Hotel booking tips: 5 things you need to know before reserving group rates

While in Los Angeles for my brother’s wedding, I was looking forward to staying at the Westlake Village Inn. But unfortunately, things went downhill even before we could check in.

Though the wedding itself was held off-site at a country club, a block of rooms were reserved at a discounted rate. With the group rate, I decided to treat myself to a suite with a king-size bed and gas fireplace (a little out of place in sunny L.A. but charming nonetheless).

But as I learned, hotels that cater to weddings and other special events can sometimes be under-staffed, leading guests who are not part of the event to fall through the cracks.

Here are 5 things you should know before reserving a group rate, which isn’t necessarily the best deal.

1. Your room might not be ready at check-in. Plan accordingly.

My family arrived promptly at check-in, which was at 3 p.m. The wedding rehearsal started at 5 p.m. at an off-site location. My family disbanded to shower and change, but my room wasn’t ready. So I left my cell phone number with the front desk so someone could notify me as soon as it was. I killed some time at one of the hotel bars, but an hour later, it was clear that the front desk wasn’t going to call.

While walking back to the lobby, I called the front desk, was put on hold, and then informed that my room was ready. By then I was already standing outside the lobby. But somehow during the few minutes when I hung up the phone and appeared again at the front desk, I was then told that my room still wasn’t ready. Sloppy service, but not a big deal, right?

After sorting out the confusion, I asked the front-desk manager what caused the delay. She told me that the hotel was fully booked the previous night and that “housekeeping just didn’t make it.” Hmm. You’d think that a hotel that caters to large wedding parties would anticipate the demand and be prepared with all hands on deck.

2. Group rates may equal inadequate service.

Under any other circumstances, these are minor inconveniences at best, but when you’re trying to get ready for a special event, you really do need the hotel to fulfill its end of the bargain. Or you may need to lower your standards.

After receiving my room key, I asked what the hotel typically offered guests whose rooms were not ready by check-in. Rather than apologizing for not having the room ready, the front-desk manager asked rather snottily: “What do you want? A bottle of wine or something?”

After I responded that I would accept anything that the hotel typically offers, she handed me one drink coupon even though there were two people staying in the room. I accepted the voucher, but didn’t end up redeeming it because we had already wasted an hour at the bar.

By the time I brought my luggage to the room, it was 4:15 p.m. — no time to shower. I threw on a dress, changed my shoes, and left the hotel annoyed but more concerned about not being late.

3. Housekeeping may not have time to clean your room.

The next day, I went for a morning swim and out for lunch. I returned to my room around 2 p.m. only to find that housekeeping hadn’t arrived yet. After two phone calls to the front desk to request more towels so I could actually shower before the ceremony, a hotel employee knocked on my door — 30 minutes later. By then, I’d already gone into the hallway to find someone who could give me towels. In those 30 minutes, it would’ve been faster for me to fetch spare towels from the pool — or to drive to the nearby mall and buy myself a new set.

After contacting Westlake Village Inn’s general manager after my underwhelming stay, I was told that a reasonable time to expect fresh towels was 15 minutes after the initial request. During any other visit, the slow service would’ve been mildly irritating. In my case, the sloppy service was interfering with my plans. I needed to drive to the wedding site by 4 p.m. Had I waited for housekeeping to arrive, I would’ve been late. Want fresh towels? You might have to get them yourself.

4. If you’re looking for great service, call ahead and ask if any large groups, conventions, or special events are scheduled during your hotel stay.

If you’re on a tight schedule, you may need to factor in some buffer time — or pick another hotel that can accommodate your schedule.

During my stays on a Friday and Saturday night, there were three on-site weddings each day. That’s a lot. It turns out that the Westlake Village Inn hosts about 200 weddings per year. I can see why the hotel is so popular; the grounds are lovely.

But as a guest who wasn’t part of the on-site wedding festivities, my simple requests sunk to the bottom of the heap. Is it really too much to expect that my room is ready by the stated check-in time or that I have clean towels in the room?

5. Don’t assume the group rate is the best deal.

If I’d known in advance just how under-staffed the Westlake Village Inn was going to be, I would’ve booked the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, where my brother had also reserved a block of rooms.

Or maybe I should’ve listened to my sister: She went to Priceline and successfully bid on a $62 room at the simple but pleasant Renaissance hotel about a 5-minute drive away — that’s about one-third of the price that I paid for my hotel, and with much better service, too.