Where's Reason on the Smoking Issue?

Most of us understand and agree with the public policy of no smoking in public buildings. Certainly, the majority concur that the offensive odor and health risks associated with cigarette smoke in restaurants is and should be regulated. Some would argue that reaching into our neighborhood pubs and bars goes too far. The question I have and I think we all should raise is this: why are franchisors in the hospitality business taking this issue to our guests' hotel rooms? And can we stop them?

Statistics can be manipulated to justify any position that one wishes to champion. Ask the question in a certain way, use only a select portion of the facts, and use proven methods to corrupt the results to meet your needs.

I've dug down into one of the statistics to determine the real smoking issue in the hospitality business. Would it surprise anyone to learn that the real issue non-smokers have with smoking is not with smokers, but with the lack of integrity in the hotel industry's reservation and operating systems which fail to meet guests' requests for a non-smoking or smoking room? Why should we as hotel franchisees be forced to disenfranchise 20-40 percent of our potential customers simply because our franchisor doesn't have the systems in place to drill down and solve the issue with technology rather than politics?

The smoking issue is heating up and no one can argue that a majority would prefer not to inhale secondhand smoke. Yet, are the anti-smoking zealots taking it too far when regulation, voluntary or otherwise, reaches into the hotel room of our guests? Aren't we responsible for providing customer service and hospitality to all our guests? Is it such a real issue that we can not make reasonable accommodations to help make both smokers and non-smokers comfortable? I think the decisions are more politically motivated, driven by the over-aggressive desire to find some sales and marketing advantage by young and inexperienced corporate executives who lack the entrepreneurial experience or business acumen to drive revenue and solve problems through experience, good business and common sense.

We're all concerned with customer complaints, problem resolution and problem avoidance, but is smoking in our guestrooms a real or fabricated issue? And if it is an issue, how big a deal is it? I was shocked to learn that only about 1.1 percent of hotel guests voice a complaint about the smoking/non-smoking issue. Of those who complain, the complaints are voiced over the reservation experience — non-smokers not receiving a non-smoking room (.005) or smokers not receiving a smoking room (.006) — upon arrival. This complaint has nothing to do with smoking guestrooms or non-smoking guestrooms but with the individual hotel's and the hotel franchisors' inability to properly handle the reservation and provide the room type that was requested upon arrival.

There are more pressing problems in our industry or at our individual hotel operational level that need to be dealt with without creating new, arbitrary and capricious problems to further a liberal political agenda. If our industry franchisors have any internal integrity, they will find a solution to this issue without driving our smoking customers to our competition. Statistics suggest that the smoking percentage increases the lower down the socioeconomic success ladder of our customer base. This evidence would suggest that it is even more important for franchisees who have limited-service, focused-service, or budget-branded hotels to guard against brand directives to institute no smoking policies in 100 percent of our guestrooms.

For those of us who do not own Starwood, Marriott or Choice hotel franchises, we can be happy that the other franchisors have not pioneered this disenfranchising policy. Other franchise brands like Hilton and the Hilton Garden Inn are attempting to address the core issue of guaranteed room types; understanding how to solve the issue at its source, or realizing the foolishness.

For those of us that have franchises with flags that are cramming this down our throats, doesn't this rise to the level of “restraint of trade?” What can we do to reverse this trend and bring us back into the business of providing hospitality to our guests, whether they happen to smoke or not?

Tom Arnot is a practicing attorney and real estate developer. He was appointed in 2001 to the Hilton Garden Inn Advisory Board, and is a member of the executive board of HilMAC, Hilton Managers Assurance Corp., a hotel investment fund. Reach him at 608-444-7327.

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