An online hotel booking company mistakenly canceled more than 700 lodging reservations throughout Tuolumne County as a result of the Ferguson Fire and Yosemite Valley closure, forcing county hotels to seek out new and displaced customers at the peak of the tourism season.

“This is the price you pay when you do business with Mother Nature,” said Teri Marshall, director of marketing for the Rush Creek and Evergreen lodges near Yosemite.

Rush Creek Lodge, located on Highway 120 at the west entrance to Yosemite National Park, has 143 rooms, and Evergreen Lodge, located about one mile from the Hetch Hetchy entrance to the park, has 88 cabins.

Marshall said she had been in contact with representatives of Booking.com, a popular online travel company that aggregates prices for accommodations, airplane flights and vehicle rentals, since Wednesday when the lodges were notified of the forced cancellations.

But for the lodges, and even more so for the customers (many of whom travel many miles and plan months in advance to vacation and recreate in Yosemite National Park and the surrounding areas), the forced cancellations came as a surprise.

Even through Friday, Marshall said, customers were coming to the front desks of the lodges and not knowing that their reservations for rooms were canceled by Booking.com.

“It’s a function of third-party booking services, third-party travel services, who treat the Yosemite market the same way they treat an urban environment. It’s a real lack of market understanding on their part. We’re taking this opportunity to open the lines of communication with their support teams,” Marshall said.

Katie Kirkland, communications and tourism manager for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, said Booking.com canceled lodging reservations in a certain radius around the Ferguson Fire, which has burned 45,911 acres near Highway 140, Hite Cove and El Portal in Mariposa County. The fire was 29 percent contained as of Friday morning.
Since the inferno began burning on July 13, several facilities and resources within Yosemite National Park have closed or been redirected. On Wednesday, Yosemite National Park officials announced that portions of the park, including the popular Yosemite Valley, would be closed to the public Wednesday through Sunday due to a plan to light backfires which would hopefully halt the advance of the Ferguson Fire. Yosemite National Park officials announced on Friday that the valley would remain closed through August 3 at 4pm.

All hotels, campgrounds and visitor services in Yosemite Valley and Wawona are closed as of Friday, as well as The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Glacier Point Road, Bridalveil Creek Campground, the Wawona Campground, and the Highway 140 and the El Portal entrance-exit to the park.

Highways 120 and the Tuolumne Meadows area are open.

The cancellations included much of the outlying lodging businesses surrounding Yosemite National Park, Kirkland said, and included Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau partners Rush Creek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge, the Yosemite International Hostel in Groveland, Black Oak Casino Resort and Hotel in Tuolumne and the Lazy Z Resort in Twain Harte.

More than 700 reservations were canceled in Tuolumne County between Wednesday and Sunday, Kirkland said, but more could be uncovered as the hotels investigate the reasons behind individual booking cancellations.

“Some lodging partners that don't belong to the visitors bureau as a partner,” she said. “They are trying to get caught up and reach out to the people that canceled. There could be more undiscovered.”

Launa Valente, manager of the Lazy Z Resort in Twain Harte, said when she was notified of seven cancellations within 10 minutes, she knew something was amiss. There are only 12 cottages on the Lazy Z Resort property, she said, and when more than half of the vacation holiday business suddenly cancels, there is usually an unknown problem linking the cancellations together, she said.

“I'm glad I caught it, because they didn't let us know about it even after it happened,” she said. “The biggest problem was we got cancellations and other people rebooked those rooms quickly. Many of the people staying here were international visitors. So we had double bookings and no way to let those people know about it.”

Booking.com" class="auto" target="_blank">dir="ltr">Booking.com is reimbursing the business for lost income as a result of the cancellations, she said, and was ultimately “very apologetic” about the situation. In the cases of the double bookings, the guests with canceled accomodations did not show up and demand their rooms, she said.

“I think, being from a rural mountain area, people from a different county that run booking.com just don't understand,” she said. “They were trying to keep people safe and they canceled their reservations. I don't think they get the distances in the mountains, and we’re not right there.”

Cottages at the Lazy Z Resort range from $140 to $295 per night.

Kirkland said the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau is responsible for marketing its lodging partners to the public and, by extension, the whole of the Tuolumne County service economy.

The forced cancellations could have an adverse effect, she said, but the extent of the economic damage is still unknown.

“Were doing everything we can to drive tourism ito the area with a difficult challenging time like the fire,” she said. “This has definitely affected their business.”

Though many of the open rooms at the hotels were quickly being purchased by new customers, she said, it was unknown if customers canceled out of their rooms were displaced as a result. Even just the onset of the cancellations, she noted, could have demotivated potential tourists from visiting the area over the course of the week.

“It just puts an extra level in fear in people,” she said. “There has to be something wrong if their reservation was canceled.”

The total loss of business at the Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek lodge was “still in flux,” Marshall said, with employees “getting through it one guest at a time.”

“It's one of those things in the fire situation, occupancy is a very fluid thing anyways,” she said. “Some people cancel, some people reschedule and some people end up being displaced from their area to our area.”

Marshall said she had “no crystal ball” to estimate the potential detriment to the lodges due to the cancellation incident, but noted “It’s safe to say we're experiencing losses. We just don't know the totality until it's all said and done.”

On Friday, cabins at the Evergreen Lodge ranged from a $110-per-night couples tent, a $270-per-night vintage cabin, to a $475 two-bedroom family cabin. At Rush Creek Lodge, available rooms on Friday ranged from a $380 king room to a $522 villa.
The cancellations also provide an opportunity to prevent the mistake from happening again, Marshall added.

“Booking.com" class="auto" target="_blank">dir="ltr">“Booking.com is doing a great job of making things right for all of our mutual guests who were adversely affected,” she said.
Kirkland said the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau is urging vacationers and lodgers to check their reservations with hotels and follow up with Booking.com if they received a cancelation email.


Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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