Hoteliers have accused OTAs of "behaving appallingly" by changing terms and conditions so bookings – including those that were non-refundable – are reimbursed, without cancellation charges.
At a time when hoteliers are fighting for the survival of their businesses, both Expedia and Booking.com have given greater flexibility to consumers with measures including abolishing cancellation charges and refunding pre-payments.
Emma Clark, who with husband Graeme runs the four-bedroom Glenegedale House on the Isle of Islay, Argyll, told The Caterer: "We're trying to reduce every single cost we can – the lights are out, the fires are not on. We are looking at everything to reduce costs so we don't lose our home and our business."
The Clarks said their businesses simply "cannot withstand the terms and conditions". The couple said they would have to prepare for arrivals knowing that if they do not turn up they will have to refund them. They added that they could not afford to cancel the bookings themselves as terms and conditions could see them required to pay for alternative accommodation and transport.
Chris Whyte, managing owner of the 24-bedroom, four-red-AA-starred Beechfield House in Beanacre, Wiltshire, said OTAs were "behaving appallingly". He added: "They are trashing their so-called partners to protect themselves."
Whyte said that if OTAs would waive their commissions he would happily allow those who had booked on a discounted non-flexible rate to move their bookings, but that none had looked to do so.
An Expedia group spokesperson said: "We have not taken this decision lightly. However, we believe it is the right thing to do for our industry, for travellers and, overall, for our partners, thousands of whom have already opted-in over the past few days because they see the benefit of simplifying the cancellation process."
The group said it was receiving an "unprecedented number of calls from travellers" anxious about travelling or unable to take trips due to government-imposed restrictions. It added that travellers, like its hotel partners, are facing financial uncertainty. It also argues that the measures could reduce administrative tasks for hoteliers.
It added: "We cannot stand by and do nothing when we are able to help make things easier. It's important that we're able to respond to cancellation requests as quickly and simply as we can to relieve this anxiety as much as possible for both partners and travellers."
Booking.com has told members to refund any prepayment, which hoteliers have pointed out could be the full room cost, as well as waiving any cancellation fees, where bookings have been cancelled as a result of force majeure.
A spokesperson said: "Ultimately, at Booking.com our utmost concern is for the safety and security of our customers, partners and colleagues. We all feel the impact that the current uncertainty around travel brings, and we believe that working with our partners to make it relatively easy for our mutual guests to change their plans is both the right thing to do and means they will be faster to return to travel when the situation improves, which in turn protects the future of our industry.
"Forced circumstances are put in place by Booking.com only in rare moments of extenuating circumstances, such as when governments declare travel restrictions to protect public health and safety. This is all in accordance with applicable law and our general delivery terms, to which all of our partners agree when listing on our platform. In such times, when a customer may not be physically able to reach the property, we support them by offering free cancellation or to modify the dates of their stay, when possible. In light of these government-imposed restrictions, if a property refunds a customer what they have already paid, Booking.com of course also does not ask for any commission."