In November 2012, CBC’s investigative journalism program Marketplace attempted to throw back the covers on the state of cleanliness in the Canadian hotel industry with a scorching exposé crammed with disturbing revelations about the contaminated reality lurking at some of the country’s most popular hotels. Bed throws, bathroom sinks, toilet bases and telephones were declared uniformly unsanitary. More than 70 per cent of remote controls tested scored a caution or fail on the adenosine triphosphate measuring device that determines microbial contamination on surfaces. Twenty-three of 51 tests of hotel comforters failed.
A year later, the show’s investigative team returned to discover the scene had barely changed. “Certain hotels have actually gone backwards,” microbiologist Keith Warriner told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.
“They’ve actually gotten worse.” Still, hoteliers were broadly unruffled by either episode’s findings. Apart from reinforcing their convictions about the fastidious sanitation, pest control and room-cleaning programs they already had in place, they report these shows did little but alarm guests about an issue that’s already being addressed. They are united in the conviction that such public unmaskings, for all their prurient value, offer little in the way of constructive criticism. They are stories of an industry’s most enduring challenge, they say, but the continued high-level attention to them didn’t generally change after the CBC’s public spotlight-shining exercise.
“Overall, our operations haven’t been affected,” shrugs Tim Oldfield, managing director of Mississauga, Ont.-based Choice Hotels Canada, where less than one-tenth of one per cent of the last million visitors complained about cleanliness. “The vast majority of our hotels have been following our standards and processes for room and hotel cleanliness, so there hasn’t been a need [to make changes].” What’s more, he’s disappointed the report didn’t put the hotel problem in context. “You come back with a reading that’s high, but what does it mean? And what’s the reading on a set of keys from a car rental counter, on a restaurant table, on an airplane seat? I don’t know how that translates. And the scientist in the interview touched the toilet then touched his mouth, and he’s still here.”
He adds: “I understand what the CBC was looking to accomplish, but we didn’t get a single phone call or any online chatter from the second pass.”
Still, Oldfield admits the redoubled attention likely nudged the country’s GMs to take another look at their housekeeping assignments to confirm they’re appropriately distributed. At Choice, GMs and housekeeping teams were reminded of cleanliness standards the franchisor provides, a stringent list that includes mechanical advice on cleaning a room, specifications on chemicals and cleaning solutions, online training for all room attendants and a certification program all housekeepers are required to complete.
At the Toronto-based arm of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, the comfort and well-being of guests is “a top priority,” says Mike Taylor, director of Public Relations, adding that guestroom cleanliness is a critical component of the operation’s rigorous, brand-wide housekeeping standards. Some of Fairmont’s proactive measures related to guestroom cleanliness include comprehensive on-site training; ongoing educational sessions; frequent webinars; swab analysis and high touch-point cleaning protocols for specific items such as telephones, remote controls, handles and light switches; dishwasher sanitization of in-room glassware; the use of microfibre cloths and powerful disinfectants; surprise room inspections and consistent spotchecks; regular filter maintenance and deliming of ice machines; ongoing follow-up and product use analysis; and regular housekeeping audits.
Choice’s head office also offers support to its hotel owners in full acknowledgement of the challenge they face. “It’s a truly demanding job,” Oldfield says. “You’ve got a workforce you’ve got to keep motivated [despite its] terribly physically demanding work. Housekeepers need to know they’re well supported.” Having head housekeepers who can spot check and pitch in during busy times helps tremendously, as does the dedicated contingent of GMs who step in as required.
Indeed, agrees Jeremy Roncoroni, GM of Vancouver’s St. Regis Hotel and an independent hotel consultant. You simply can’t rely solely on room attendants, he says. Individuals cleaning 15 rooms a day face tedious, tiring work, and it’s often too much to handle. As such, either Roncoroni or the manager on duty will perform a final inspection at the St. Regis. “I open the drawers, lift the bed skirts, look behind doors, just make sure the rooms are in the best possible shape they can be,” he explains. And, he recognizes the efforts of his room attendants consistently. The GM introduced a housekeeping incentive this year that awards $500, $300 and $200 bonuses to the most consistent and meticulous attendants. “The key is that we’re very involved with our housekeeping staff. If they have too many checkouts, we’ll make beds for them. We help them and make sure they feel appreciated,” adds Roncoroni. As for the consumers who are the beneficiaries of their hard work, he has one recommendation: “Tip. Room attendants are the hardest-working individuals in a hotel, and they’re the ones that get rewarded the least,” he says.
Putting Claims Into Context
Finally, Roncoroni offers his own perspective to the issue of cleanliness. “Why don’t we look at airlines and taxis and buses? Everybody’s focusing on our industry, but there are others that are way worse than us. No industry is perfect,” he says. “There’s no doubt you can go into any business and, if you want to work hard to find something that isn’t good, find it,” agrees Tim Tindle, VP, Operations for Montreal-based Atlific Hotels. He rejects the idea that every hotel is always perfectly clean but insists the damning Marketplace report had no meaningful impact on his third-party management company’s housekeeping practices. Atlific’s program of ongoing attention to cleanliness always begins with training for new hires and features an ongoing policy requiring the housekeeper charged with cleaning a room to inspect her efforts, before a supervisor follows up to give the ultimate stamp of approval. “This has always been the case,” Tindle says.
Additionally, Tindle echoes a common theme among hoteliers when he expresses indignation at the notion that a hotel would ever use its cleanliness as a marketing ploy. Guests expect a clean room, full stop, he says. “And neither we nor the industry is doing anything more to promote this as a result of Marketplace.”
Disinfection Is In The Details
One change prompted by the laser focus of the Marketplace episodes concerns the challenges presented by a hotel’s glassware program. Given the inherent trickiness associated with keeping these in-room standards germ-free, many independents and major brands are eliminating glasses in bathrooms and opting for plastic cups that can be thrown away.
At The Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, there are glass washers on every floor. So, glassware that would otherwise have to be wrapped and transported to the main kitchen gets cleaned and polished on the same floor in which it is placed. “We make it very easy for the housemen and housekeepers with this process in place,” says Tim Terceira, GM, speaking of the rooms that guests expect to be “surgically clean.”
Beyond that, managers work closely with companies such as the regional Mississauga, Ont.-based staff at Ecolab to make sure they have the correct chemicals and tools required by housekeepers to be successful, says Terceira. Think germicidal detergents, disinfectants, glass cleaners and bowl cleaners for the bathroom; and daily cleaning and spotters for the high-traffic challenge of a hotel room’s carpet. Staff takes inventory every day and reports swiftly on any shortages or mechanical failures. Checklists and preventative maintenance schedules keep them on track.
“The CBC programs served as a reminder to the industry, but I refuse to believe we have a serious issue with hotel cleanliness in this country,” sums up Choice’s Oldfield. “Hotels in Canada are clean. Marketplace came out with a gotcha-type focus. They went to find something — and they did. But we see things a little differently and [consider] this sensationalist journalism. Frankly, there isn’t a story here.”
For her part, Marketplace’s executive producer Marie Caloz is unfazed by the industry’s apparent response to her show’s double whammy of findings. If Canadian hotel operators truly believe they’re doing all they can to keep their public spaces clean, she says, “We invite them once again to come on our program and share that perspective with our audience.”