It’s the scenario every hotel manager dreads — A guest complains the room isn’t clean. And, when the guest is a CBC Marketplace crew, accompanied by a microbiologist with a suitcase full of swabs, it becomes a nightmare.
It happened to some of Canada’s foremost hotels last year and the repercussions throughout each have been dramatic. In the end, Marketplace had University of Guelph microbiologist Keith Warriner test more than 800 “high-touch” spots in 54 rooms at six hotel chains across the country. He found high levels of contamination that the CBC program calls “potentially hazardous” to guests.
The Hotel Association of Canada (HAC) was extremely disappointed by the Marketplace report, according to Linda Hartwell, the marketing and communications director for the organization. “The Hotel Association of Canada has asked all its members to review cleaning procedures and practices. We would like to reiterate that guest comfort, safety and satisfaction remain top priorities,” she says.
But it’s important to put the issue of hotel cleanliness into perspective, points out “Gulliver,” a noted travel columnist for The Economist, while commenting on a similar foray into U.S. hotel rooms by University of Houston researcher, Katie Kirsch. “First, I am unable to believe that the probability that we will catch something nasty in an average hotel room is big enough to require us to worry about touching the light switch,” he wrote in his June 2012 column. “Second, these are hotels: bacteria-riddled strangers will have been in the room before us; they may even have touched things; and a half-hour clean is not going to get rid of every single bacterial trace of their presence. Germs will lurk.”
Tim Oldfield, managing director of Franchise Performance for Choice Hotels Canada, agrees. “Guests shouldn’t expect to be walking into a sterile environment,” he says. “We’re talking cleanliness rather than sterility.” Nonetheless, he adds, the Choice chain took the results of the newsmagazine’s report very seriously. They immediately hired a corporate trainer and, using the Internet, housekeeping staff in their hotels have been retrained in daily and deep-cleaning techniques and routines.
Other major hotels cited in the report were also concerned about the violations to their established procedures. “We were naturally disappointed. What was reported is in violation of our established procedures and clearly did not meet our high standards,” says Cynthia Bond, public relations and partnerships at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, whose Sheraton hotels in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver were included in the report. “Since the report, hotels have undergone a deep cleaning and sanitizing, including the ice-machine units [which Marketplace also named as a problem area]. We instructed all of our properties to immediately conduct re-training on proper cleaning procedure as well as to ensure supervisory inspections were taking place. The hotels continue with independent third-party inspections for quality assurance and cleanliness audits. Refresher training will continue on an ongoing basis.”
Immediate changes were also implemented at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “The broadcast provided us with an opportunity to put a spotlight on this very important issue internally and further assess our current operating practices,” said Andrea Torrance, VP, Rooms, at Fairmont. “We are confident we have the right sanitary processes and cleaning procedures in place to deliver on this key service promise. Nevertheless, a comprehensive retraining of our housekeeping teams was conducted recently and our in-room standards were also reviewed. One notable change to come from this review was the decision to eliminate bed throws and scarves due to contamination concerns.”
The reality is some guests are simply slobs. They don’t necessarily wash their hands before handling remote controls; they take little care in the bathroom; they may spill food or drinks on the floor (there’s a good reason most hotels choose dark carpets); and the things they might do atop that pristine bedspread or bed throw don’t bear thinking about. Hotel cleaners are tasked with cleaning up after both clean and dirty guests, and while the average cleaning time per room — about 30 minutes — is enough for the former, the latter may require a good deal more time and effort.
At Starwood, room attendants are given their daily assignments, which may be a mix of rooms with stay-over guests and vacated rooms. “If they encounter a room that is particularly messy, the room attendant calls the supervisor for additional support and cleaning assistance,” says Bond. “Since the report, hotels are working to ensure that room attendants know to escalate any cleaning challenges to their supervisors. There are more supervisory inspections taking place and hotels are committed to ongoing deep-cleaning schedules for guestrooms, guest corridors and public spaces.”
