A Bay Area market research company for the hospitality industry recently asked business and leisure travelers how their hotel stay was. Among their complaints: bloody towels, bird fecal matter on a lampshade, used condoms in the bathroom and a missing toilet tank top.
Such scenarios are uncommon, but going on the road for business can be stressful, even without worrying whether your airline seat, rental car and hotel room will measure up to your hygiene standards.
Did someone wipe that tray table between flights? Is the rental car really smoke-free? Is that a used peppermint on the back seat? Did someone clean the hotel sink? Is the room carpet clean enough to pad around on without socks? And do you dare stretch out on the bedspread, not knowing when it was last laundered?
Cleanliness is high on the wish list of most business travelers, says Jonathan Barsky, a partner at Market Metrix in San Rafael, Calif., which provides market research to the hospitality industry. In his quarterly Hospitality Index survey, encompassing about 35,000 consumers, he includes cleanliness as one of several measures of customer satisfaction.
In his 2004 third-quarter survey, he found levels of cleanliness improving overall, except for extended-stay hotels. Scores for extended-stay hotels, one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, have declined slightly, says Albert Lin, a consultant for Market Metrix.
Besides the aforementioned gripes, Barsky has heard hotel guests complain about pet hair on furnishings, leftover food, blood stains on bedding, water leaks in the bathroom and plumbing that's awry.
But less-than-sterile conditions are more of an aesthetic problem than a true health hazard, say infectious disease experts, adding that business travelers who are generally healthy have little to fear from everyday dust and dirt.
The hair in a sink looks disgusting, but you're probably not going to catch anything from it, says Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist and chairman of the department of medicine at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.
Bloodstained materials or used condoms, he says, are another matter, and if you encounter either, ask to change rooms immediately or move to another hotel.
Typically, taking the wheel of a rental car and sleeping at a hotel are no different from getting into a friend's car or being a houseguest. You could catch a cold, but when it comes to serious illness such as sexually transmitted diseases or hepatitis, "you are not going to run into risk if you are anywhere near healthy," Glatt says. Cold viruses can live hours or longer, he says, so you might infect yourself by touching dirty door handles or other surfaces.
Although the health risks of a dirty, smelly on-the-road environment may be slight, such problems trigger complaints, says Michael Caron, vice president of new products and program development at the Cendant Car Rental Group in Parsippany, N.J., the parent of Avis and Budget car rental companies.
"Vehicle odor has been a concern for a long time," he says. "It's not one of the biggest complaints, but it is one you constantly hear."
And it can be difficult to control. "You can fix ... no oil in the car just by paying attention to upkeep and maintenance," he says. "I can't control what the customer does in the car."
When vehicle odor cropped up as a common customer concern in a 2002 Cendant survey, Caron says the company "contracted with a chemist who works with companies to develop scents."
After testing four scents for two weeks among 10,000 customers, the winner was Sunny Sky No. 1, "a chemically formulated odor eliminator," Caron says. It's sprayed in the car before each new renter. About 80% of Avis cars are expected to have the scent by March, Caron says.
Besides having scent added, Cendant cars undergo a 55-point checklist, including maintenance, vacuuming and washing, Caron says. Officials at other car rental companies report a similar routine between rentals.
But it's difficult even for the car rental companies to determine whether an auto has always been smoke-free, Caron says. "Every vehicle is designated nonsmoking when it comes to us," he says. The key tags contain a no-smoking reminder. Still, "there is no guarantee that the car is a nonsmoking car."
So what can you do? Tell them you want a nonsmoking car, Caron advises. If it smells like smoke when you get in, ask for another.
One of the best ways to ensure you'll get a sweet-smelling and well-maintained car, Caron says, is to ask for a new car or the car with the lowest mileage when you reserve.
But when I called three national car rental agencies -- Hertz, Alamo and Enterprise -- reservations agents said a nonsmoking car could be requested but not guaranteed. The best advice, the agents agreed: Ask again at your destination and refuse a car that smells of smoke.