Smoking gun: Holiday Inn guest fights $300 smoking fine on ‘questionable’ evidence

Kelsey Russell doesn’t smoke.

She didn’t smoke in her hotel room during a recent trip, and neither did anyone else in the room with her.

So when she was slugged a steep “smoking fee” after checking out, and the hotel apparently had a photo to “prove” someone had been smoking in the room, she was more than a little baffled.

Ms Russell, her mum, and her two-year-old son had spent a night at the Holiday Inn Express in Greensboro, North Carolina, while they were heading inland to escape Hurricane Florence recently.

A few days after they checked out, Ms Russell noticed in her bank account the hotel had charged her an extra $US200 (NZ$300).

“When I called the manager, she told me that it was a smoking fee,” she told consumer rights group Elliott Advocacy. “We don’t smoke.”

Ms Russell tried to explain no one had lit up in the room, but the manager insisted it smelt of smoke and cigarette butts had been found.

Unable to have the charge reversed by her bank, she contacted Elliott Advocacy in a last-ditch attempt to convince the hotel to admit there had been a mistake.

The group’s executive director Michelle Couch-Friedman said she didn’t usually take on complaints about smoking fees, as she found the majority of complaints were by smokers who had done the wrong thing and been caught.

But Ms Russell’s case was different — and would become particularly weird.

Ms Couch-Friedman contacted the manager of the Holiday Inn Express, asking to see evidence that justified the extra charge.

She received a reply from a lawyer representing the hotel that reiterated the company’s smoking fee policy, and said upon checkout, hotel staff “found physical evidence in the form of cigarette butts in a coffee mug and the room smelled of smoke.”

A photo was attached to the email as proof.

“When I opened the photo, for just a moment, I felt duped by Russell. There was a picture of a coffee cup, on a desk, with cigarette butts inside,” Ms Couch-Friedman said.

But then she realised a few things seriously wrong with the photo.

“I enlarged the photo and then looked at everything inside the frame. And what I saw made me more determined to get this hotel smoking fee reversed,” she said.

“This photo is a snapshot of a coffee cup with cigarette butts inside. True. But it’s the location of the cup that makes it questionable.

“The cup is not in a hotel room. It appears to be sitting among the clutter on top of the manager’s desk. An email with another guest’s personal information is clearly visible. And the email is dated one week before Russell checked into the hotel.”

She also said the metadata of the photo read “212 Russell smoking”, but Ms Russell was staying in room 417.

“Some might call this evidence, but I call it possible shenanigans,” Ms Couch-Friedman said.

“If a hotel intends to help themselves to $200 from a guest’s bank account, the proof should be convincing to a third party’s eye. This wasn’t.”

Incredibly, Ms Couch-Friedman said returning to the hotel’s lawyers and pointing out all the flaws with the photographic “evidence” got her nowhere.

While the lawyer conceded the coffee cup was photographed on a manager’s desk, the hotel was unwilling to back down on the extra charge.

The lawyer said the $200 charge covered the cost of cleaning the room and removing the smoke odour.

“Curiously, the attorney did not include the receipt to show that the hotel had paid to have Russell’s room professionally cleaned,” Ms Couch-Friedman said.

“That receipt would seem to be far better proof than a coffee cup sitting on his manager’s disorganised desk.”

Getting nowhere with the hotel itself, Ms Couch-Friedman approached the resolution team of its parent company, Intercontinental Hotel Group, which eventually led to the hotel manager finally agreeing to overturn the fee.

“Although she called it a goodwill gesture, I would call it the correct resolution,” Ms Couch-Friedman said.

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