Sunday, April 23, 2006

Me vs. The Roaming Gnome

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You know those TV commercials for that big online travel booking service that has the Roaming Gnome as its symbol?

You know, if something goes wrong, this cute little ceramic garden gnome in a Superman cape will hop a cab, come zooming over and make it all right before suffering some comic mishap? A recent experience has taught me that gnomes are undependable little devils.

Recently, my book publisher arranged for me to do a book signing in the charming city of Beaufort, S.C. Since it was so far away, they said they’d spring for a hotel room, if I booked it and sent them the receipts. (Those of us in the authoring game who aren’t Dan Brown or Tom Clancy often end up having to do these sorts of chores for ourselves. But that’s another column.)

Monday night, I go on the Gnome’s Web site to find a hotel. After some searching, I notice that a lot of the hotels in the Beaufort area seem to be full. A little more looking, and I find that I’ve been booked for a signing the same weekend that a new class of Marines is graduating at nearby Parris Island.

At least the signing isn’t scheduled at the same time as graduation, so there’s a chance I won’t be talking to an echoing empty bookstore. Graduation, however, is creating a bit of a strain on the local hotels. But lo and behold, there’s one hotel left with rooms. It looks a little dodgy, only one star, but hey, authors can’t be choosers, and it’s only a place to crash.

A few mouse clicks and I get a reassuring e-mail telling me everything’s confirmed. The e-mail reminds me, if anything goes wrong I can “invoke the guarantee.”

I go to bed happy in the knowledge that, after a long journey to South Carolina, I’ll at least have a place to lay my head and, if not, I can call the Roaming Gnome to make things right.

Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.: I get a call from the Hotel Dodgy saying that my reservation “cannot be honored” because of overbooking. Rats, I say. (Actually, that’s not exactly what I said, but it’s as close as I can come in a family newspaper).

But wait, I think. The Gnome will save me.

So I print out the e-mail and dial the number. Unfortunately, it isn’t the Gnome who picks up, but rather a robotic voice, offering me a choice of options. Even more unfortunately, none of the choices invokes the Gnome or the guarantee. On the other hand, it’s so impressively high tech that I don’t even have to press a number for my choice. I can just speak it.

“The Roaming Gnome, please, and be quick about it.” (I figure since it was a robot on the other end, I can dispense with the pleasantries.) There’s a long pause. Then the robotic voice repeats the options again, more slowly this time. I detect a note of irritation in its otherwise dead voice. I ask for the Gnome again.

Another long pause. “I am going to connect you with a customer service representative,” the voice says, and I could swear it’s gritting its robotic teeth in aggravation.

A brief electronic screech, a few moments of silence, and a guy who calls himself “Nigel” comes on the line. Nigel sounds decidedly non-gnomelike, unless they have gnomes in Banngalore or New Delhi. Nigel asks for my trip ID number, which is about 17 digits long. I laboriously read it out.

Nigel thanks me and asks what the problem is. I explain that the hotel canceled my reservation due to overbooking, and I’d like the Gnome to make it right, just like the commercials say. Nigel thanks me, goes away for a minute, then comes back to inform me that the hotel is overbooked.

“Um, yeah,” I say. “I know that. I’m invoking the guarantee. I need the Gnome.” Nigel thanks me again, and the next thing I hear is a busy signal. I grit my teeth, dial again, and of course I have to fight my way past the robot again, like a character trying to clear a difficult level in a video game.

This time it’s another Indian guy with a name I can’t understand. I read out the long number and explain the problem again. He puts me on hold for the next five minutes, then comes back to inform me that he’s called the Hotel Dodgy, but there’s no one on duty who knows how to work the computer. I’ll “have to call back tomorrow.”

And that, as it turns out, was pretty much that. No offers or attempts to help find another hotel, no suggestions about what to do next, just “no one’s home, call back tomorrow.” And I never did get to talk to the Gnome.

From this we can learn several lessons:

1. Put not your trust in gnomes.

2. The life of an author on tour isn’t as glamorous as you might think.

3. It’s a bad idea to jerk someone around when that someone is a columnist on deadline.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Yup, it is a bad idea to jerk someone around who has a column. Especially if people listen to him.

Whenever I rant about companies that piss me off, my husband says I'm petty. If that's true, at least I'm in good company. Give 'em hell Dusty!

James Lincoln Warren said...

Some unsolicited advice:

(1) Just because you see something on TV doesn't make it true.

(2) I use Travelaxe most of the time. It scours the net for the best deals and compares results from different travel agency sites. I have never once found the best deal on Travelocity.

(3) You should always call the hotel directly to confirm your reservation, and it's best to pay a deposit, if possible.

(4) Gnomes are not human. It is an ethnocentric error to assume that their interests coincide with ours.

Go forth, a wiser man. Finally,

(5) As member of the Republican press, you should have either contacted the Party to stay with a stalwart contributor in their shining new McMansion or bought your own hotel.