Evolution of hotel amenities

2 May 2014 04:42 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


John R. Hendrie wrote in 2005, and, I quote, “It used to be so easy being a hotelier. Your guest wanted a good mattress, a clean bathroom, and perhaps easy access to a pool. And, room amenities were not a loss leader, for your prices reflected a recoup of the costs, minimal, as they were. Then, the evolution began, and you had to be quite clever to gain and retain the competitive edge and not break the bank,” unquote.

Hotels have always differentiated themselves by more than the room rate. Through the years, certain innovations and amenities have become the standard, spurring more amenities. In the ‘60s, Westin Hotels, then Western International Hotels, introduced the guaranteed hotel reservations pledge - to have your room waiting for you at whatever late hour you arrived or to pay for a room at a nearby hotel.

Hilton Hotels introduced its own credit card to build loyalty in the days before credit cards reached their current levels of use. After the colour TV came, the TV-plus-remote, then the radio clock. The late ‘70s brought the revelation that 80 percent of a guest’s time awake is spent in the bathroom, thus sparking the beginning of the “shampoo wars.” Hotels started supplying most everything found in the typical toiletry bag including mouthwash, the plastic single bladed disposable shaver, the ‘one-fit-for-all’ toothbrush’ and more.

To really stand out, some hotels installed televisions and telephones in the bathroom. Sewing kits, shoe mitts and shoe horns suddenly appeared in the room and soon free newspapers were placed outside each door. In Asia, it began with the local dailies – then some hotel flew in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ for their corporate guests. Not to be left behind the competition began delivering ‘Der Zeitung’ to its German guests. All of these introductions were geared to moving one hotel ahead of the other in terms of value-added services and amenities.

The ‘80s brought frequent-traveller programmes, which eventually partnered with the airlines’ frequent-flyer programmes. Hotels added business centres to cater to the last-minute needs of their corporate and convention guests. “Pay per view” in-room movies helped to entertain the traveller without having to search cities for entertainment. In-room coffee makers also began in limited-service hotels and have since become a standard provision in most hotels.

More and more hotels began to install the wall mounted hairdryer in the bathroom. During the ‘90s, “breakfast included” became the standard offering at limited service hotels. In addition, hotels introduced the ability to book reservations online. Towards the end of the century irons and ironing boards appeared inside the wardrobe. All of these amenities and services became standard by the year 2000.

The Heavenly Bed, a trademark of Westin Hotels, is designed to treat guests like the princess in the story “The Princess and the Pea,” without the pea. Westin did extensive research to select the mattress, sheets and pillows to create a sleeping experience above all other hotels. Guests are so taken with this bed that they offer to buy it right out of the hotel room.

Another international hotel began offering a “sleep concierge” - a special service attendant who brings to your room a wide variety of pillow styles so you can choose the one that matches your preference. Soon, it was ‘pillow fight’ by almost every five-star hotel as they battled each other to provide the widest variety of differently shaped/sized pillows.  

Amenities and amenity creep
The history of the industry’s ever-improving levels of service is the story of amenity creep. An amenity is a special extra used to distinguish the property from its competitors. It’s used in part to establish the brand and to give it equity. After a time, guests expect the amenity. No longer do they view the product or service as an “extra.” It is now offered throughout the industry because competitors have first met the challenge and then launched their own, new amenity.

Rather than a competitive advantage, the amenity is now a fixed cost. So, little by little, small hotel rooms grew larger. Direct-dial telephones replaced the lobby booth to be replaced in turn by free, wireless connectivity. In the US, free television replaced coin-operated sets, to be replaced in turn by multiple, flat screens. Expensive, but rarely used swimming pools became the norm.

Air-conditioners replaced electric fans. Inclusive breakfasts replaced in-room coffee makers. One wash basin became two, holding a variety of soaps, combs and lotions replaced the disposable shower cap, the free shoe shine cloth and the shoe horn. At one point, the cost of toiletry amenities exceeded US $ 15 per room per night!

