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(Michael Byers)
(Michael Byers)

Road Work: A weekly look at business travel

How to haggle with hotels Add to ...

Have you ever haggled for a hotel? Not just asking for their best rate, but asking them to do better, and then asking for an upgrade?

It can be awkward the first couple of times you try it. In North America, prices feel like they're set in stone. But hotels are scrambling to get by these days. The latest numbers from industry analysts Smith Travel Research show average occupancy in Canada is down significantly – about 45 per cent of hotel rooms are empty at any given time, and revenues and rates have fallen too. In this climate, you might be surprised at how willing hoteliers are to make a deal.

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As veteran travellers know, hotel rates are something of a Russian doll: always something a little smaller hidden inside if you take the time to look. There's the rack rate; nobody pays that. Then there's the seasonal rate, the loyalty rate, the CAA rate, and so on. But these days, I figured you might be able to do better, so I called hotels across the country last week and gave it my best shot.

First, I tried the Royal York in Toronto. I checked online and saw the lowest rate was $179, which seemed pretty good for the Royal York. I called and asked for a better deal. “We can't negotiate prices,” the woman said, kindly but firmly. “Are you sure?” I said, possibly lamely. She was sure.

Next I called Le Germain, a boutique hotel, also in downtown Toronto. The man who answered said he had a room for $260. I said that was a little out of my price range. He offered it to me without breakfast for $235. I balked. “Do you work for the government?” he asked. If I did, he could offer me the same room for $199. I made a quip about working for the government part-time – about 40 per cent of the time, in fact – which earned me a little laugh and a littler discount: $10.

A pleasant but icy lady at the Wedgewood, a small, upscale spot in Vancouver with a great restaurant, quoted me $199, including breakfast and valet parking. I used my budget ploy again, but once again, was offered only $10 off. It's something, but there were probably better strategies.

A call to the Wingate by Wyndham in Regina netted me a king smoking room for $119.99. I got stonewalled when I asked for a better price, so I asked to speak to the manager. I got voice mail. I left a message, which was not returned. I tried the same thing at the Sutton Place in Edmonton. Their website's “best rate guaranteed” was $288. I was able to get that down to $228 without any effort at all, but when the clerk held firm there, I asked for the manager, which resulted in another unreturned message.

(I later found out it might be a better idea to ask specifically for the rooms division or front office manager.)

I called the International Hotel Suites in Calgary, where I was quoted $229 for a studio, the same price they advertised online. “I really can't spend more than $200,” I said. Did I have a CAA or AAA membership? No, I did not. Did she have any other packages? She clicked the keyboard. “I have a corporate package I can offer you. It's 8 per cent off the best available rate, and that includes breakfast.” The total was $210.68. I decided to push, and asked her if she could deduct the price of the breakfast from the room. After putting me on hold for less than a minute, she came back with a rate of $199 without breakfast. “No breakfast?” I whined, slightly. “I'll give you a favour,” she said. “I will give you a complimentary upgrade to our International Business Suite.” So instead of a 595-square-foot room with a queen bed for $229, I got an 850-square-foot, two-bedroom suite for $199.

Feeling good, I decided to try the Hazelton, which styles itself as Toronto's first five-star hotel. The best rate quoted online was $350. On the phone, asking for their best rate, it became $360, plus tax and a $9.50 communications fee, for a 600-square-foot deluxe king. “I'm sorry, but that's really more than I was hoping to pay,” I said. Out came a 500-square-foot superior king for $295. “My budget was actually $275,” I ventured. She couldn't go any lower, but when I persisted, she offered me an upgrade back to that original deluxe room at the superior rate, a $65 discount.

The scorecard: Five out of six hotels were ready to deal, and three offered me substantial discounts. What does this say about the state of hotels? “It's a sign of desperation,” says Gabor Forgacs, an assistant professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “There used to be some kind of minimum rate that they called the hurdle rate, and nothing could go under that – but these days, even that's not carved in stone.”

Forgacs suggests you'll have more luck with large hotels than small, and airport hotels rather than downtown ones. If you hit a wall, as I did at the Royal York, he suggests asking for freebies instead: breakfast, parking, papers, Wi-Fi.

None of these phone calls, it should be noted, lasted longer than five minutes. If you're not locked into a plan, chances are you can do better than you've been doing.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Do you have feedback or business travel questions? E-mail roadwork@globeandmail.com.

Follow Road Work on Twitter @BertArcher.

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How to get a cheap rate

* Try large hotels. It's harder to rent 1,000 rooms a night than 50. * Airport hotels cater primarily to business travellers; business travel is way down. Do the math. * Call last-minute. According to Professor Ted Whykes at Royal Roads University's hotel program, it's all about “the perishability of the product.” An empty room at 3 a.m. is worthless. * If the person who picks up the phone can't deal, ask for a rooms division or front office manager. * Be aware of any memberships you have to organizations such as CAA and the Canadian Association of Retired Persons and ask if the hotels offer discounts. * Ask for a package deal, and then ask to unpack it. If the package includes breakfast, ask for the value of the meal to be deducted from the rate. * If the price won't budge, ask for an upgrade. * After you've finished, always ask for frills to be free. Today, there's no reason to pay for breakfast, parking or Wi-Fi.

B.A.

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