A bells-and-whistles battle has broken out in hotel land
by Tom McNichol
Meetings West, September 2005
It wasn't long ago that the typical hotel amenity was a tiny foiled-wrapped mint placed lovingly on your pillow. No one knew why the gift was a mint, or what it was doing on your pillowthat was just the way hotels showed their appreciation to guests. "Thank you for staying with us, valued customer. Here, have a mint."
Those days are long gone. Hotel amenities nowadays are bigger, flashier and more bodacious, designed to lure new customers to a hotel, not merely thank them for already being there. The mint on the pillow is outunless it's, say, a Belgian dark chocolate praline mint placed on a 230-thread count gusseted goose down pillow.
"Some of these hotel amenities are getting pretty wild now," says John Hendrie, CEO of Merrimac, Mass.-based Hospitality Performance Inc., a hotel consulting service. "You can practically live in some of these hotels full time."
The new amenities include everything from luxury beds, bedding, linens, and bath accessories to in-room fitness centers, high-speed wireless Internet access, and flat-screen TVs. It's all part of an amenities war currently being waged by hotelsa battle for customers' hearts, minds, and above all, wallets.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the hotel industry will spend $4.1 billion on renovations and new amenities this year, up from $3 billion in 2004.
One reason hotels are fighting to outdo each other with new luxury amenities is to keep up with the expectations of customers, many of whom have poured money and sweat into improving their own homes.
"It used to be that people would see something they liked in a hotel room and try to duplicate it at home," says Jan Freitag of Hendersonville, Tenn.-based hospitality industry consulting firm Smith Travel Research. "Now they come to the hotel and say, 'Hey, how come my hotel room isn't as nice as what I have at home?'"
The amenities boom is a sure sign that flush times are back in the hotel trade. During economic downturns, hotels usually reduce their rates and cut back on amenities. When times are good, the rates go up and the frills get frillier.
U.S. hotels enjoyed an 11.4 percent increase in profits last year, according to Atlanta-based hospitality consultancy PKF Hospitality Research. This was on the heels of a three-year industry-wide recession in the wake of 9/11 that saw hotel profits plummet 36.2 percent from 2001 to 2003. Hotel profits are predicted to climb even higher this year, somewhere around 15 percent.
"Now that the economy has gotten better and hotel numbers are improving, hotels are looking at more and more chances to upsell," says Greg Hartmann of Mineola, N.Y.-based HVS International, a global hotel consulting firm.The Battle of the Beds
The fiercest battle among hotels is taking place, sexily enough, on the bed. In 1999, Starwood's Westin chain fired the first salvo by introducing the Heavenly Bed, a luxurious white-on-white bedding package by Simmons with a pillow top mattress containing 900 coils, three sheets (ranging in thread count from 180 to 250) and a down blanket available in three different thicknesses, depending on the climate. Those who have slept in a Heavenly Bed report that it's both soft and firm without being too much of either, kind of like the baby bear's bed in Goldilocks and the Three Bears without the stranger sleeping in it.
The Heavenly franchise, which now includes showerheads, bathrobes and pet bedding that customers can buy to take home with them, was a surprise moneymaker for Westin, bringing in $4.3 million in 2003, a year when many hotels struggled to break even. Westin has sold almost 4,000 fully loaded Heavenly Beds and 30,000 signature sheets and pillows.
"Our guests never told us that they didn't like the [old Westin] beds," says Sue Brush, senior vice president for Westin Hotels and Resorts. "I think the traveling public just accepted the traditional bed with a floral bedspread as the norm. But when they walked in the room and saw this all-white bed, it really surprised people. All of our cleanliness scores went up because people began perceiving the entire experience differently."
The popularity of the Heavenly Bed has goosed Westin's competitors into offering their own heavenly-like offerings.
Hyatt offers something it calls the Grand Bed, a Sealy Posturepedic mattress with down blankets and 250-thread-count triple sheeting. Marriott is spending $190 million to upgrade beds at its family of hotels, and each king-size bed at Marriott will feature 300-thread-count cotton sheets (50 more thread-counts than the Hyatt Grand Bed!), seven pillows, a fluffy mattress cover and a white duvet. Radisson has the Sleep Number Bed, which features adjustable firmness settings. Hilton has rolled out its Suite Dreams complete with "Executive" linen sheets and down comforter, all available for purchase. Hilton Garden Inns is installing its Garden Sleep System, which has a mattress air system that automatically adjusts to a person's weight. Doubletree Hotels have the Doubletree Sleep Experience, a plush-top mattress topped with down blankets, 200-thread count linens and triple sheeting.
The Pan Pacific Vancouver just announced it's installing the $10,000 British-made Hypnos Duchess, but it'll cost yait's currently only available in its 16 specialty suites and the Royal Suite overlooking Vancouver Harbour.