Yannick Thibault owns and manages the award-winning Quality Inn and Suites in Matane, Que., part of the Choice Hotels group; it wasn’t named in the report. “The biggest challenge for hoteliers is to assemble — and keep — a really good housekeeping team,” he says. His hotel has virtually no staff turnover. He allows them to do their job efficiently and determine whether the room requires more time than the average 35 minutes allocated per room. According to Oldfield, Choice Hotels limits the number of rooms housekeeping staff must clean to 11 per day. “Sometimes you need 45 minutes, and that’s okay. I want them to take the time to do a good job,” says Thibault. “I inculcate the message: you should be happy to sleep in this room. If not, it’s not clean enough.”
At the Fairmont chain, workloads and responsibilities are reviewed on a regular basis and adjusted if operational challenges are encountered. “We do have standards in place to address the number of rooms a room attendant is expected to clean per day. This varies by property and is based on a number of factors, including hotel type (city compared to resort), room sizes, room occupancy level, product offering and business mix,” says Torrance. “And while the industry average to clean a room is generally about 30 minutes, we do not impose a ‘hard limit’ on the time it should take our room attendants to service a room but rather place the focus on ensuring each and every guestroom is cleaned to our exacting brand standards.”
Allowing adequate time for housekeeping staff to do their job is definitely an issue. At Hôtel Le Crystal in Montreal, an all-suite hotel, manager Geoff Allan asks staff to clean just nine units per day. And, long before the CBC program, he took an industrial black light to rooms to check the cleanliness levels himself. “I was disgusted the first time,” he admits. “Sure you can’t see it in ordinary light, but knowing it was there was unacceptable.”
Allan developed a proprietary system consisting of 17 specifically treated areas. He wasn’t named in the report but happened to issue his hotel’s Platinum Hygiene Standard on the day CBC aired part one of Marketplace’s two-part series. It uses black light to detect trouble areas, ultra-violet (UV) ray disinfection wands and seven-per-cent hydrogen peroxide solutions to effectively kill bacteria. Each room is treated with UV for two hours every three months to kill dust mites, bacteria, et cetera.
The use of UV light can be effective when used for extended periods. But in the Marketplace report, Warriner points out that UV wands are only effective if held for at least two minutes over the area. A quick wave simply doesn’t do the job.
Allan’s new cleaning routine adds a simple step that helps ensure the disinfectant is doing its job properly. After spritzing disinfectant, he tells staff to let it sit for one minute, then wipe with two different rags. “We aren’t trying to overstate the case, but we’re trying to be diligent,” he says. “It’s a lot of simple things. Rags are cheap as borscht, so use several for the room to ensure you aren’t wiping bacteria from one surface onto another. And this procedure adds less than 90 seconds to the bathroom cleaning.”
But training housekeeping staff to the hotel’s standards is another challenge, especially in cosmopolitan areas where the cleaning staff may have a poor grasp of English. Starwood’s proprietary training materials and inspection checklists and audits are available in five languages and cover the mother languages of their housekeeping and front-office associates, says Starwood’s Bond. “In addition, daily inspections are done by supervisors and managers on the floors, with the room attendants,” she adds. “An independent third party is also retained on a regular basis to visit and stay at every property to conduct a detailed audit that includes cleanliness.”
Training staff to maximize their time in each room is one way to ensure the work is done thoroughly and efficiently. Most hotel rooms are designed to facilitate efficient cleaning. At the Fairmont, room attendants use a zone cleaning approach, which ensures they move through the guestroom in a logical flow that is systematic and efficient.
Choice Hotels has developed an online training and certification program. “We don’t want staff taking shortcuts,” says Oldfield. “Since the CBC report, we’ve hired a corporate trainer. Because of geographic issues, most of this is done online. But we’ve also reached out for a third-party audit to establish what elements need reviewing.”
All of the hotels involved were alarmed at the high bacterial counts Marketplace found. On the other hand, Oldfield points out that the CBC declined to respond to his query about where else one might find such high counts. “What about rental car keys, steering wheels, ATM machines, airplane interiors? What is safe?” he asks. And, Le Crystal’s Allan suggests, “The average hotel is probably cleaner than the average home. To my knowledge, no one has tracked cases of germs being transferred to guests.” Nonetheless, both agree it’s up to the industry to ensure high standards are maintained. “We have to step up and take leadership,” says Oldfield. “Our housekeeping staff works hard every day, and we have to help them do their job effectively.”