Some hotels and resorts are starting to charge extra fees to reserve standard lounge chairs. USA TODAY
With sunshine and temperatures in the 70s during Thanksgiving weekend in Phoenix, Tom McKnew and his family did what any visitor would do at a luxury desert resort: headed for the pool.
The sprawling pool complex at The Phoenician was packed with sunbathers – with one notable exception. McKnew spotted a section on the upper level with a slew of unoccupied lounge chairs. He inquired and was told they had to be reserved for the day. For $50 per person.
“It was beyond the point of crazy,” the 48-year-old commercial mortgage banker from San Francisco said. “They had all these chairs, and nobody wants to pay extra, and everybody’s on top of each other across the pool. It’s not a nice experience.”
Hotels and resorts have long charged for cabanas and daybeds, those cushy havens of shade and privacy at the pool or beach that can add several hundred dollars or more to a stay.
But now travelers are also finding fees to reserve standard lounge chairs, with few, if any, extra perks. The practice is not as widespread as airlines’ seat-selection fees but it is slowly spreading as hotels try to boost revenue and manage the daily dash for pool chairs.
Las Vegas is a hot spot for reserved pool chairs, and not just at its raucous pool-party pools. Casino giant MGM Resorts added lounge-chair reservations several years ago in an exclusive corner of the pool at the top-of-the-line Bellagio resort.
The chain now sells ordinary pool seats at 12 Las Vegas properties, down to budget-friendly Excalibur, complete with an online reservation system. For Memorial Day weekend, the fees range from $30 per person at Park MGM hotel to $100 at Bellagio. A reserved seat at Bellagio’s Cypress pool, where MGM’s regular pool seating fees began? $150 that weekend.
MGM’s online sales pitch: “Treat yourself to reserved seating, where you can take a break from the pool and return to your seat anytime for the day.” The only amenity listed in most cases: a side table.
Caesars Palace in Las Vegas uses a reservation systems used by nightclubs to book lounge chairs at its Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis, a complex of seven pools. Prices start at $20. The tab for a chair at the Neptune pool Memorial Day weekend: $100.
Atlantis Paradise Island, a mega resort in the Bahamas, offers reserved seating at its Grotto pool. The price for two, including an umbrella, on Easter weekend: $150.
In Arizona, the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa added reserved lounge chairs at its pool in 2015. Prices range from $20 to $40 for a single seat to $40 to $90 for two chairs together. Last year, JW Marriott Desert Ridge carved out a section of its pool and started charging for lounge chairs there. The rate this year: $25 to $55 per chair. The hotel’s website says it comes with “upgraded water,” popcorn and “the flexibility of having our poolside concierge turn your chair towards or away from the sun.”
The Phoenician, part of hotel giant Marriott like Westin Kierland and JW Marriott Desert Ridge, created a new reserved seating section during a major resort makeover in 2017. The fee is $25 to $50 per person depending on the day and season.
Phoenician general manager Mark Vinciguerra said the 545-room resort decided to carve the pool into different areas, including an adults-only pool with cabanas and day beds for rent and the “exclusive” family-friendly reserved lounge chair section, to give hotel guests more choices.
He said the reserved lounge chairs are aimed at travelers who dread getting up early on vacation to save a seat at the pool or circling the pool at peak times to find an open chair, a frequent occurrence at hotel and cruise-ship pools.
“What this does is provide a great convenience for them,” he said.
Reservations are optional. With 720 pool chairs, a few hundred more than before the renovation, free seats are generally plentiful at The Phoenician, he said.
“There’s a rare moment when we run out of chaise lounges,” he said.
Vinciguerra said the Phoenician’s $25 to $50 charge for chairs includes a prime pool spot with views of Phoenix’s iconic Camelback Mountain, an umbrella, bottled water and occasional poolside treats such as frozen grapes and smoothies.
“We’re not really gouging them,” he said.
Fees are big business for hotels
Hotels took in an estimated $2.93 billion in fees and surcharges last year, a record, according to an annual report by veteran hospitality consultant and analyst Bjorn Hanson.
Fees will continue to increase in 2019 as room rates fail to keep pace with hotels’ higher costs, he said.
Hanson said most pool fees did not start out as another way to make money. Hotels were seeking a way to handle complaints from guests fed up with seat saving at hotel pools. Early rising guests plop towels and books on chairs and don’t return for hours.
“It started out as a guest-dissatisfaction issue,” he said. “The thought was, ‘How does one reserve them?”’
Hanson expects more hotels to add the optional fees as a way to boost revenue and help manage the pool, and he doesn’t expect significant backlash as long as the fees are optional and disclosed.
One potential trouble spot though: fees to reserve pool chairs at hotels with nightly resort fees. Many resorts list access to the pool as one of the amenities covered by the mandatory fees, which are prevalent in Las Vegas, Florida, Hawaii, Arizona and other vacation destinations and have spread to urban hotels. Resort fees approach $50 a night at some hotels.
“The theory is, then, I should have access to a chair,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.
The Phoenician doesn’t list the pools under amenities covered by its $35 resort fee but has faced complaints about charging a pool-reservation fee in addition to the resort fee.
“I do not mind paying resort fees, but if you’re going to charge them, make sure guests can actually use the amenities,” a guest posted in a review of The Phoenician on TripAdvisor in May.
The guest couldn’t find any free seats, according to the review, and was offered the last remaining reserved seat for $50.
“Resort fees plus a chair fee is ridiculous to sit at an average pool in the desert,” the review said. “I am currently sitting on my balcony chair waiting it out another few hours until I can potentially find a spot.”
Vinciguerra said the resort has received questions from guests about why it’s charging to reserve certain pool seats. But he says the new section has been popular.
“Once you explain the value and the convenience behind it, it’s been really well received,” he said.
He calls the Phoenician a “trailblazer” in this area and expects more resorts to add reserved seating sections.
Harteveldt says resorts that add fees to reserve ordinary pool chairs risk being criticized for nickel and diming guests, especially if they’re charging several hundred dollars a night for a room and a resort fee. He said resorts should explore alternative ideas, such as an airline-like seat map for pool chairs or restaurant-style reservations, but with no charges.
“The hotels are going to face some very legitimate push back from consumers, who are going to say, ‘Enough is enough here. Figure out a way to manage this (pool seating) without me having to do this.’ ”