And moderately priced hotels don't want to be caught napping, either: Red Roof Inns is offering hypoallergenic pillows and Best Western's beds feature triple sheeting.
"Personally, I think a lot of the new amenities in hotels were long overdue," says Michael Deitemeyer, president of Dallas-based Omni Hotels, which operates 40 properties in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. "Westin did great things with the bed, and quite frankly, it's something the industry should have done some time ago. A lot of the new amenities are just catching up to where we should be."
The bedding wars are just what the doctor ordered for weary travelers trying to catch some quality Z's. A recent survey commissioned by Hilton Hotels found that half of all hotel guests get just six hours or less of sleep per night while traveling, and that a good night's sleep ranked as the most important service a hotel can provide.
The bedding wars are also forcing the industry to abandon a dirty secret it's been hiding all these years: Those polyester floral-patterned bedspreads that you used to see on every hotel bed in America got washed only a few times a year at most. The new white duvet covers on luxury beds don't hide mystery stains nearly as well, and have forced hotels to wash them between each guest visit.
Crowne Plaza Hotels has taken the bedding wars a step further by offering a variety of "sleep amenities." Guests receive an eye mask and drape clip to block out unwanted light, earplugs to screen out noise, lavender spray to promote relaxation, a nightlight to provide soft lighting, and even a "Sleep CD." The audio CD, developed by sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus, guides guests through a relaxation process, accompanied by soothing music. Crowne Plaza also features "quiet zones" in its hotels, separate floors with no housekeeping services before 10 a.m., and no kids. Now if they can only guarantee that the guy in the room next door won't be blasting David Letterman when you're trying to get to sleep.Bathrooms: The Second Front
With hotel chains now engaged in an all-out pillow fight over bedding, the next amenity battle is being waged in the bathroom.
"When hotels survey their guests and ask them 'What's the most important to you?' a good night's sleep is usually first and a good shower is second," says Hartmann of HVS International.
Westin has taken what's worked in the bedroom and moved it into the bathroom with its "Heavenly Bath," a custom-designed Speakman shower with two heads to provide more power and wider water coverage. Each showerhead features five adjustable jets and several spray options, from a light mist to an oh-my-god-make-it-stop needle spray and just about everything in-between.
The bathroom also includes an oversized Brazilian combed cotton bath sheet, velour bathrobes and an array of high-end toiletries. In all, Westin spent about $10 million to replace showerheads, curtain rods, curtains, towels, robes, and amenities in its 70 hotels across North America.
The Westin showers are also roomier, in part to accommodate more than one person. In one Westin survey, 29 percent of respondents said they sometimes shower or bathe with another person, and almost a quarter admitted to making love in the shower. (Even allowing for bragging, those figures seem a bit highnot to mention a waste of a Heavenly Bed.)
The Heavenly Bath features a curved shower curtain rod that bows out, providing eight additional inches of elbowroom and eliminating the dreaded feeling of brushing up against a mildewed shower curtain. The bowed-out shower curtain has become a favorite amenity for many hotel chains, giving guests the illusion of a larger shower without actually making it any bigger.
"Hotels love the curved shower rod because it's an easy fix," says Hendrie of Hospitality Performance.
Hilton Hotels is adding bath and shower amenities from the Crabtree & Evelyn La Source line, an overstuffed basket featuring shampoo, conditioner, body lotion,body wash, mouthwash, moisturizing soap, a shower cap, a sewing kit, a vanity kit, an aqua brush with pumice, a shoe mitt, and a shoehorn. Hampton Inns have Purity Basics bath products along with plush towels and washcloths.
From the bathroom, the amenities move to the office. Over the past several years, a high-speed Internet connection has quickly gone from being a luxury item to becoming an expected amenity. Some chains are now upping the ante by offering free wireless Internet access. Omni and Kimpton hotels offer free wireless, and Hilton hotels offer wired or wireless connection, depending on the location. Select Hilton and Doubletree locations also have a service called PrinterOn, which lets guests send print jobs from their laptops in their room directly to the hotel's 24-hour business center for pick-up.On Exercise
Workout amenities are also getting hot and sweaty. Westin Hotels is spending $12 million to build new fitness centers, installing thousands of new treadmills, cycles, elliptical trainers, yoga mats, and core boards. The Westin Workout fitness facilities feature equipment from Life Fitness and Precor, as well as Cardio Theater, Reebok-designed fitness regimens for travelers, an in-room yoga workout, and personal viewing screens and sound systems on all cardio equipment. The fitness centers feature custom-designed 20-, 40- and 60-minute workouts for guests; there's also a yoga and Pilates regimen that guests can do in the privacy of their own room.
