Richard Hyatt: Time to pay your hotel bills

January 29, 2013 

After years of online silliness, there are finally a few rooms at the inn in Columbus.

More than six years ago, our city joined scores of other communities across the country and filed lawsuits against several online travel agencies in a dispute over the way occupancy taxes were being calculated and paid.

The agencies' childish retaliation was to pretend Columbus no longer existed. Travelers shopping the Internet for rooms were referred to motels in Phenix City, even though space was available on our side of the Chattahoochee.

That practice would be disconcerting to tourists coming to Columbus for special events, costly to local innkeepers but a windfall to the law firms that eventually collected the hefty legal fees.

Last November, Columbus Council unanimously approved a $586,000 settlement of the city's suit against Expedia.com and Hotels.com. That followed previous settlements with Orbitz.com and Priceline.com totaling $888,000.

The city received $1.6 million, but from that amount they had to pay $401,000 in attorney fees and $600,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

City officials were elated.

"We are pleased with the settlement and pleased the litigation will soon be concluded," City Attorney Clifton Fay said in November. "Columbus hotels will be re-listed and hotel tax will be paid pursuant to Georgia law going forward."

With all of that happy talk you would assume that Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Hotels.com and Priceline.com would end their petty tactics, but if you go to their sites, the fight is not entirely over.

On Tuesday, I visited the various sites and sought motel rooms in Columbus for Friday night.

Priceline.com, which employs Capt. James T. Kirk as its TV face, still referred me to Phenix City and did not mention any places in Columbus. Orbitz.com recognized our existence but put Alabama properties at the top of the list even though I asked for Columbus. The other two online agencies are finally playing by the rules.

The argument is with the Internet sites, not the hotels in Phenix City. The hospitality companies in Columbus only asked for the sites to put them back on the map.

Data provided by Valley Hospitality, which owns more beds than anyone else in the area, showed a decline in occupancy on both sides of the river in 2012. That decline was significantly greater among Georgia properties, where numbers reflect a $533,627 decline in hotel-motel tax collections in 2012.

Three new hotels with 300 additional rooms will be opening soon -- two in Columbus and one in Phenix City. Whitewater rafting is on the horizon, and it is expected to provide a major boost to the hospitality business.

So why are Priceline.com and Orbitz.com still getting away with their online shenanigans?

The city seems content and the lawyers were certainly well paid. Isn't it time for everyone involved to pay their hotel bills?

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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