Clean Up or Get Out

While cleanliness may be next to godliness, it's particularly important in the hotel industry. Guests will tolerate a lot of things — shabby furnishings, sullen staff members, mediocre food, even TVs with just 10 cable channels — but they won't put up with guest units, and especially bathrooms, that look, feel or smell dirty. They'll march down to the front desk and demand to check out with a refund, or worse yet, they'll suffer through the experience but never return to the offending hotel or any in its chain. And finally, they'll tell everyone they know and perhaps post a strong comment on TripAdvisor.

This justifiable phobia of dirty hotel rooms is a common target for local and national news teams looking for sensational stories, often during television's thrice-yearly sweeps months. Using a variety of tools, including hidden cameras and blacklights, they uncover a variety of stains, smears, grime, germs and general uncleanliness in hotel guestrooms. A recent phenomenon on the YouTube website is a clip from an Atlanta TV station with hidden-camera footage of hotel housekeepers cleaning bathroom glasses with the same brushes they use to clean toilets. Several other stations around the country stole the idea and in the past few months did their own investigations of hotel cleanliness standards.

While the methodology of these reports may be questionable — the use of hidden cameras is illegal in some states — no one can argue with the message: Hotel guests should never be subjected to bad housekeeping. It doesn't matter if they run a budget motel or a five-star resort, hotel owners and operators have an undeniable obligation to ensure the highest possible levels of cleanliness in their properties at all times. It costs money to buy the right equipment and chemicals and to find, train, supervise and retrain employees, but it's the most basic innkeeper responsibility. Get out of the business if you can't handle it.

My friend and industry veteran Greg Plank understands the problem from both sides and has some potential solutions. Plank, who is former president of Country Hearth Inns and Suburban Lodges and current chief of consulting firm Worldwide Team Management, says, “Sometimes the desire to give service and amenities outreaches the ability and practicality to deliver them.”

As he points out, while a lot of full-service hotels have the staff and equipment to machine-wash guestroom glasses daily, it's not possible at most select-service properties. Another issue he raises: the possibility of guests dropping and smashing glasses on bathroom tiles. (He's done it at 3 in the morning.)

“Most hotels don't allow glass containers around swimming pools because of the hard surface and bare feet,” he says. “What's different about a bathroom? Isn't there a plastic glass that would look good and fill the promise?”

After all, as Greg reminds us, you go to Starbucks and pay $3 or more for a cup of coffee that you drink out of a paper cup.

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