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Meet Patrice Wright: The Charlotte woman who challenged hotel’s CIAA surcharge

Patrice Wright, the woman who set in motion the widespread complaints against the Ritz-Carlton hotel for levying a CIAA surcharge against patrons during the basketball tournament weekend.
Patrice Wright, the woman who set in motion the widespread complaints against the Ritz-Carlton hotel for levying a CIAA surcharge against patrons during the basketball tournament weekend. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

On Facebook, she’s hailed as the “voice for the people.” A friend writes that she’s the “pirate from Hampton.” Another person calls her a modern day trailblazer.

Before February, Patrice Wright, 45, of Mint Hill was none of these things. She was a mother. A wife. A business owner. An educator.

Then came a $10.20 CIAA service charge on a bill for sweet potato fries and drinks in the lobby lounge of the Ritz-Carlton in uptown Charlotte, on the same weekend she, her husband Tony and hundreds of others crowded the Queen City for the annual CIAA basketball tournament.

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association is the oldest African American sports conference in the nation. It’s held its tournament in Charlotte since 2006 and last year made a $50 million economic impact in the city. It’s known for a week of basketball, events centered around education and a host of parties that, over the last few years, have grown rowdy yet still attract Hollywood notables such as singers Chris Brown and Chaka Khan.

But after a Facebook post she wrote about the Ritz-Carlton’s unprecedented 15 percent surcharge attracted local media attention, Wright’s been cast as one of the biggest celebrities to emerge from the celebration this year. With the spotlight on her, she set in motion a firestorm of criticism against the hotel that prompted an investigation by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office and resulted in the Ritz agreeing to refund customers and give the CIAA $75,000 for scholarships.

The hotel maintains it disclosed information about the surcharge on signs in the lobby lounge, menus, the main bar and four temporary bars. Servers and bartenders were also asked to remind patrons that the gratuity had been added to their checks.

Wright said she was never told. Had she known about the surcharge, she doubts she would have made waves on social media.

“I just would’ve liked to have known that I had to pay that before I sat down,” she said. “It would have made a difference as to me posting it on Facebook.”

Charlotte native

Wright, a native Charlottean, grew up attending CIAA basketball games with her parents and uncle. Even while attending Hampton University in Virginia, she was sure to join the celebration. It was a “family reunion,” she said.

After earning a degree in finance, she moved back to Charlotte and worked as a loan administrator for First Union bank, now Wells Fargo, and later she worked at Bank of America. After her two sons were born, she left banking and sought work in education.

“I wanted to be a mother first,” she said. “I wanted to get into an organization where I was on at least somewhat of a similar schedule as my children.”

The CIAA encourages alumni and fans to inform it of what’s happening in and around Charlotte during the tournament.

In 2002, she took a teaching job at West Charlotte High School, where she graduated. A year later, she opened a travel planning business, the Wright Connections. She later became a career development coordinator at Independence High School, a role she continues to fill today.

When the CIAA moved its tournament to Charlotte, attending the games became a tradition for Wright, her husband and children. This year was no different, she said, “until I went to the Ritz-Carlton.”

Soon after, she and her husband welcomed a 6-year-old South African boy through a program at their church.

Shocked at a surcharge

Wright said the surcharge was a surprise. It was the first time a CIAA gratuity had been listed on her bill in all the years she patronized the Ritz during CIAA week. She paid the added fee but, still incredulous, posted an image of her receipt on Facebook.

What happened next was unexpected. The post was shared hundreds of times and elicited comments such as “I can’t believe they did that,” “Are you serious?” and “I guess they don’t want us there.”

I still went to work everyday. I still cooked dinner.

Patrice Wright

A reporter with WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, called Wright for an interview. Appearances on MSNBC and NPR followed. The story went viral.

But aside from telling her story at community events, Wright said her life hasn’t changed much.

“I’m the same person, from sunup to sundown,” she said. “It was an awesome opportunity but I don’t think it changed me. I still went to work everyday. I still cooked dinner. I still maintained my civic and religious duty in the community. It’s just a couple of days I had to go and do an interview. That was it.”

Then again, it wasn’t.

‘Modern-day Rosa Parks’

The N.C. Attorney General’s Office contacted Wright about starting an investigation, she said. The agency solicited complaints from other customers who paid the surcharge before eventually threatening the Ritz-Carlton with a possible lawsuit, accusing the hotel of unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Patrick Graham, CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, commended Wright for decrying the added fee. He said he heard from several people during the tournament who felt offended by the surcharge. Some of them wrote letters.

Anytime somebody ... challenges something that was seen as unfair, it's always a good thing.

Patrick Graham, CEO of Urban League of Central Carolinas

“Anytime somebody ... challenges something that was seen as unfair, it's always a good thing,” he said.

For at least one high school senior, it was a heroic thing. One day while on hall duty, Wright said a student approached her.

“‘Yo, Ms. Wright,’” Wright said, quoting the student, who called her a “modern-day Rosa Parks,” adding: “‘People will treat you any kind of way until you tell them you’re not going to allow that and I appreciate you standing up.’”

“That’s when I felt like ‘I’m really making a difference,’” Wright said. “I think I understood at that point that I was an example.”

No small thing

The Ritz-Carlton denies wrongdoing. It consented to an agreement to avoid costs of a legal battle, according to a letter to the Attorney General’s office from the hotel’s lawyer.

Using “CIAA” on customers’ checks was an “inadvertent error” the hotel resolved the next day by taking the name off its receipts, the letter said. The hotel said it issued Wright a full refund. Wright said Wednesday she hasn’t seen a refund. Her opinion isn’t swayed.

...There was a $75,000 settlement with this. That seems far from trivial to me.

Wright

When the Ritz first apologized, Wright felt the hotel considered the surcharge as something trivial. Now that the drama’s concluded, she’s convinced it wasn’t.

“There are some children who are going to go to school without having to worry about how they’re going to pay for college, or at least a portion of it,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things, there was a $75,000 settlement with this. That seems far from trivial to me.”

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