The Savvy Traveler : Counting the Ways That Hotels Clean Up

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

How clean is your hotel room? And how do you know the hotel has really worked hard to keep it that way?

The answers aren't always easy to find. More often than not, guests checking into rooms see superficial evidence of cleaning: The bed is made, there are new towels folded in the bathroom.

But when did they last clean under the bathroom sink? When was the last time they vacuumed the carpet under the bed. When did they last dust above the armoire? Chances are it may have been six months ago.

When was the last time the hotel changed the bed blanket? When was the last time the hotel shampooed the carpet, or deep-cleaned the sofa?

"Housekeeping is our most formidable task," says John VanOrdstrand, general manager of the Bonaventure Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Our philosophy is whether the guest can see the dirt or not, the rooms must be clean."

That thinking is not always easy to implement, based on the design of some hotels, as well as their geographic location.

At some hotels, shag carpets are breeding grounds for fleas; they also accumulate dirt and bacteria. At other hotels, humidity and mildew are the enemies. (At the Bonaventure, air conditioning units in guest rooms run 24 hours a day to combat mildew, whether the room is occupied or not.)

sh Inspection Frequency

The key to keeping some hotels clean can often be found in how frequently management inspects guest rooms.

Each day at 2:30 p.m., at the Regent in Sydney, Australia, six guest rooms are inspected at random by the hotel's general manager, chief housekeeper and chief engineer.

At the Inter-Continental Hotel in New York, department heads inspect 50 rooms each week. Every two months, guest room valences are vacuumed, and lamp shades, door frames and window shades are washed. And all wood is thoroughly polished.

Twice each year, draperies are vacuumed. Room carpets are only shampooed on an "as needed" basis. "The carpeting has a protective coating," says executive housekeeper Stefanie Georges. "Repeated shampooing will wear the coating away. We've found that the residual soap in frequently shampooed carpets tends to retain more dirt."

After changing the sheets and cleaning the bathroom, maids at the Inter-Continental also spray tile and glass areas with a bactericidal, fungicidal disinfectant.

sh Replace Blanket

My advice: When checking in to a hotel, always call housekeeping and ask them to replace the blanket on your bed. This also applies to the extra blanket/pillow that can often be found in guest room closets.

Make sure these are also replaced when you check in. At many hotels, these blankets and pillows may have been sitting there for weeks--or they may have been used the night before by someone else. After all, if you want a clean room, why shouldn't you have a clean blanket and pillow too?

At the Stanhope Hotel in New York, general manager Stefan Simkovics checks six rooms at random--two rooms that are ready, two rooms that are turned down for the evening and two occupied rooms that have been made up by the staff.

He has also started an incentive program for his housekeeping staff. Housekeepers who keep the cleanest rooms earn points that can be redeemed for merchandise and other perks.

Jim Bazemore, the owner of Perry's Motel in Daytona Beach, Fla., has instituted a different s ort news As they walk through the room, he takes back one dollar for every flaw he spots. By the end of the inspection they get to keep any money they have left.

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of housekeeping incentive program. Each time he inspects a room, he invites the maid and her supervisor along.

He then hands each of them 10 one-dollar bills prior to entering. As they walk through the room, he takes back one dollar for every flaw he spots. By the end of the inspection they get to keep any money they have left.

Does the program work? "Let's just say," he says, laughing, "that I have housekeepers begging me to check their rooms."

At the 415-room Omni Berkshire Place in New York, the staff pays special attention to the marble in guest bathrooms, as well as guest room windows--every six weeks, all 1,100 windows are cleaned, inside and out. And fabric-covered headboards are steam cleaned.

At the Regent in Bangkok, the cleaning is much more frequent. Thirty sets of guest room draperies are rotated almost daily. Carpets are shampooed quarterly. Each floor of the hotel has its own housekeeping supervisor and staff.

sh In-House Competition

"The floors actually compete against each other," says general manager Bill Black. The hotel also keeps six painters and two handymen on duty each day to re-do scuffed walls and touch up furniture.

"Our philosophy is to replace things before they're worn out," Black says. "We want to keep things fresh. For example," he says, "this hotel is only five years old, and we've already redone 200 rooms."

There are hotels of similar vintage--with a high turnover of guests, or hotels that cater to groups and conventions--that look much older than their age.

