A downtown Chattanooga hotel scrambled to move customers into new hotels and smooth frayed nerves this week after accidentally overbooking more than 100 rooms for the Ironman triathlon in September.
The mistake sent customers into a rage on social media and left some threatening to sue. But the hotel -- the Sheraton Read House -- said all customers had been placed in new hotels by Wednesday and all complaints were settled by Thursday.
"It was a computer error," said general manager Jen Prpich. "We pushed the wrong button."
That error meant that while some customers booked rooms for Ironman on Passkey -- a third-party central booking tool used by 41 Chattanooga hotels for the Ironman event -- other customers booked those same rooms again by calling the Read House directly or booking on the Read House's website.
The hotel did not realize the mistake until last week, when employees tried to enter the bookings from Passkey into the Read House's computer system and found that many rooms were already booked.
"After speaking with Ironman officials, we made the difficult decision to honor the bookings made through Ironman's preferred method, which was Passkey, and begin relocating those who called the hotel directly," Prpich said.
That left Jeff Moore, an Ironman competitor from Richmond, Va., out in the cold. He'd booked 16 rooms for five nights at the Read House in September 2013 at $139 per night, but received an email Monday that said his reservation couldn't be honored and he'd been moved to an Embassy Suites 13 miles away.
He called the Sheraton Read House five times and was told they couldn't help him. Then he emailed the mayor's office and touched base with the Chattanooga Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Eventually, he said, the Read House moved him into the Marriott downtown. But rooms at the Marriott cost about $70 more, he said -- a $5,600 price difference.
Which didn't sit well with Moore.
"I finally got in touch with Jen at the Sheraton and told her it was unacceptable," he said. "I said I'd like to see some compensation for the cost difference. And within three hours she called me back and said she'd make up the difference in the pricing. So I've been taken care of. I'm alright."
In most cases, Prpich said, bumped customers were moved into hotels with comparable rates and the Sheraton did not pay the difference. Moore, she said, was an extreme case.
"Some rates include breakfast, ours does not," she said. "We made sure the rate they were promised is comparable to what they're getting."
Still, not everyone likes the idea of staying in hotels farther from downtown. About 2,700 athletes and 12,000 people are expected to flood into Chattanooga for the race on Sept. 28.
"You have reason to stay as close as possible," said Seth Waltman, the first-time Ironman competitor. "I've never done one of these races, but I've watched people. You're a mess when you're done. I mean, I'm hoping to finish in 12 or 13 hours. And then to have to hop in a car afterwards? That's a mess. What a disaster."
He would like to see the Sheraton Read House run shuttles for customers who are being forced to stay outside of downtown. But Prpich said the Sheraton doesn't have a shuttle and maintained that all complaints had been settled by Thursday. She added she's working to ensure similar booking mistakes don't happen again.
Maggie Hodges, an internet marketing analyst at Chattanooga-based marketing company Full Media, said she thinks the Read House's response to the crisis was spot-on.
"Obviously in a perfect world they'd be able to meet all these additional requests, but the important thing is that they're trying to make it right," she said. "In situations like this, your job is to own responsibility for the mistake and find a way to try to make it better. And that's what I see them doing here."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org with tips and story ideas.