Admit it: You’re a thief.
The last time you stayed in a hotel, you probably loaded up your toiletry kit with little plastic bottles of shampoo, body wash, and moisturizer, smuggling them out at checkout. And you didn’t think twice about it, other than to rationalize the deed. Those little self-assigned parting favors were rightfully yours as part of your room charge, weren’t they?
And to those few of you who feel a twinge of guilt for your moral indiscretion? Don’t. Hotels expect many of their guests to take home their sample sizes, which might be stamped with the name of the place you’re staying or, increasingly, a recognizable retail brand that adds a touch of prestige to your visit.
It’s part of the industry’s “clue management” strategy, says Michael L. Oshins, a professor in Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, in which every part of your guest experience is another “clue” to the story the business is hoping to tell about itself.
“Basically, it’s built-in marketing,” says Oshins. “It’s a top-of-mind reminder — ‘Oh, this is where we stayed.’ ”
Placing a fresh cluster of products by L’Occitane, Bliss, or Molton Brown on the vanity before a guest’s arrival sends a clear message that the hotel is committed to pampering its guests. The use of upscale brands, rather than in-house labels, is a relatively recent development in an industry that first dug into its “amenity wars” in the 1970s. Back then, chains jostled to prove they could provide more items of convenience than the next guy, from sewing kits and shoehorns to shower caps and hair dryers, says Oshins.
When Walt Disney World furnishes its hotel rooms with bath gels and shampoos in containers outfitted with tiny Mickey Mouse ears, that’s an obvious example of a keepsake.
“It’s the same reason concert tickets now are really nice,” says Oshins. “You can hold on to the experience.”
Yet while much of the hospitality industry continues to fold the price of individual-size toiletries into the cost of doing business, more hotels are recognizing the brand equity in a greener approach. A recent survey of thousands of hotels by the American Hotel and Lodging Association showed that the percentage of hotels using branded amenity products has stayed steady over the past several years at around 85 percent.
But the study also showed that the industry experienced a momentary surge around six years ago toward using liquid soap dispensers. It was an alternative that quickly proved unpopular with some visitors, who found it vaguely unsanitary.
“I understand the appeal, and the turnoff too,” says Rachel Moniz, general manager of Boston’s Liberty Hotel, which opened in 2007 in the old Charles Street Jail. The Liberty, now a Starwood property, has three dispensers in each shower — shampoo, conditioner and body wash, all by the classic London bath and body company Molton Brown — as well as small bottles of body wash and a loofah for those who wish to take a bath.
Moniz guesses that if her staff fields three or four negative comments each year about the dispensers, they get hundreds more in praise of the product.
“I could probably fill three or four medicine cabinets with the free samples I’ve gotten from vendors who want to take that business,” she says. “But we haven’t wavered. It’s a classic brand that aligns well with what we’re trying to do.”
Elsewhere, bar soaps may be coming back, but they’re shrinking, even before they go under the shower nozzle. According to the AH&LA, an average of just 10 percent of each hotel-room bar of soap gets used. As a result, manufacturers are finding ways to make smaller soaps — by designing holes in the center, for example.
Additionally, more hotels today are addressing their guests’ environmental concerns by emphasizing recycling programs. Unused soaps and shampoos are regularly donated to human services organizations, and many hotels have signed on with repurposing companies such as the Florida nonprofit Clean the World and Atlanta’s Global Soap Project, which redistribute soap to developing regions around the globe.
Since its founding in 2009, Clean the World claims to have arranged the reuse of more than 11 million bars of soap and hundreds of thousands of pounds of shampoo and conditioner, eliminating more than 750 tons of waste in the process.
The practice has been taking hold on a local scale too. Rosie’s Place, the pioneering women’s shelter in Boston, provides about 4,000 free showers each year for poor and homeless women, all using unused amenities that have been donated by area hotels. Those include the Colonnade, the Langham, the Wyndham, the Ritz-Carlton and the Westin Copley Place and Boston Waterfront locations, to name a few.
“We provide bags of toiletries for women who come to us,” says Michele Chausse, director of communications at Rosie’s Place. “We do rely on our friends in the business to help.”
In her own house, there are plenty of “recycled” hotel toiletries, Chausse says. Her husband is on the road a lot for business; like so many fellow travelers, he tends to bring home the sample sizes.
“We use a whole drawer in the bathroom for them,” says Chausse.
The Liberty’s Moniz admits that she, too, swipes the amenities when she stays in a hotel not her own.
“One hundred percent, for sure,” she says with a laugh. “It’s always research, isn’t it?”
On rare occasions, a Liberty guest will make off with the 10-ounce Molton Brown product dispenser, which needs to be unbolted from the shower wall.
When that happens, Moniz says, she tracks down their address, mails them a few trial-size bottles, and writes a nice note suggesting they leave the screwdriver at home next time.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.