Amenities travellers can and can’t do without
A TripBarometer ‘Truth in Travel’ survey carried out in 2013 revealed which hotel amenities and services travellers found the most and least important. Free in-room Wi-Fi (89 percent), and breakfast (84 percent) was in high demand. “Accept my credit cards” (59 percent) and “hire staff who speak my language” (34 percent) are the top things travellers wished  hotels would do, as compared to 12 percent who expected hotels would “include typical food from my country in the menu.”

Merely including typical food from the guest’s country can backfire if it is not ‘authentic’ – go on…ask the Chinese traveller! The survey also indicated that travellers have much less interest in the mini-bar. Honestly, I fail to understand why the hotel industry cannot unplug and wheel min-bars out of the room? Every time I read the prices I am perplexed as to why they continue with this ‘scam’.

Minibars require a lot of labour to keep full, and theft is a constant problem; some customers steal alcohol and replace it with water to try to fool whoever’s checking. According to many disenchanted guests minibars represent everything that’s wrong with full-service hotels. It isn’t only the steep markups - that bothers guests. It’s the lengths to which some hotel will go to collect minibar revenues.

David Eccleston, a retired programmer from Fort Lauderdale, remembers checking into a hotel in Hong Kong a few years ago. “I saw the high price of a Coke in the minibar, so I didn’t take it,” he recalls. He bought a can of coke from an outside vending machine, and when he was done with it, he left the empty can in the trash inside his room. “When I checked out, I discovered they had charged me for the Coke,” he says. After he explained the mistake, and noted that the beverage was still in the minibar, the hotel reversed his charge.

“Of the hundreds of hotels with minibars to which I have served as a consultant, not one achieved a profit from the minibar service,” says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University’s Tisch Center hospitality programme. He supports canning them. Wouldn’t it be great if a full-service hotel chain bravely stepped forward, publicly and permanently - and said, “We’re done with minibars?” Interestingly, chains such as Marriott and Hilton are considering scrapping them, and indeed Hyatt has already done so in many of its properties.

Must-have hotel amenities
Here’s a quick rundown of the past must-have amenities from the last few years: 2006 was the flat-screen TV, 2007 was the iPod docking station, 2008 was high-tech recreational toys, 2009 was the plug panels and 2010 was the iPad. IPads, flat screens and plug panels continue to be crucial to hotel stays.

A graph from the SmartBrief survey detailing business travellers’ feelings about free WiFi, as of September 2013, showed nearly 57 percent of people will not book a hotel without free WiFi, while another 26 percent will only do so if they can claim it as a business expense.

Every traveller has stories about having to walk out of their room into the hall or down to the lobby to access free “in-room Internet.” For years, hotels offered ethernet cords in case the in-room feed was weak during heavy load times, but with the boom in tablets and ultralight laptops, that’s now irrelevant. Now if only we could get them to add free WiFi as a milestone amenity.

Google’s Hotel Finder tool
Google’s Hotel Finder tool has some useful features that could make the difference between finding a hotel you’re OK with and finding one you’re going to love. The Amenities filter, for example, does exactly what its name suggests. It enables you to quickly find a hotel that fulfils all your requirements.

“Say you’re searching for hotels in Glasgow and you want free breakfast, an indoor pool and a gym. Clicking the Amenities button and selecting those features prompts the list and map results to update with relevant hotels,” Google explains. “There are more than 15 categories of amenities listed, so it’s easy to find hotels that fit your needs,” it adds.

Google’s hotel finder has been around for a few years now, but it’s still evolving. The tool is quite useful for finding a place to stay in a foreign city, even if Google doesn’t really have a complete travel solution, even in conjunction with the Flight Search tool.

(Shafeek Wahab has an extensive background in hospitality management spanning over 30 years. He has held key managerial responsibilities in internationally renowned hotel chains, both locally and abroad, including his last held position as Head of Branding for a leading hotel group in Sri Lanka. Now focusing on corporate education, training, consulting and coaching, he can be contacted at shafeekwahab@in2ition.biz. Website: www.in2ition.biz)

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