Hotels are jockeying to win customers over with high thread counts, sleep doctors and easy-to-use alarm clocks.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The hotel industry appears to have awoken to the fact that it's not just about 24-hour room service, wireless Internet and cable TV. It's also about a good night's sleep.
Prodded by Westin's success with its Heavenly Bed, virtually every major chain from budget to upscale is introducing new mattresses, linens and even sleep gadgets intended to provide a restful night's sleep -- and win travelers' loyalty.
The rush to produce all these new high-thread-count sheets and duvet covers has unleashed a battle of the beds.
Radisson is introducing Sleep Number beds. Hyatt is going with a new pillow-top mattress. Marriott has ordered $190 million worth of upgraded beds and linens. Hilton has designed what it calls the world's easiest-to-set alarm clock. And Crowne Plaza has hired a sleep doctor for advice on relaxation and tossed in a sleep kit for guests: eye mask, earplugs, night light, a drape clip, lavender aromatherapy spray and a sleep CD.
Even budget chains (Red Roof Inns) and moderate hotels (Best Western) are jumping into the fray, with such amenities as hypoallergenic pillows at the former and triple sheeting at the latter.
First out of the gate
All of this can be traced to the introduction of the Heavenly Bed -- Westin's pillow-top Simmons mattress with 900 individual coils that is soft and firm without being too much of either. Rolled out five years ago by Westin, a Starwood Hotels property, the bed's popularity with guests made other hotels notice. Now, rather than pine for home, many guests are settling in for a restful night -- and then asking how they can buy the beds for themselves.
"Being first into the market is a huge advantage," said Sue Brush, Westin's senior vice president. "We feel good that, although people are trying to duplicate what we've done, nobody has reached the level that we're at after five years."
Westin's 2004 internal survey showed that guests ranked comfort of beds a 9.19 on a scale of 10, up from 8.96 in 1999. And in a survey of 64 hotel brands, J.D. Power and Associates, which measures customer satisfaction, ranked Westin and Sheraton in its top 10 in comfort of bed.
New beds and bedding, said Linda Hirneise, a partner at J.D. Power, represent "a very strong competitive edge" for Westin and Sheraton. "Now, they're all playing catch-up."
Willing to pay
Consumers are paying the bill for the new beds, but so far no one is complaining. Brush said that guests in Westin's survey indicated they would be willing to pay $9 to $11 more for a good night's sleep. At Radisson, focus groups indicated they would pay an additional $10 a night for better beds.
"When people go to budget hotels, they tell us that the hotels are cheap, they're a lousy value and they leave a lot to be desired," said Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who tracks hotel satisfaction. "But they go for one reason -- because they're cheap.
"As you move to more upscale properties, people have higher expectations. And there's no more higher level of service than the comfort of bedding. People will pay more for it."
So why didn't hotel owners give their guests better beds sooner, especially if they could have charged more? Probably because guests didn't demand them.
"Ten years ago, bedding was a small segment of the market," said Leo Vogel, director of sales and marketing for Sealy's contract division, which supplies upscale properties like the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton with its beds. "Now, luxury bedding has become a huge issue at the retail level. People are spending more money on mattresses. It's part of our lifestyle."
Bye-bye, floral bedspreads
The upgrade trend means that many hotels have finally trashed those unsightly floral bedspreads, which hid stains and were cleaned infrequently. In their place are thick comforters with white duvet covers that are cleaned after each guest checks out.
"People are wise to the fact that a polyester floral-patterned bedspread doesn't get washed very often," said Kevin Kowalski, vice president of brand management at Crowne Plaza. "If you use white, you can't hide stains and filth."
Beds and linens have gone over so well that many guests ask about purchasing them at checkout. Westin has sold almost 4,000 of its Simmons beds (at a cost of $1,300 for a king mattress and box spring) and 30,000 sheet-and-pillow sets on its Web site. It expects sales to top $8 million this year.
Other hotels refuse to be caught napping. Crowne Plaza now sells its Serta beds on its Web site, and Marriott and Hilton plan to sell their linen packages online this summer. Upscale properties such as the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton have been selling their beds and bedding for several years, and Fairmont guests can make bed purchases from their rooms at some locales.
Sleep zone ahead
It's all about getting an edge on the competition. Now, hotels are trying to one-up each other by offering tempting extras. Crowne Plaza, for instance, has quiet zones in its hotels -- separate floors with no housekeeping services before 10 a.m. and no kids. Hilton's new clocks have preprogrammed buttons for news, sports and music, plus a connection cable for an iPod or MP3 player and an alarm clock that's simple to use. Marriott introduced its "no-tuck" concept -- sheets sized so they don't have to be tucked in on the sides.
In the end, it's all about a good night's sleep.
"We spend money on hotel bars and concierge lounges, but what every guest buys is a place to sleep when they're away from home," said Kowalski of Crowne Plaza. "The industry is finally recognizing that we need to do a good job of delivering on that."
Even as hotels introduce new concepts, some things won't change -- like those tasty chocolates on the pillow.
"We tried some experiments where we took them away," said Steve Samson, director of room operations for Marriott International. "People complained."