During one frantic week last October, the posh Westin South Coast Plaza hotel surrendered its entire 12th floor to a select crew of housekeepers who scoured the rooms and halls. The newly washed walls, shampooed carpets and dry-cleaned drapes all were for the benefit of special guests: nonsmokers.
"We went from top to bottom cleaning our rooms," said Catherine J. Boire, spokeswoman for the Costa Mesa hotel. Even the housekeepers assigned to work on that floor are nonsmokers, so that its 29 rooms and hallways remain nicotine-free.
The hotel's efforts seem to have paid off. The front-desk clerks have no trouble filling the 12th-floor rooms with nonsmokers and smokers who have pledged not to light up during their stay. In fact, demand has been so great at the 400-room Westin South Coast Plaza that its management plans to open another floor exclusively to nonsmokers some time this year, making about 15% of the hotel's rooms off-limits to smokers.
The popularity of the Westin's smoke-free rooms may be a harbinger of a new service trend in an industry faced with a declining growth and a glut of rooms in some major cities. A nonsmoker can breathe easy in a $27 single at the Thrifty Scot Motel in Spokane, Wash., in a lavish $384-a-night suite at Westin's Plaza hotel in New York City or at dozens of independent inns across the county. Near Dallas, Tex., The Non-Smokers Inn is a haven away from home for tobacco-shunning travelers: All of its 134 rooms are for nonsmokers.
Although the big hotel chains have been slow to lay out the cash needed to provide a service few guests even know to request, several have made a start. In addition to the Seattle-based Westin chain, which has ordered nonsmokers' accommodations at all 52 of its U.S. properties, the Quality Inns, Ramada Inns and Hyatt chains have begun converting a portion of their thousands of rooms nationwide to smoke-free zones. Holiday Inns Inc., which claims to have the most hotels in the world, has begun offering rooms specifically for nonsmokers at its fledgling Hampton Inns division.
The service, said Robert J. Seddelmeyer, general manager of the Westin South Coast Plaza, "is something that's going to happen everywhere."
John Schultz, general manager of the Quality Inn of Anaheim, sees a financial advantage in reserving 15% of the hotel's 284 rooms for nonsmokers. "We want to retain the customers that we have and increase our market share. There is a substantial market of nonsmokers," he said.
Reduced Costs Cited
Hotel managers also cite reduced costs for redecorating and maintenance in the rooms undamaged by nicotine and smoke deposits or cigarette burns.
Like businesses everywhere, the lodging industry is falling in step with America's health and fitness kick. Hoteliers say they provide smoke-free accommodations for the comfort of their health-conscious guests and--in light of recent state laws and city ordinances restricting smoking--to head off regulation. Although several cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have enacted ordinances regulating smoking in public places, the laws do not require hoteliers to set aside separate rooms for nonsmokers.
Offering a smoke-free environment is one of the "extra service" items hotels are using as customer lures. Even though occupancy rates are "starting to creep up," said Jim Burba, a manager at the Los Angeles office of Pannell Kerr Forster, a public accounting and consulting firm, there still is a glut of rooms in some major markets, including Houston and Miami.
To attract guests, it is becoming more standard for hotels to provide guests with complimentary breakfasts, newspapers and fresh flowers--niceties once found only in quaint inns or lavish four-star hotels. Except for such amenities, "all hotels are all pretty much the same," said Steve Winning, resident manager of the Irvine Marriott, which sets aside 24 of its 500 rooms for nonsmokers.
5% Hyatt Quota
At the Hyatt hotel in Burlingame, Calif., nonsmokers' rooms have been available for five years. Parent Hyatt Corp. requires its 75 U.S. hotels to set aside at least 5% of their rooms or one floor, whichever is larger, for nonsmokers. Chuck Brown, general manager of the Burlingame hotel, said, "It's just another way of serving the needs of certain guests. They just learned to expect it" like they expect shampoo, hair conditioner and shower caps, he said.
Despite some reduced costs in the long run, converting rooms to a smoke-free environment is an expensive process. "Heavy cleaning" to eliminate smoke residues and odors costs between $200 and $300 a room, hotel managers said. The hotels also lose income as the rooms sit empty during the changeover. "You can't fool anybody by just taking out the ashtrays," said one hotel manager.