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Hotel Germaphobia

The long and the short about what I am about to delve into is this: Dirty guestrooms are nothing short of poison for hotels. If you disagree, perhaps I can sway you. And if you already concur, then I hope you are doing everything you can to make this a non-issue. Because the truth is that dust, germs, grime or soot are now more aggravating to guests than ever before.

One look at a travel review website and words like ‘dirty’ and ‘unclean’ pop off the screen, angrily wrought into a reviewer’s prose to justify extremely low appraisals. Too often I see comments on TripAdvisor and similar sites where the authors deem everything agreeable but then give a lousy one-star rating because of two or three marginally untidy aspects of the room.

Moreover, the recent spate of hotel-centric reality television shows have all inculcated the need for clinical sterility in guestrooms as well as an abstinence from unsightly lobby and corridor aesthetics. The nail in the coffin has been credible reports like the one the CBC put out late last year, focusing on hidden contaminations in some of the finest downtown properties across the country. Need I mention that pocket-sized UV flashlights – a quintessential stain finder – are available practically everywhere these days.

With all this, it’s easy to assume that we are edging towards a culture of germaphobes. But there’s a double standard at play. Without any reservations, I attest that every hotel room I’ve traversed for the past five years of business and leisure travel has been cleaner than almost every home I’ve visited. Some people go weeks on end without doing an official cleanup of the bathrooms in their residence, and yet one smudge on the mirror in a guestroom and the gloves are off. It appears the problem isn’t our own germs; it’s other people’s germs.

I chalk this up to a rapid rise in consumer expectations. What was once considered just a ‘minor stain on the rug’ or a ‘hair in the shower drain’ is now a single-handed cause for sweeping demerits in online assessments. This increased sensitivity to guestroom filth only means more work on our part to maintain spotlessness, as a lack thereof can radically sully a hotel’s reputation. In this age where anyone can besmirch a property with a briskly written negative review on one website or another, there’s simply no room for error.

Take the CBC’s investigative report on this topic, eloquently titled “Hotel Germ Spotlight” for your reference. They not only examined what’s on the surface, but used hidden cameras, UV flashlights and an array of other gadgets to find all kinds of unsanitary microbes – especially on the usual culprits such as the telephone receiver or television remote. With the Internet written in permanent ink, many prestigious hospitality brand names have been tarnished by CBC’s findings for years to come. And yet, using equipment that detects microscopic germs may be paradoxical because if we are to discredit hotel rooms for cultivating such Petri dishes, then we might as well excoriate cars, buses, trains, airplanes, movie theatres, shopping malls and anywhere else where people congregate.

It’s unjust, yes, but it’s nonetheless where we are headed. Vilifying reports like these come at a time when customers are increasingly relying on travel websites to verify a property’s worth. Many travellers won’t even book a hotel that doesn’t have enough ‘online legitimacy’ – that being a sizeable quantity of third-party reviews. And that quantity had better be positive.

It’s all just another reaffirmation that cleanliness is next to godliness, with the imperative need to eliminate negative online appraisals all the more salient. This upswing in hotel germaphobia means that before you attempt to satisfy a guest’s higher desires for a magical vacation or a breezy business trip, you have to first meet the more fundamental hygiene requirements.

A good first step is to hire an unannounced, independent, external auditor capable of elucidating your housekeepers’ shortcomings and suggesting more sanitary cleaning procedures. From there, it all boils down to training and reassessing for improvement. This falls on your executive housekeeper, so ensure that this manager fully understands the imperative of ongoing vigilance and continuous improvement towards hygiene perfection.

One particularly prickly matter: For their wages and what is required of them on an hourly basis, housekeepers are often too rushed to perform their duties entirely up to code. If they are cutting corners, it is more likely due to time constraints than malicious intentions against the hotel. Say you set a quota of 14 guestrooms per shift and with proper technique a maid can only finish 12. Fearful of reprisal, this maid then hurries through the latter half of the day to stay on target. Part of the staff education should include not only a fair allotment of rooms, but also a long chat that stresses quality (meeting standards) over quantity (sacrificing standards).
Housekeeping theatre
Another tactic worth consideration is what I classify as ‘housekeeping theatre’. It’s not just about making the rooms spotless, but ensuring that guests know the rooms are spotless. Chocolates placed on pillows during turndown service are a nice touch here, but you can go a lot further. How about weekly room audits by managers during prime hours so guests see with their own eyes that cleanliness is taken with the utmost of seriousness by top level employees? Or, how about pamphlets in each room that explain the meticulousness of your cleaning process?

Another important countermeasure is to write managerial responses to travel website reviews. If a user points you as unclean, get on there and politely state your case. Just as consumers are seeking websites with online legitimacy, they are looking for how staff responds, which very often augments the overall impression of a hotel. Regardless of all this, in the end it boils down to customer satisfaction. Clean rooms leave guests content, while the rise of hotel germaphobia can have very dire consequences.

You’d best step up your housekeeping game to ensure that you stay in stride with expectations.

(Originally published in Canadian Lodging News on June 27, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyHotel Germaphobia