Monday, August 29, 2011

Decline and fall of hotel amenities

The news media and blogosphere are still understandably awash in Hurricane Irene. When I boarded a plane in Chicago on Friday evening, on the second leg of a journey home as the storm approached North Carolina, every flat-screen TV in the terminal was tuned to worried weather-people explaining satellite images. The flight crew assured us as our plane pulled away from the gate that we were "heading in the right direction" -- west, away from the chaos shaping up on the Atlantic seaboard.

Figuring readers can get their fill of catastrophe elsewhere, I'm not going to write about the weather today. I'm going to write about shampoo.

Specifically, I'm going to write about those little bottles of shampoo with which all but the most downmarket hotels furnish their rooms. (Yes, this is a sign that I've been traveling for work again. Last week's meeting was in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Once upon a time, little bottles of shampoo with which all but the most downmarket hotels furnish their rooms were handy for two purposes.

First, they were handy to use when one was traveling. If you weren't fussy about particular brands of shampoo, you didn't need to pack any. That was convenient, and it's convenient still.

In fact, in the world of commercial air-travel following 11 Sept 2001, these amenities are even handier. That's because the government now spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to make flying seem safe. What do I mean by seem? Consider the possibility that a malicious actor worms his way into one of many thousands of jobs cleaning planes or hurling luggage in the 'secure' and 'restricted' back end of an airport. Could happen? Do you think?

To the extent that efforts to make flying seem safe boil down to forbidding passengers from carrying normal-sized bottles of shampoo and other liquids in their carry-on luggage, I submit that the TSA's 3-1-1 rules are aimed ... a little wide of the mark, let's say.

Anyway. Back on topic:

Second, those little bottles of shampoo and whatnot that are stocked in hotel rooms used to make nice little favors to take home from a vacation or business trip. The maids restocked, the guests swept the nice little bottles off the bathroom sink and into the take-home-with-me pile. Not just bottles that were partly used, but the bottles meant to replenish them.

A diligent collector and frequent traveler could save several dollars per year [sic] by reducing shampoo costs at the supermarket or drug store. Some people really went to town on this. I'm not going to name names.

Okay, I'll name one name: Tanner Latham, who confessed to amentity-hoarding live on the intertubes several years ago. Check out the shower caddy photo from his post, at left.

Mr. Latham put his cards on the table in 2008, but I didn't have to Google to know that certain travelers in my own circles, whether on the road for work or fun, plan amenity scavenger hunts ahead of time, leaving ample room in their suitcases for purloined bottles of shampoo and body lotion, soaps, sewing kits, and shoe-polishing cloths.

Well, it could only have been a matter of time before hotels that underwrite this extra-curricular consumption fought back, right? Why shouldn't they? They're running businesses, no? This question of 'fighting back' is what led me to write in the past tense for most of these last five or six paragraphs. Those little bottles of shampoo were handy for two purposes.

How might hotel management stop guests from taking little bottles of shampoo home with them, you wonder?

While a hotelier can reasonably decline to stock a guest's home bathrooms if asked directly, it wouldn't really do to inspect everybody's luggage on checkout. That wouldn't inspire warm, fuzzy feelings about a hotel stay. Not so good for repeat business.

Something tricksier is called for. Something like what I've noticed of late about shampoo bottles provided to hotel guests.

Until a couple of years ago, almost every hotel used the same sort of bottle: plastic, 1 or 2 ounces, screw-top cap.

That last characteristic is the important one: screw-top cap. Little plastic bottles with screw-top caps are not going to open in your luggage on the flight home and ooze shampoo or conditioner or body lotion all over your clothes and cell-phone charger.

But.

Little plastic bottles with flip-top caps ... well ... now you're taking chances. Never mind those cheapo elastic pull-off caps, the kind with a lip that squeezes around the bottle's neck and kinda-sorta seals it shut. Even if you're smart enough to jam all the shampoo you can pocket into the sort of regulation quart-size plastic bag that passes TSA carry-on muster, the flimsier bottles are likely to leave you with a regulation quart-size plastic bag awash in goopy leaked shampoo. This will detract from the unpacking experience, rest assured.

So far as I can tell flimsy bottles are becoming the hotel norm, even in the solid middle-tier chains like Hilton, InterContinental, and Marriott. And this makes it a much less attractive proposition to take home little bottles of shampoo pilfered from one's hotel room.

The crucial frivolous question here: Is this disincentive to shampoo-hoarding an accident? Or is it a secret plot on the part of a hotel industry determined to shore up its bottom line by any means necessary?

Did hotel management types put their heads together at some hotel management type conclave, and figure out that flimsier bottles would stanch the flow of amenities (and profits) from their properties ... or is it just that flimsier bottles are, well, cheaper?

Anybody out there know? Suspect? Have theories? Able to cite proof? Do tell in the comments.

Andrew Bender wrote on the topic of hotel shampoo bottles for Forbes just this month. He had a slightly different angle: Bender wondered what happens to all the partially-used bottles left behind by guests. In satisfying his curiosity, he dug up a new tendency in hotels to repurpose leftover shampoo rather than dump it into landfill.

No, that doesn't mean that guests are given 'used' amenities. Instead, as Bender describes, partially-consumed bottles are collected for outfits like Bin Donated, an "in-kind donation aggregator" in Chicago:

Bin Donated supplies big blue bins to the hotel, housekeepers fill them with partially used product, and Bin Donated collects and distributes the contents to regional homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters and Chicago public schools. “Housekeeping staff is so on board with the program that we donate more than 200 pounds of shampoos, soaps and lotions every month,” says the hotel’s promotions manager, Gretchen Spear.
Can't argue with that. Even better:

Other hotels are getting rid of the little bottles entirely. Hotels including Starwood’s Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft and Element brands, and Home2 Suites by Hilton, have switched to dispensers for shampoo and shower gel.

Have you noticed a shift in the quality of hotel amenity packaging? What do you think? Is it just another instance of cheaper everything, or are we talking intentional discouragement of sticky-fingered hotel guests? And where do you stand on the dispenser question?





Thanks to Tanner Latham, Freelance Writer & Multimedia Storyteller, for permission to use his shower caddy photo in this post. Mr. Latham blogs at Edge of the Road.

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