Travel website Booking.com has left many hotel operators and other partners across the globe thousands of dollars out of pocket for months on end, blaming the lack of payment on a “technical issue”.
The issue is widespread in Thailand, Indonesia and Europe among hoteliers who are venting their frustrations in Facebook groups as rumours swirl about the cause of the failure to pay.
Usually, if a customer makes a booking for a hotel through the website Booking.com and elects to pay upfront, the site takes the payment and passes it on to the hotel operator, minus a commission.
Booking.com’s partners have reported issues receiving payments since July, and in some cases months earlier. While Booking.com has continued taking payments from customers, the company has not always passed on the amount owed to hotel operators and others whom the Guardian has spoken to.
In August, the Booking Group reported total revenues of $5.5bn and a profit of $1.3bn for the second quarter of 2023 – up 27% and 51% on the previous year respectively.
“Both room nights and gross bookings came in ahead of our previous expectations as a result of the favourable demand environment,” the CEO, Glenn Fogel, said at the time. “Revenue growth of 27% in Q2 also nicely outperformed our expectations.”
Loren Infeld operates hostels in Koh Phangan, Thailand, where he has worked for 20 years. Booking.com stopped passing on payments to the American national for one of the hostels in mid-April.
“There was one chunk that got delayed, separate from the rest, and then all payments disappeared. So six months without payment,” he told the Guardian.
Infeld leases the building that is home to Loud: A Full Moon Beach Hotel. After payments from Booking.com ceased, he said he was forced to pay the rent and other costs out of his own pocket until he was down to his last $3.
He said he is owed about 125,000 baht – about US$3,500 – which he says is a lot for a business in Thailand.
Infeld said the property has since been seized by the owners over failed rent payments, leaving him broke while trying to run his other businesses.
Part of his frustration has been the struggle to get in contact with anyone at Booking.com about the issue.
“There is no way to contact them. Online it says you must talk to finance or credit control, neither of whom have a phone number or email address.”
He said you can call a contact centre, which then lodges a ticket for those teams. But the ticket expires every four days, requiring another phone call to lodge a new ticket. The Guardian has been told by multiple hotel operators that this is the practice.
It has led many to attempt other ways to reach the company, including LinkedIn messaging, directs emails to the Booking group CEO and looking up individual financial officers online.
Emily Stanley, an Australian running a two-bedroom villa in Bali, managed to get paid out last week for the A$11,000 she was owed since March by tracking down a finance officer on Facebook.
“I feel like that’s the only reason, because I tried everything else. I was calling, emailing and everything but nothing. And then it just was funny that the day after he replies, the money’s in my account.”
Stanley said the payment delay meant she couldn’t pay rent on her own home, and was forced to take a travel nursing job where accommodation was provided for free.
“It was a very hard six months. Very stressful, many tears. I’m trying to be glass-half-full but it’s really hard holding on to that negative energy because people are just walking all over you.”
Trandafir Rat, a villa operator in Denmark, said he was also forced to take on extra jobs to cover debts. He says his electricity will be cut off in the start of October unless he gets paid the €10,000 he says Booking.com owes him.
“We ask you to send me the amount [owed] in the shortest time possible because I risk to lose all my whole life work!!!” Rat said in an email to Booking.com, seen by the Guardian.
Others affected include travel bloggers and websites that are paid affiliate payments when customers click through a link on their site.
Some operators who spoke to news outlets in recent months reported being paid once their story became public. The Hungarian consumer watchdog last month launched a probe into the company’s failure to pay hotel operators in the country and raided Booking.com’s local office, after local reporting on the issue.
The Guardian sent a series of questions to Booking.com about the nature of the issue, the number of hotel providers affected, amounts owed and whether compensation would be provided to those that had suffered hardship as a result.
The company declined to answer those questions, but said in a statement the company strives “to support each of our accommodation partners in the best way possible, and fully understand the importance of processing payments on time”.
“We understand the frustration of the accommodation hosts and owners that have been unduly affected by an ongoing technical issue and can confirm that the system errors that affected the payments have now been corrected and the transactions of most of our partners have been processed,” the spokesperson said.
“We acknowledge that for some this has taken longer than it should have and continue to work urgently to finalise the rest of the transactions. If any partner has an issue, they can contact us through the Partner Hub.”
In the company’s August results, CFO David Goulden said there were “lower than expected” IT expenses in the second quarter of this year, in part due to phasing IT spend into the third quarter, but did not outline what this IT expense included.
Infeld said merely paying back what is owed by the company is not sufficient. He wants every hotel that hasn’t been paid to be paid along with market interest and all of Booking.com commissions waived.
Stanley said she will never use Booking.com again.
“Never. And I am spreading the word as well.”