At first, to Christine Compo-Martin, the Expedia.com search results looked like a mistake. As she queried the site for a hotel room in Philadelphia, she found properties without photos.
“Honestly, if there aren’t pictures, I don’t even begin to consider it,” said Compo-Martin, a retired teacher who lives in New Hope, Pa. “I want to know where I’m staying — not show up and discover it’s not fit for cockroaches.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t a site error. Expedia had intentionally deleted the images in an effort to persuade her to book a different hotel. The practice, euphemistically called “dimming,” involves deliberately minimizing a hotel’s appearance or ranking in an online agency’s results.
It’s the byproduct of a behind-the-scenes conflict between hotels, which want customers such as Compo-Martin to book directly with them, and online travel agencies, which don’t want to be undercut by the hotels. The bottom line for customers: When you book online, you may not see the cheapest hotels first. In extreme cases, you may not even be able to book the hotel you want on the agency’s site.
The dimming problem flickered to life this spring, after hotels won a series of court victories in Europe that effectively allowed them to offer lower rates on their own websites, according to Dori Stein, the chief executive of Fornova, a technology company that works with hotels. Previously, hotels had contracts with online agencies that gave the agencies’ sites their best rates.
“Online travel agencies retaliated by dimming,” Stein said.
The practice quickly spread to affect properties in the United States, where the requirement to offer a better rate was dropped after the rulings in Europe. Expedia, Stein said, is the most prominent dimmer in the travel business, while Booking.com has lowered the rankings of some hotels but hasn’t removed their pictures. Booking did not respond to repeated requests for a comment. Expedia acknowledged that it is lowering the rankings of some hotels but said it was for the benefit of the customer.