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Arnold M. Knightly

Hotel plans to issue refunds

10 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The owner of The Westin has reversed its decision to charge attendees of a dental conference for the conference organizer's unpaid bills.

Legal counsel for Crestview Hills, Ky.-based Columbia Sussex Corp. sent registered letters dated Tuesday to attendees of a conference held at The Westin in October announcing the hotel would refund any charges made to the attendees' credit cards to recoup the unpaid bills.

"We've decided as a matter of customer relations to issue the refunds while continuing to pursue payment from The Coaching Center," Columbia Sussex spokesman Hud Englehart said Wednesday.

The Coaching Center of Austin, Texas, has yet to pay nearly $57,000 in unpaid food, beverage and other costs incurred during a dental boot camp conference held at the Flamingo Road property.

The hotel's decision to start charging attendees' credit cards for the unpaid bills surprised many convention industry veterans who told the Review-Journal last week that they had never heard of such a decision.

Suzanne Black, owner and president of the Coaching Center, said the hotel's actions damaged the center's reputation and its relationship with clients.

"They should have never done this," Black said. "This was damaging to them and it's damaging to people's experience of Las Vegas, and it may potentially hurt our reputation."

Last week, Englehart defended the company's decision to charge about 85 attendees and said a clause in the registration agreement that attendees signed empowered the company to recoup the money from third parties.

"I'm glad that cooler heads have prevailed," said Don Dible, a conference speaker and co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul."

Dible and other conference attendees and speakers began noticing the charges on their credit card statements in March.

"While this was a pretty nasty customer service issue, ultimately it's a legal issue," said Dible, who was charged $664.63 on his credit card.

Amy Ashton Shaw, Columbia-Sussex's assistant corporate general counsel, writes in the letter to attendees that the decision to refund the charges is an "effort to show our good faith" but recognizes that the organizer "is truly at fault for the expenses incurred by all the parties."

Black has admitted that she overextended the center by going ahead with the October conference.

"I had part of the money saved and thought I would have the rest, but then the market got the best of me," said Black.

Dible, however, is not totally satisfied with the hotel's solution and said the company should provide some extra compensation for attendees who had to deal with the hassle of The Westin's decision.

Dible, who first alerted the media to the dispute and has been in contact with many of the other attendees, said some people thought they were victims of identity theft and canceled credit cards or disputed charges.

"When you look at how many people were involved, hundreds of hours have been expended needlessly as a result of the unilateral actions of The Westin," Dible said.