Recently, when I checked into a hotel room, I was confronted with nothing less than a combination drug and fashion store.
On the bed was a large bathrobe. Near it were terry-cloth slippers. A note advised me that jogging shoes were available in my size if I needed them.
On the bathroom counter was a virtual pharmacy: three kinds of soap, bath oil, shampoo, conditioner, a hair dryer, suntan oil, hand lotion. There were also bath beads, Q-tips, toothpaste, mouthwash, soap flakes and even a shower mitt.
And to think I had bothered to pack!
About the only thing missing was the inevitable plastic shoe horn. (Later, I found it--an expensive brass model, hanging in the guest closet, next to the flannel shoe bags.)
Welcome to the one-upmanship world of hotel amenity wars, as hotels throughout the world try to gain your loyalty by showering you (sometimes literally) with goodies. There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to amenities. Most hotels either provide too many items . . . or too few.
Many mid-priced hotel bathrooms contain the bare minimum--a glass wrapped in plastic, an ice bucket, two small bath towels, two hand towels and, instead of designer soaps, small cakes of generic soap.
But some upper-scale hotels provide everything from bath beads and cotton balls to bottles of cologne.
"That's just too much," said Nicholas Rettie, general manager of the Athenaeum Hotel in London. "The biggest mistake many hotels make is that they lose perspective when it comes to amenities. We're in the service business, not the amenities business.
"And certainly we're not in the perfume and cosmetics business. People come to a hotel for service, not to take home giveaway items."
However, there are hotel amenities that do make sense.
Budgetel Inns offers free continental-breakfast room service to guests at each of its 72 locations.
Some hotels, like the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, put fax machines in guest rooms. Others lend guests free videotapes.
The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Ore., gives guests sweatproof jogging maps and ID holders that can be laced into running shoes.
Other hotels keep a full supply of amenities for women travelers. The Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong offers an amenity kit that includes a nightgown, sewing kit, panties, panty hose, hairbrush and extra tissue paper. The hotel also provides heated hair rollers on request, and has a full-time seamstress available.
Some amenities can only be defined as special touches: In Australia, the Regent of Melbourne gives each guest a little bottle of Australian champagne every night.
In Honolulu, the Halekulani gives each guest a different sea shell every night upon turndown. And a host of hotels have replaced the traditional mint on the pillow with chocolate chip cookies and milk.
There have also been some failed amenities. "Wall-mounted hair dryers are a disaster," said Raymond Bickson, general manager of The Mark in New York City. "You can never control their speed, and they always seem to be placed in the most awkward positions, so you have to be Houdini to dry your hair.
"In fact, any amenity that's mounted is a failed amenity. If you need to mount or bolt a night table lamp, remote control for a TV--I've even seen a corkscrew that was chained to the wall--then it doesn't belong in a guest room. It's an insulting amenity."
Still, an amenities debate is raging within the hotel industry. To what extent do amenities provide a necessary service or that special added touch, or to what extent are amenities a needless and overly expensive exercise in waste?
"We certainly share the blame," Darryl Hartley-Leonard, president of Hyatt Hotels, said in a recent speech. "We started an amenities war in 1967, when we bought the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, and that has culminated in amenity packages that cost up to $20 per room for commercial hotels and up to $60 per room for resorts.
"Today, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, bath gels and bathrobes aren't extras anymore. They are expected by our guests."
But what else is now expected? Beyond the obvious items, a hotel amenity package often includes items guests can take home with them, products they would normally bring from home anyway, and items that they actually use while at the hotel which they might otherwise buy.
"Amenities have truly gotten out of hand," said Rudolf Greiner, president of Regent Hotels. "So much of it is just garbage, or it simply insults the guest. Then there are some hotels that give guests a bathrobe, which is displayed proudly on each bed.
"Why? Would you put a bathrobe on a bed, with a note in the pocket telling guests that they can buy it? Are you supposed to boast that your hotel has bathrobes? Are you in the business of selling bathrobes?
"No. Guests expect to find bathrobes in the bathroom. We look at bathrobes as . . . standard operating equipment these days."
Stan Bromley, regional vice president and general manager of the Four Season Hotel in Washington, agrees. "Amenities that are obviously wasteful may get a guest's attention, but ultimately not in a positive way," he said.
"Why should a hotel put an expensive bottle of cologne in a guest room when you already know the guest will be bringing his own? Chances are he won't even like your choice."
Indeed, this new soap opera can be expensive for both hotels and guests. Each hotel does extensive price breakdowns and cost projections on guest amenities, and the figures can be staggering.
The number of amenity items in a regular hotel room might surprise you, ranging from matchbooks and pens, notepads and tissues to soap and bathrobes.
At The Mark in New York City, the amenities package includes plastic newspaper holders (so guests won't get their hands dirty when picking up the paper in the morning), mineral water, granola, bathroom scales, shoe trees, garment bags, bottle openers, bath salts, an array of soaps, gels, Q-tips, cotton balls and umbrellas, just to name a few.
"But we don't get crazy with the amenities," said the Mark's Bickson.
"There's no point in overdoing it," the Athenaeum's Rettie said, "because if you do, it might give the impression to guests that you're overcompensating on amenities to hide bad service."
Location can also be a factor when a hotel selects its amenities. The Halekulani, for example, is on the beach at Waikiki. Therefore, the guests are not only supplied with the standard amenities, they also receive suntan lotion, washing suds to rinse out their swimsuit and plastic bags to put the wet suit in. Hair dryers--another important feature for a beach hotel's guests--are also in the bathrooms.
Hilton developed its amenities package by studying focus groups of business travelers. (Added to the package: extra-gentle shampoo and mouthwash.)
All of the amenities, bathroom goodies and conveniences may indeed be tempting, but remember, you're paying for it. And, at some hotels, room rates are so expensive that no amount of soap or chocolate is really worth the extra tariff.