When guests arrive at the Kennebunkport Captains Collection, a quartet of historical mansions in Maine, the front desk staff will provide several details about the accommodations: on-site parking, the WiFi password and the breakfast hours. This summer, the property expanded the debriefing to include its housekeeping policy, a service that, during the pandemic, has moved from the background to the foreground.
Before the global health crisis, the 45-room Captains Collection offered daily housekeeping, a standard across the hospitality industry. These days, a staff member will tidy up every other day, a 30-minute routine that involves making the bed, wiping down the bathroom and swapping out the pillowcases. A full replacement of sheets and towels occurs on the fourth day instead of the third. The timing has also changed. Pre-pandemic, the housekeepers would perform these tasks during the day, while the guests were out exploring the seaside town. Now, they might clean in the evening, when the occupants are at dinner and they are free from their other responsibilities, such as school, child care or another part-time job.
“We explain this to the guests,” said Kristen Caouette, the general manager, referring to the retooled cleaning schedule. “There is not too much grumbling. Nine out of 10 people are very understanding.” For the folks partial to the old way, she said, “we do it if we can.”
Daily housekeeping was once a given. You returned from lounging on the beach or tootling around the city to find your trash cans emptied, your towels folded and your shoes lined up like idling Rockettes. No longer. Since the onset of the pandemic, hotels of all sizes and price points have been scaling back this service to every few nights and allowing guests to determine the frequency of attention.
For example, the We Care Clean program, which Best Western Hotels & Resorts unveiled last spring, states: “For guest and employee safety and well-being, daily housekeeping service is by request.” David Kong, the company’s chief executive, said the check-in staff will explain the policy, and a manager’s welcome letter left in each room reiterates the message. “If they want the room made up,” he said, “they can call or text the front desk.” Or wait for the third night of their stay.
The trend is catching on. In June, Marriott Bonvoy informed its loyalty members that it will no longer offer daily cleanings at its premium and select brands, such as Sheraton, Aloft and Moxy. A month later, Hilton announced that most of its U.S. brands would forgo daily housekeeping and switch to an on-demand plan. (The rule does not apply to the companies’ luxury brands.) Heather Turner, a spokesperson for the Association of Lodging Professionals, has reached out to hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts about this topic. She said the vast majority are not turning the room every day on multinight stays, although they will drop off fresh linens and towels if requested.
“For people who have not traveled very often, this will come as a shock,” said Anthony Melchiorri, a hospitality expert and host of several Travel Channel shows. . “Years ago, we never contemplated housekeeping becoming an option. It was a luxury.”
Several factors have upended the status quo. At the top of the list: health concerns. In its Stay Safe guidelines, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) says: “In anticipation of individual concerns of guests, housekeeping should not enter a guest room during a stay unless specifically requested, or approved, by the guest, or to comply with established safety protocols.” Minimizing exposure between guests and staff members obviously lowers the risk of infection. Another predominant reason is the severe staffing shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality sector counted 1.7 million fewer jobs in July than in February 2020. In June, the agency reported more than 1.6 million unfilled positions. The start of the school year will probably exacerbate the problem.
“Hotels are weighing sanitation, the labor shortage and COVID concerns,” said Sheryl Kline, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Delaware.
Most guests don’t mind the new arrangement. In an AHLA survey conducted in August 2020, respondents overwhelmingly supported the by-request practice, with 86 percent of travelers saying optional housekeeping has increased their comfort level. Nearly a year later, this sentiment still holds. In a recent Best Western survey, more than 70 percent of customers said they supported the shift away from daily visits. “We have not received any complaints,” Kong said.
During a summer holiday in Italy, Becca and Drew Hooper stayed at a property on a Tuscan farm that had suspended the custom—or so the Kansas City, Mo., couple thought. “The hotel booklet told us we would not get daily cleaning service, which I was fine with,” Becca said. “It was comforting knowing that they were taking COVID seriously.” However, the hotel did not follow its own rule. “We came back every day to a wet floor and new towels,” she said. “It was a little annoying, but I was happy to have fresh towels.”
For an extra layer of assurance, hang the “do not disturb” sign on your door. Melchiorri said the staff should honor your privacy, but the notice is a request, not a padlock. Regardless of the housekeeping policy, an employee may enter your room without permission for a well-being check or if management suspects a problem. I learned this during a recent stay at the 25hours Hotel Vienna at MuseumsQuartier in Austria. The boutique hotel cleans rooms on the fourth day of a stay of that length or longer. I had booked two nights, so I was surprised to discover that, while I was out, someone had organized the bathroom towels, moved a chair to the center of the room and closed the window.
“In case of a technical issue, we may have to enter the room, in which case a message will be left,” said Anne Berger, the head of public relations at the 25hours Hotel Company. I am assuming that my open window was the “technical issue.”
The movement to pare back housekeeping is not specific to the pandemic. Hotels with green initiatives have been urging guests to reuse towels and sheets for decades, and water-conservation cards have become a fixture in hotel bathrooms worldwide. Over the past few years, a number of chains, independent lodgings and Disney properties offered incentives, such as beverage and food credits, gift cards or loyalty points, to guests who kicked their daily habit. (The reduction of housekeeping, which saves hotels money, has become a flash point among labor advocates and environmentalists who decry the move as greenwashing.)
“Hotels were already moving in the direction of every other day,” Kline said. “COVID pushed it ahead faster.”
From a medical perspective, a daily scrubbing is not necessary, even with the uptick in cases caused by the delta variant. The coronavirus is transmitted through the air and rarely through surfaces. Clare Rock, an associate professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at Johns Hopkins University, said masks and hand sanitizer are two of the best defenses against the virus. Fresh air from an open window and air-conditioning filters can eradicate unhealthy particles. For overall cleanliness, a disinfectant wipe can swipe germs from such high-touch areas as the remote control, door handles and light switches.
“It’s more of a comfort thing than an infection-prevention thing,” Rock said of daily housekeeping. “A hotel room is a different situation than a hospital room.”
Ultimately, the issue boils down to want vs. need. Kline said most people don’t follow a rigorous cleaning regimen at home. “Do you change your sheets every day at home? No. It’s overkill.” But she acknowledges that the perk “makes you feel special on your holiday.”
She also said the frequency of cleaning depends on the guests’ activities, both in and out of the room. For example, you might need more frequent visits if you plan to engage in sporty or aquatic outings and eat most of your meals in your room. Of course, you can always contact the front desk for additional towels and trash pickup, and perform light housekeeping duties yourself between professional cleanings.
“Think about what your mother always told you about cleaning your room,” Kline said. “Keep items off the floor and tidy up. But you don’t have to go as far as making your bed.”
Of course, there is no shame in fancying a little pampering, especially after the past nearly two years. “I love to have my room cleaned when I am on vacation,” Melchiorri said. “I love being spoiled.”