It’s a tradition as old as the hotel business itself and a very hard habit to break, but the fact is, hotels that pre-assign all or most room numbers at the time of reservation will turn down reservation requests that they could otherwise have accepted.
The tradition of assigning room numbers goes back to the pre-computer days where hotels used a large book or wall-mounted room rack, sometimes known as a Whitney rack, to track their reservations. The hotels could check their availability simply by seeing if a specific room number is available on a certain day.
Though hotels switched to electronic reservation systems over twenty years ago, the practice of assigning rooms at the time of reservation – instead of on the day of check-in – continues in many hotels.
Let’s take this simple example to demonstrate why a hotel that assigns rooms can lose business. Hotel Old Fashioned has only two rooms: 101 and 102. They are the same, except that 101 has a blue carpet and 102 has a red carpet.
Mr. Blue makes a reservation – either by phone, email, online or OTA – from Monday to Wednesday. The hotel blocks room 101 for him. Ms. Red makes a reservation from Friday to Sunday. The hotel assigns room 102 to Ms. Red. The room rack now looks like this:
Now Mr. Green calls up and wishes to stay from Tuesday to Saturday. Alas, there are no rooms left, unless Mr. Green is willing to move rooms during his stay, which is generally not in anyone’s interest. Mr. Green is turned down and the hotel loses business. But if the hotel does not pre-assign room numbers, they would check room type availability instead and immediately determine that they have space for Mr. Green. After all, both Mr. Blue and Ms. Red could, for example, use room 101 without overlapping and Mr. Green can use room 102.
Hotel Old Fashioned is not living completely in the dark ages as they take bookings via an OTA. The OTA doesn’t know about room numbers, only room types. So if Mr. Green tries to book a room from Tuesday to Saturday, the OTA will confirm the reservation. Now the hotel has additional work to shift the reservations around. Should they move Blue to 102 or Red to 101? Well, their choices are especially limited if it’s Tuesday and Blue already checked in.
The logical alternative, of course, is not to assign rooms at the time of reservation. Then the hotel maintains complete flexibility and can always fit in guests without having to play “Tetris.”
There are, of course, cases where the hotel will still want to assign rooms. For example, if a regular guest will only come if she gets a specific room, then the hotel will probably want to assign and confirm that room. Or if a guest has a specific request such as a handicapped-equipped room and the hotel only has a few such rooms, then the hotel may want to block a specific room number as well. But in all other cases, the hotel will make their life easier and will increase their occupancy by waiting until the day of arrival to assign the room.