power. “Now consumers want to get back to normal, but the hospitality industry is not back to normal, especially in terms of staff.”

While pandemic-related issues like a hiatus in breakfast buffets are partly to blame, the current crisis has been stirred — not caused — by the pandemic.

In fact, ACSI’s numerical scores have tended to decline over the past decade, from an all-time high of 77 in 2012 to just 71 in 2022.


Some hotel experts blame the lingering effects of the 100% satisfaction guarantee on low guest satisfaction. Beyond eating into hotel profits (and cutting money to invest elsewhere), it may have inadvertently adjusted consumer demands.

“As best as you can — and most hotel employees go out of their way — you can’t handle everyone’s unique and often unrealistic expectations,” says hospitality consultant Colleen Carswell. “You can’t please everyone.”

Hampton by Hilton is generally credited with creating the first-ever 100% hotel satisfaction guarantee (the guarantee was established before its former parent company, Promus, was acquired by Hilton in 1999).

Shruti Gandhi Buckley, global brand manager for Hampton by Hilton, said her introduction “helped give guests confidence that they would have a smooth and trouble-free stay. If their expectations weren’t met, we refund them their money, no questions asked.”

But some travel experts suspect it has led customers to believe that complaining equals compensation.

“This advantage may even have amplified negative naysayers who are always looking for something bad to point out, often in a very disrespectful way,” Carswell says.

Gandhi Buckley argues that abuse wasn’t really the issue, adding that while “customers sometimes had unusual reasons not to invoke the warranty”, less than 1% of customers actually tried to claim refunds.

Still, Hilton reassessed the offer after more than a decade. Now it’s still a “100% Hampton Guarantee”, but the outright refund language is gone.

“We also discovered that the original language signaled to a guest that something could go wrong,” says Gandhi Buckley.

Plus, Gandhi Buckley says most business travelers didn’t care about refunds anyway (since stays were usually at their employer’s expense), and vacationers just wanted the issues resolved. Hampton’s new promise moves away from reimbursements to empowering employees at all levels and departments to actually execute those fixes.

“It allows team members to be more flexible,” says Gandhi Buckley.


BE REALISTIC: Understand that a budget motel probably won’t treat you as generously as a luxury hotel.

READ ONLINE REVIEWS: A past traveler might point you to the soggy waffles.

ASK nicely: While Hampton always offers reimbursement when warranted, Gandhi Buckley says it’s common to receive other types of compensation. If your room is not ready upon arrival, you may receive a free snack.

In situations where staff cannot resolve the issue, polite escalation may be required. After all, you deserve what you paid for.

MAINTAINING ELITE STATUS: Stokes says it’s more common to receive money-back guarantees when booking with elite status, as hotels prioritize guests who are expected to return.

USE TRAVEL INSURANCE: In really dire situations, travel insurance can help. Coverage varies by policy — and you’re unlikely to find one that covers soggy waffles. But most policies cover situations such as the loss of your luggage at reception or bad weather preventing you from arriving. Additionally, many credit cards offer travel insurance for trips purchased with that card.

Request compensation from the hotel first. If these efforts don’t work, ask your insurer.


This article was provided to The Associated Press by personal finance website NerdWallet. Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]


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