Westin also offers an in-room fitness program, part of a growing industry-wide trend to let guests exercise in their rooms. Westin's program includes a stationary cycle or treadmill set up in the room, as well as a yoga and Pilates regimen. Westins also have running maps available that feature a three-mile run in the city you're visiting. Many Westins also have a Running Concierge to lead morning jogs.
Omni Hotels also lets guests request exercise equipment for use in their room, and Hilton hotels offer every guest a complimentary, in-room fitness-in-a-bag program, called a Hilton Fit Kit, which includes a yoga mat, elastic bands for resistance training and hand weights.
"There's a percentage of the population that prefers to work out in private, probably more women than men," says Omni's Deitemeyer. "So being able to call the front desk and have someone set up a treadmill in your room has been very well received. We try to let our customers customize the way they want to work out, so it's more like the way they work out at home."
There's still no such thing as a free lunch in the hotel world, but you can get a free breakfast: Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, and Hyatt are among the major chains that offer guests a free morning meal.Shock and Awe
It's inside luxury hotels where the amenities really go over the top. Every room in the Graves 601 Hotel Minneapolis, for example, features a specially commissioned edge-lit, etched glass headboard; a wall-mounted, 42-inch plasma screen TV; and a 10-inch, LED flat-screen TV in the bathroom. When you're not watching TV in the bathroom, you can indulge in the ultimate "power shower" experiencemany showers are equipped with freestanding shower towers with five body jets hosing you down like a circus elephant.
The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, located on the Big Island of Hawaii, piles on the amenities with a 32-inch flat-panel TV, hydrotherapy tub, in-room fax machine, and free wireless Internet access.
Dream, a new Manhattan four-star, is one of a growing number of hotels to offer guests the use of an Apple iPod during their stay. The iPods come preloaded with 2,000 songs and equipped with a cable that plugs into Bose speakers included in each room. And iPod rentals are popping up in a lot of luxury destinations, in places such as Le Meridien Cyberport in Hong Kong and Las Ventanas al Paraiso resort in Los Cabos, Mexico. Guests staying at the oceanfront villas at the One&Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas can even request that the resort program in-room iPods with their favorite songs.Combat Pay
But are all of these frills worth it?
"In a lot of cases, hotel amenities end up being a lot of fluff and very little substance," says John Hendrie. "And as a hotel consumer, you end up paying for that fluff. If I know that going in, then that's my choice as a consumer. But there are a lot of costs that are absorbed that consumers aren't fully aware of."
The cost of many hotel amenities is being passed along to guests, whether they realize it or not. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that hotel surcharges have increased steadily over the past several years, topping $1.2 billion last year.
Hotel executives use their industry savvy and knowledge of the market to figure out which surcharges generate the least guest complaints. More hotels and resorts are tacking on surcharges for amenities such as Internet access, fitness centers and business center services. Other common stealth surcharges include hefty minibar restocking charges, meeting room set/reset fees, energy surcharges, automatic gratuities, and wildly inflated parking fees. That luxury hotel bed you're snoozing in could be subsidized by the $30 a night you're spending to park your car.
"It's really a mixed bag out there," Hendrie says. "Some hotels are spending a lot of money on amenities and it may not be something their guests want. There are still large hotels in major cities where you can't get high-speed Internet access. Or they promote a business center, but you get in there and your cell phone doesn't work. It still comes down to service, price and value. I'd rather have high-end service than a high-end thread count."
Some hotels are trying to break through the amenities clutter by keeping things simple. Rather than piling on elaborate amenities, many hotels just want to get the wake-up call right. After all, what good is a 400-thread-count sheet if you oversleep and miss your meeting? Hilton Hotels' latest amenity is a small but crucial item: an incredibly easy-to-set clock radio.
"One of business travelers' pet peeves is trying to set the alarm clock," says Kendra Walker, vice president, brand communications for Hilton Hotels Corp. "People were saying that the clocks were sometimes harder to set than their VCRs at home."
All of Hilton's hotel properties are being fitted with new clock radios that have what the chain calls "the world's easiest to set alarm feature." The alarm requires just three steps, which are clearly printed on the front of the clock: 1. Press alarm set; 2. Indicate alarm time by using up and down buttons; 3. Press enter. To wake up to music, there are four preset buttons for local radio stations, plus a connection cable for use with an MP3 player, portable CD player or laptop. The clock comes with the time and calendar preset by the manufacturer and automatically adjusts for Daylight Savings Time and back to Standard Time.
So lie back in that luxury bed, pull up those 300-thread-count sheets, close your eyes, and relax in the knowledge that at least you can count on getting a decent night's sleep at a hotel these days. Just be careful where you put your headsomeone still may have put a mint on your pillow.
—Tom McNichol is a contributing editor for Wired Magazine. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, GQ, the Washington Post, and the Guardian (U.K.). His radio commentaries have aired on NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. His favorite hotel amenity is a free room.