WHEN I first stayed at the W New York in 1999, the year after it opened, I thought two things. One, that the W in W Hotel stood for "Wow, tiny room." But the second was, "Wow, nice bed." The linens were top notch, with 250-thread-count sheets and a down comforter and cushy mattress. Who really cared that you could reach out and practically touch three of the four walls in the room while lying on the bed?
This bed, it turned out, was the bed that launched a thousand sheets -- a battle for sleeping supremacy among hotel chains that continues to this day.
The success at the W led W Hotels' Starwood-brand sister Westin to develop the Heavenly Bed, a key yardstick by which hotel beds are measured. Chekitan Dev, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, credits the bed with saving an otherwise moribund Westin brand from obscurity.
"The launching of the Heavenly Bed started the bed wars in a big way," Dev said. "It became one of the most celebrated marketing campaigns in the industry."
The strategy helped W Hotels compete as a luxury chain against established brands such as the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.
These days, beds are on the minds of guests as well as hotel chain marketers. In the last three years, "comfort of bed" has moved into the top two criteria of guest satisfaction, beating onetime front-runner "cleanliness," said Linda Hirneise, executive director of global travel practice for J.D. Power. Bed comfort competes with "quietness" or "quality of bathroom" for the top spot, depending on the level of the hotel.
High-end hotels will tell you they always have had the goods when it came to quality beds and that the others are Johnny-come-latelies.
"Four Seasons has provided custom-made mattresses in its hotel rooms since 1984, long before the recent promotional campaigns other companies have created around their beds," said Four Seasons spokesman Aynsley Wintrip.
But it is not just at the high end that hotel guests are seeing better beds. A trickle-down effect has been felt. Here's a look at a few of the hotel chains and their bed offerings.
A caveat: Not every chain has the bed rolled out to every room at every property, so you might want to check in advance that it's available.
Westin Heavenly Bed: Has a custom-designed pillow-top mattress by Simmons with 900 individual coils, three sheets ranging in thread count from 180 to 250, a comforter, a white duvet and five goose down or goose feather pillows.
Hilton Serenity Bed: Has a Serta Suite Dreams mattress and box springs, down duvet, Super Topper mattress pads, and high-quality linens and pillows.
Hyatt Grand Bed: Has a Sealy Posturepedic mattress, 21-ounce down blankets, 250-thread-count triple sheeting and an array of European, roll and throw pillows.
Radisson Sleep Number bed: The same bed that Lindsay Wagner hawks on television is now available at select Radisson Hotels. It allows guests to customize the firmness of the mattress on each side of the bed. Features high-thread-count, white bed linens.
Hilton Garden Inn Sleep System: Has an air mattress that adjusts using barometric pressure instead of pumps, high-quality sheets and a 100% virgin wool mattress topper designed to provide warmth in the winter and wick moisture in the summer.
Doubletree Sweet Dreams: Has a custom plush-top mattress with extra coils, a high-end linen package of baffle-box down blankets, 200-thread-count linens with triple sheeting, and four jumbo down pillows (five for king beds).
Red Roof Inn: Has an extra-thick, pillow-top mattress pad, a Polar Fleece blanket and hypoallergenic pillows.