|By Scott Barancik, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 18, 2004 - An Econo Lodge hotel in Clearwater cut its room rate, erased its "no pets" policy and served a free meal to nearly 100 hungry guests escaping Hurricane Charley.
A Ramada Inn in Kissimmee waived its $10-per-night pet fee and offered guests a half-price breakfast.
A Comfort Inn in Port Richey let local residents stay free Friday night after Pasco County officials ordered parts of the community to evacuate. Many guests were elderly mobile home dwellers who had nowhere else to go.
Natural disasters bring out the predator in some. On Tuesday, the Florida Attorney General's office filed lawsuits against two hotels for allegedly overcharging vulnerable guests. Its price-gouging hotline had received 1,459 complaints as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
But when Hurricane Charley threatened central Florida late last week, some area merchants let the bottom line slide.
Ralph Angelo witnessed both sides of human nature. Certain that his low-lying home in Holiday would have to be evacuated, he began surveying area hotels about their rates Wednesday. By the time Pasco County issued its evacuation order Thursday, one of the hotels had upped its rate by nearly $20 per night. Another, the Econo Lodge Central at 21252 U.S. 19 N in Clearwater, had lowered its rate to $44.95 from $49.95.
That's not all that impressed Angelo, 47, and his chihuahua, Pepe.
Some Econo Lodge employees slept in the sold-out hotel's office Friday night so elderly and disabled evacuees could have a room. Sue Shelley, the general manager, abandoned the hotel's no-pet policy when she realized some devoted pet owners would end up staying home, putting themselves in harm's way.
Most guests were unable to buy food in advance, and the restaurant next to the hotel was closed. When some guests complained of hunger, Shelley went to Sam's Club and bought enough turkey sandwiches, potato chips and apple pie to serve the 119-room property's guests.
"The next thing I know, I'm in my room and a maintenance man knocks and says, "Sir, we're having sandwiches for the guests between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.,' " Angelo said. "I asked him, "How much does that cost?' He said, "Oh, there's no cost.' I thought it was extraordinary."
Sue Nilsen said she walked out of one hotel Thursday because of rude treatment. Her two-day stay at the Comfort Inn Port Richey was another story.
Nilsen, a 57-year-old phlebotomist who moved to Hudson last week from West Salem, Ohio, used a discount coupon her first night at the 98-room hotel, paying less than $60. The second night, she and friend John Hess were told they could stay for free if they signed a liability waiver, as could all the other guests.
Owner Pat Moran said he was just trying to be kind to the evacuees, many of whom were from "very poor" neighborhoods.
"They don't like to let me near the front desk because they say I'm a little soft," Moran joked.
Tampa resident Marilyn Leon and her family sought refuge at the Ramada Inn Resort Eastgate in Kissimmee. The hotel not only cut its $69 rate in half the second night but also eliminated a daily pet fee, which meant that Blankie, Leon's bichon frise, stayed free. Hotels.com had quoted Leon a rate of more than $140 for that Ramada Inn.
But what really pleased Leon was the camaraderie among the hotel's guests, who congregated in the windowless corridors and chatted about the storm and their pets.
General manager Thomas Gualano insisted the 402-room hotel did not lose money. Thursday's $69 rate was equivalent to the average rate of the past several weeks, a formula required by state law in emergency situations. The second-night discount was "a fair rate."
If charitable hotels were the exception to the rule during Hurricane Charley, so, too, were the vultures.
So far, the Attorney General's Office has sued just two hotels for alleged price-gouging, a Days Inn in West Palm Beach and the Crossroads Motor Lodge in Lakeland. The Days Inn is accused of doubling advertised rates to guests such as Patrick Flanigan of Hillsborough County and Kenneth Kleppach of Palm Harbor. The hotel pressured evacuees by telling them that only a couple of rooms were still vacant, the Attorney General's Office said.
Shelley, the Econo Lodge employee, said her heart went out to the evacuees she hosted.
"Most of them don't have much money," said Shelley, 65. "Why would you gouge them?"
--Times staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report.
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