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‘Beyond disgusting’: No inspections to prevent dirty hotel rooms in South Carolina

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 12:58 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - The Grand Strand greets thousands of visitors every year, and although many have great experiences with the place they choose to spend the night, it doesn’t always work out that way.

“It was just, it was disgusting,” Marjorie Neal said about her stay in a Conway hotel. “The whole thing was just terrible. The whole thing.”

WMBF Investigates receives tips from viewers and visitors periodically regarding bad stays in the area, and after speaking with a couple of people with bad experiences, we decided to look into the protections available to consumers.

We checked in with multiple state agencies to see who could hold dirty rooms responsible. Come to find out, from a state perspective, there really isn’t any authority.

“I don’t feel safe staying in any hotel in the area, because there’s no one watching the henhouse,” Neal said.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said it doesn’t conduct any general hotel or motel inspections.

“If a hotel or motel holds a retail food establishment permit, has a public pool, undergoes a renovation or demolition (asbestos), has an underground storage tank (petroleum products), has a septic tank, etc., those aspects of operations would fall under DHEC’s regulatory authority,” a department spokesperson shared.

The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and the Department of Consumer Affairs said they have no ability to inspect, either.

“We do refer complaints to DHEC about hotels if there is a restaurant in the hotel or a pool because they do look into those issues,” a Department of Consumer Affairs spokesperson said. An example of this would be if a complainant cites a bug problem, and there is also a restaurant at the hotel.

Ultimately, according to the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, “There is no state regulatory agency to inspect hotels/motels.”

That doesn’t mean inspections aren’t done by private companies or a franchisor. SCPRT said nearly every chain hotel has cleanliness training. But that didn’t seem to prevent the experiences encountered by two different women we spoke with.

Neal drove up from Florida for the funeral of her ex-husband and daughter’s father in June.

She checked what people had said online about the Quality Inn in Conway off of Highway 501, finding the reviews to be OK with an occasional poor picture. She quickly booked it on a third-party site.

But when she walked into the room, she immediately went back to the front desk to tell them it was filthy.

“In the bathroom, my daughter had to pick things off the toilet seat before anybody could sit on it and sanitize it. The tub and the shower area just had rows of filth, just filth all over it. There were bugs,” Neal explained. “The bathroom had a roach collector setting up on the coffeemaker and it was flipped over and it had all kinds of hairs and debris on it.”

Neal had paid for the hotel upfront. She said the hotel told her they wouldn’t be able to provide a refund because she had made her purchase through a third-party website. She said they offered to have a maid come clean it when they came in, but it never happened.

Neal said they ended up stranded and stayed.

“The girls put bonnets over their ears so they wouldn’t get any bugs in their ears, and I tucked my hair around really tight, so nothing would crawl in. I had a CPAP, so I knew nothing was going to get in my mouth or my nose,” Neal said. “It’s almost like they kind of took shifts sleeping to make sure everybody was going to be OK.”

We reached out to Quality Inn multiple times, even showing up in the lobby, to get some kind of statement or response from the manager or owner of the hotel. Our messages and emails were never returned.

Choice Hotels International, the parent company, did respond to our emailed inquiry.

We are very sorry to hear about this incident regarding Ms. Neal’s recent stay at one of our Quality Inn properties. Please know that we are in the process of looking into this matter further in consultation with the hotel, and hope to address the situation as soon as possible.

Choice Hotels International

Pennsylvania resident Vicky Howard was unhappy with her Garden City Beach vacation rental as well, during a trip to visit her family.

“When we walked in, it was horrible,” Howard said. “The blind on the front door was busted, there were dead bugs, live bugs. Rodent droppings.”

Howard said the property management company, Coastline Beach Rentals, told her they’d send a cleaning crew, but she didn’t stay to find out if they took care of it. She wanted a full refund and received about $200 back. But she said the company told her the remaining $500 plus dollars would not be returned.

“This place needs more than a cleaning crew. It needs extermination,” Howard said. “The socket’s hanging out. There was an exposed pipe in the bathroom. Somebody used the toilet and left it in there.”

Coastline Beach Rentals declined to comment for this story.

How to handle a dirty room in South Carolina

Renee Wikstrom with the Better Business Bureau said although you have the right to expect a clean and safe room, there essentially aren’t any laws in South Carolina to guarantee that.

That means you need to be your own advocate, according to Bailey Parker with the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.

Wikstrom said, if you encounter a bad room, you can ask for housekeeping, a room change, and if these aren’t available or up to par: a refund. But the fine print of the contract you signed for your room is ultimately what can stand between you and getting your money back. So always read it thoroughly ahead of time, before you finalize booking your stay.

If you’re unhappy with your room when you first walk in, do not use its facilities. Take lots of pictures, and show them to management. Try to get them to do a walk-through with you as well, Wikstrom said.

If you end up not staying in the room, you may have to forfeit the first night.

“That’s typical in most reservation contracts that you make, Wikstrom said. “But you may be able to get the rest of your refund if the hotel or condo association re-rents that room.”

Large purchases online should be made with a credit card, not a debit card, to give yourself protection in case something goes wrong, Parker said.

“The debit card is a straight line in your checking account, right? Once that money is gone, it’s most likely gone. It’s much harder to recover,” she said.

Consider getting travel insurance as well, and make sure you do a thorough job of researching reviews on a room.

Besides Google, third-party and hotel website reviews, the BBB and the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs websites also provide good methods for reviewing previous customers’ experiences.

If you encounter a bad stay yourself, help the next person out by reporting your experience on either site as well.

“I always tell consumers when they tell me because they’ll call me and say, ‘Well, why should I file a complaint if you can’t force the business to do anything?’ That’s a valid question,” Parker said. “And my answer always is, ‘Because if you don’t file a complaint, then the other consumer who may be looking to do business with that one business won’t know that there was a bad outcome.’”

You can file a complaint with the Department of Consumer Affairs through this link, and the BBB here.

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