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Think You're Booked? Think Again.

Demand for inauguration-week lodging has created some vexing surprises for those who reserved rooms months ago.
Demand for inauguration-week lodging has created some vexing surprises for those who reserved rooms months ago. (Doubletree Club Suites)

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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Deirdre Flanagan, a lifelong Democrat, wanted to splurge on the presidential inauguration.

Although she lives in Annapolis, Flanagan decided to book a hotel room closer to Washington so that she and her daughter would have a place to crash after attending the Jan. 20 festivities. On Oct. 27, a week before Sen. Barack Obama won the general election, Flanagan logged on to Priceline.com and reserved one night in a suite at the Bolger Hotel and Conference Center in Potomac for $159.

But on Nov. 18, Flanagan received a letter from the hotel.

"In order to protect your reservation," the letter informed her, "it is necessary for us to process a non-refundable advance deposit equivalent to a two nights stay. . . . If we do not hear from you, your reservation is subject to cancellation and will be given to another guest on our waiting list."

Her reaction?

"The top of my head was lifting off my shoulders," Flanagan said. "My daughter said, 'Just cancel it.' But this can't be allowed. It's outrageous this is happening."

With skyrocketing demand for inauguration week housing, Washington area hotels are enjoying the kind of bargaining power usually reserved for hotels in cities that play host to Super Bowls, Final Four college basketball tournaments and soccer's international World Cup, industry experts said.

Some hotels have doubled or tripled usual prices, required customers to stay at least four nights and collected full payment up front, no refunds allowed. Even during Washington's busiest times, such as major conventions or protest marches on the Mall, hotels have usually been able to demand minimum stays of just two nights, experts said.

"What you have is a lot of venues that don't normally face this kind of demand," said Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington. "They're dealing with it for the first time. They were dumb enough to give out rooms over the inauguration dates months ago at a low price. Oops -- now they have to fix it."

Durso added that hotels should abide by the agreed-to rates and not change prices after the fact.

In an interview last week, Paul Dolce, general manager of the Bolger Center, explained that because the hotel had a waiting list of 100 people, it was necessary to weed out those who were not seriously interested in staying.

"This is an unprecedented situation," he said. "We've never seen this demand before in Washington, D.C. . . . It is a change to the usual terms given the uniqueness. I would just apologize [to Flanagan]. It's a very unique situation and we would hope she would make arrangements for two nights so she can enjoy the facility."

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