There are other hotels that are positively obsessive when it comes to keeping clean. The Le Bristol Hotel in Paris claims that before each new guest checks in, the toilet seat in the bathroom is removed, cleaned and, if necessary, re-scraped and re-varnished.

At The Drake in Chicago, guest room cleanliness can also be called a management obsession.

Maids are given special cleaning checklists. One is called "things to be dusted in a guest room," and it includes, among other things, wall moldings, bed legs and headboards. Another, more detailed list of "must clean" areas itemizes more than 100 cleaning assignments.

In a follow-up section, it even asks an often forgotten question at many hotels: "Is the sleeping/living area/bathroom/closet free of offensive odors?"

sh Exercise Program

There are other little housekeeping touches at hotels worth noting. At the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, the housekeeping staff starts each day with a 10-minute stretching and exercise program, designed to encourage them to stretch out again in guest rooms to look for dirt hidden in corners or under furniture.

At the Pensione Mona Lisa in Florence, Italy, the hotel believes that maids should do their work quietly--the maids wear slippers so guests won't be disturbed.

And at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., general manager Paul Limbert believes that maids should also be seen as little as possible as they do their rounds. You won't bump into any maid carts in the halls, because there aren't any.

Instead, the hotel has numerous linen and supply closets on each floor. The hotel also requires its maids to clean 11 rooms per eight-hour shift. (The industry average is 16.)

"We maintain our rooms the old-fashioned way," says executive housekeeper Jan McLean. "We clean them. Housekeeping here is a profession, not an afterthought. We don't just make the bed and clean the bathroom. Our maids lift the cushions of the sofas, looking for crumbs. We check for stains in the carpet, and we strip the beds every day.

"We're a new hotel, but it doesn't matter. Whether you're a year old or 50 years old, guest rooms should be the same in terms of cleanliness."

She's right. In Amsterdam, the Hilton just celebrated its 25th birthday. But the hotel is kept in immaculate shape. If there's anything that Anne Shield, the hotel's general manager knows, it's how to keep things clean.

A few years back, Shield was the executive housekeeper at the 600-room Kensington Hilton in London. When she got the job, the place was a mess.

sh Staff Discord

"The guest rooms were not being kept clean," she says. "The staff didn't work together well. They weren't talking to one another. If a maid saw a stain on a guest room wall, she wouldn't tell the maintenance department. No one seemed to care about the staff and, as a result, the staff wasn't caring about the guests."

Within a few months, Shield got the housekeepers to work together as a team. "And," she says, "as a team, they learned how to anticipate dirt before it arrives."

Shield applies the same teamwork approach in Amsterdam. Each week she inspects guest rooms, looking at everything from air ducting to bathroom caulking. "I can walk into a room and know if it's dirty," she says. "It's more than something you see. After all these years, it's also something you feel."

Shield also pays particular attention to guest bathrooms. Local water in Amsterdam is high in minerals, and Shield will also frequently check shower heads for lime and calcium build-ups.

Some hotels actually challenge guests to find any dirt in their rooms.

"The best test for checking whether or not the maids are doing their job," says Patrick Board, general manager of the Hotel May Fair Inter-Continental in London, "is to place a book of matches about a half-foot under your bed when you leave the room in the morning. If it's still there when you return later in the day, there's a good chance that other things might not be up to par."

At the 160-room Midtown Hotel in Boston, guests who actually do look under their beds find a surprise--a cardboard tent card that reads: "Hi--we have already looked under the bed to make certain it is clean and sanitary."

This brings up an interesting question: How do you know the maids have really looked under the bed? How long has each card been sitting under the bed? "It's a good question," says Peter Martino, the hotel's general manager.

"But so many guests think the cards are cute that they take them. As a matter of procedure, we now have our maids look under the bed, not only to clean the area, but to replace the cards."

The Forest Manor Motor Lodge in Asheville, N.C., offers the ultimate cleanliness guarantee: If a guest can find any evidence of dirt, the room is free. Since the hotel began offering this challenge nine years ago, they've never had to give away a room.

Correction: The Ritz Hotel in Madrid has a three-night Christmas package starting at $1,080 per person. The price was incorrectly given in this column last week. Call toll-free (800) 223-6800 for details.

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