A DISPUTE between a Cornwall hotelier and a credit card processing company has highlighted confusion for hoteliers trying to operate guaranteed booking schemes.
Nick Wainford, proprietor of the Well House, Liskeard, is furious with Barclays Merchant Services after it tried to recover a charge made to a guest who failed to turn up.
The guest had booked using a Visa card number but cancelled at 6.15pm on the day he was supposed to arrive. Mr Wainford charged him £129.90 for the cheapest meal and room rate.
Barclays Merchant Services, who had processed the bill, wrote to Mr Wainford saying the charge had been disputed and that the amount would be automatically deducted from his account.
"I was appalled," he said. "The whole point of taking the card number was to provide some sort of guarantee."
Mr Wainford's outrage underlines a persistent problem for the industry, which loses millions of pounds from no-shows every year.
The situation is complicated by the fact that none of the credit companies appear to know how to handle the situation Mr Wainford faced.
Barclays Merchant Services said no transaction could be guaranteed without a signature, but suggested that Visa would be the best people to ask.
Visa, Access and American Express all issue similar guidelines on how to "guarantee" a booking.
A Visa spokesman said: "To guarantee a reservation the hotelier must give the guest a confirmation code and make it clear that if they don't come they will be charged."
But both Visa and American Express admitted that if a customer denied he had been told he would be charged, then any payment would be returned to the cardholder.
American Express added it was considering whether to continue its Assured Reservations scheme, although no firm decision had been taken as yet.
To add to the industry's difficulties the EC's draft directive on distance selling suggests that any telephone credit transaction should be able to be cancelled by the cardholder within seven days.
The situation is even worse for restaurateurs. Both Visa and American Express said that their guaranteed booking schemes applied only to hotels.
Since Caterer's investigation began, Barclays Merchant Services has now told Mr Wainford his charge for the room was valid, but the meal charge must be returned. Meanwhile, the guest-who-wasn't has had all his money returned.