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Daily hotel housekeeping may be a thing of the past. Here’s why.
When Mary Vogel discovered her hotel had no daily hotel housekeeping service, she had a mixed reaction.
She’d made a reservation at the Hampton Inn & Suites Asheville, about a mile from the famous Biltmore Estate. But when she and her husband checked in, a receptionist told them the property wouldn’t service their rooms the next day.
The policy was for the guests’ protection during the pandemic, the employee added.
Vogel, a retired librarian from Glenview, Ill., says eliminating daily housekeeping makes sense — sort of.
”It’s probably good for the environment that there is less laundry being done and fewer cleaning products being used,” she told me. “My concern is all the housekeeping people who will lose their jobs, but I have no problem with not having daily housekeeping.”
That’s a common sentiment. A survey commissioned last August by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) suggests the suspension of daily hotel housekeeping enjoys broad support from hotel guests. Almost 9 out of 10 customers (86%) approved of suspending daily housekeeping of rooms.
But what if daily housekeeping never returns? That’s exactly what’s happening now, according to the hotel workers’ union Unite Here.
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”Major hotel brands are quietly trying to permanently end the standard of daily housekeeping as they reopen,” he says. “Many travelers might not realize that the industry is trying to return to full occupancy without bringing back its full workforce – a massive, unprecedented disinvestment in women and communities of color that would put the recovery totally out of reach for many.”
Eliminating daily housekeeping has a price: 180,917 jobs in the United States and $4.8 billion in annual wages lost. Unite Here’s devastating report, called Playing Dirty, paints a bleak future for the American hotel industry. But it also points to a future where housekeeping may be optional, or worse, a hotel may charge you for it.
You probably remember a time when hotels cleaned your room every day and changed your towels. The hotel industry widely considered this a standard amenity, so you would find it everywhere, from the lowliest motel to the loftiest five-star property.
But then, about a decade ago, hotels stumbled upon an idea for saving money: Instead of laundering the towels every day, they would leave it up to the guest. “Please reuse towels” cards in the bathrooms urged guests to leave their towels on the rack. That would allow housekeepers not to change them and “save the environment.”
They did more than that. AH&LA estimates that the towel move reduced a hotel’s laundry and utility expenses by 17%.
Fast-forward to the pandemic. Now guests are paranoid about catching COVID from surfaces. The hotel industry responds by eliminating daily housekeeping. And as the pandemic starts to recede, many major hotel chains decide they want to keep it that way.
And poof — the industry is $4.8 billion richer.
”Reduced housekeeping has become more about savings than safety,” says Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Advanced Operational Concepts, a global security consultancy.
Hotels have other motives to keep daily housekeeping out of the picture. There’s a severe labor shortage.
”Even with wages going to $16 per hour plus paid benefits, we are struggling to find labor,” says hotel consultant Robert Rauch. “The truth is, many workers are still sitting on the sidelines.” That means at some hotels with labor shortages, you’re likely to have your room cleaned by a manager or front desk associate — if it’s cleaned at all.
Many guests say they’re OK with the cuts.
”I did not miss housekeeping services when I stayed at a hotel earlier this month,” says Gabriel Dungan, who runs an online mattress store. “Sure, it’s nice to come back to a room with the beds made and to have fresh towels. But it’s certainly not a necessity.”
Dungan agrees with Vogel about the benefits of cutting services.
”Not replacing sheets and towels daily is better for the environment. If we needed anything like fresh towels or new water glasses, we simply called down to the front desk and requested them,” he says.
On visits to central Illinois during the pandemic, Michael Montgomery and his wife skipped housekeeping service.
”Very frankly, I didn’t miss it,” says Montgomery, a Michigan-based consultant to nonprofit organizations.
He likes the environmental benefits. Eliminating daily cleaning will reduce the labor needs of the hotel industry, he notes. That will help the industry, which continues to suffer during the pandemic.
But not everyone is happy with the changes. Alex Beene, a community coordinator for the state of Tennessee who travels frequently, says the service cuts are a “nightmare.”
”When I had to travel at the height of the pandemic, I completely understood eliminating housekeeping, and it was fairly easy getting anything I needed,” he says. “Now that many hotels are swamped with returning travelers, it’s become a real issue.”
In recent weeks, he’s stayed at hotels in Denver, New York, and Tampa. He says it took hours to get something as simple as a bath towel or bar of soap. No daily housekeeping may be saving hotels money, he adds, “but as more travelers like myself return to traveling, it’s turning into a real hassle.”
I’ve been on the road since April, and most of the hotels have completely eliminated daily housekeeping. But not all of them. I stayed at Omni Hotels & Resorts properties in Richmond, Va., and Charlottesville, Va., last month. Both still had daily housekeeping.
Omni offers choice of full stayover service or limited stayover with a refresh of towels and trash removal. Last year, Omni introduced a program called “Opt Out to Help Out” that gives guests an opportunity to give back to their local communities. In exchange for opting out of housekeeping services, Omni donates a meal to Feeding America, which supports the local food bank in each hotel’s area.
“Daily housekeeping is essentially defunct,” says Lluis Sola, director of operations at Jurny, a hospitality tech company. “Even before COVID, there was a noticeable trend of guests opting out of daily cleanings for numerous reasons like fear of stolen items or environmental reasons.”
It’s not too hard to see where all this is headed. Back in 2011, I predicted that hotels were pondering adding mandatory housekeeping fees. Maybe my coverage of the issue made them pull back, and the idea got sidelined. But COVID-19 may have breathed new life into this idea that a hotel could monetize housekeeping.
It’s a time-tested formula that the airline industry has fully embraced. Take something that was once included in the price of a ticket, like the ability to check a bag. Then separate it from the fare and charge a little extra for it. Then slowly, over time, raise the price until the fee becomes a profit center.
You’ve seen that happen with luggage, onboard meals, onboard entertainment — well, pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down on a plane these days.
So what if that happens with daily housekeeping. It’s not too difficult to imagine a future when you have to pay extra to get your room cleaned during your stay or get fresh towels or even soap. Hotels are already helping themselves to your money with water bottles that cost $10, overpriced minibars, and mandatory resort fees. What’s one more fee?
Some hotels understand that they can’t be airlines and have struck the right balance between saving the environment and protecting their profits. Mark Beales has seen that at several properties.
”They gave the guest the option to not have their room serviced in exchange for a monetary deduction from their bill or points added to their hotel points program,” says Beales, a retired mortgage banker from Mill Creek, Calif.
In other words, the price of the room includes cleaning and towels. But if you want to save money and receive a partial refund or points, you can opt out of daily housekeeping. That would keep more housekeepers employed, and it could still lead to significant savings for hotel owners.
One thing is clear: It’s unlikely we’ll return to the days when housekeepers clean your room every day. But whether this turns into a money grab by the hotel industry or not is still an open question.