In A Lather Over Hotel Guest Towels.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon ~ thetransitcafe.com
Thursday, 28th February 2008
You know, those cards in the bathrooms that tell you what to do with your towels? Well, they don't really work, says Yeoh Siew Hoon.

But before we throw in the towel, let's see if Accor's new tactic will. Almost every hotel does it these days – that little card in the bathroom that encourages guests to reuse their towels.

Some tell you to hang them up if you wish to re-use them, or put them in the basket should you wish to have them changed. Some have different instructions. But they all carry a little sentence that says this is being done to save the environment.

Most hoteliers tell me that it hasn't really worked.

Perhaps it's because it's so ubiquituous now that you hardly notice it, let alone heed it – it's like one of those things you take for granted in life. You become blind to them.

You also question what's really behind it – do hoteliers do it because they want to save money or the planet? And besides, because you are paying good money to stay in a good hotel, surely having fresh towels everyday is all part of the experience you've bought into?

Sometimes you try to do it – hang up your towels – only to find them changed anyway by the housekeeping staff who either have not been trained enough or who have also not bought into the whole "save the environment" thing. Or perhaps it just makes their jobs easier if they were to just do the same thing in every room instead of having to figure out what guests mean when they place their towels a certain way?

I have to confess I never quite know what to do. There are times when I've hung up the towels (usually behind the bathroom door) only to find upon my return they've been changed anyway.

There are times when I've been in such a hurry (as I usually am on business trips) that I've just left them draped over the bathtub (in those days when bathtubs were a common item in the bathroom) or around the sink area.

Only in some hotels are my signals read correctly but often, I find housekeeping staff do the expedient thing – change towels because well, you don't want to take a chance in case you get it wrong and you end up with an unhappy guest.

So over the years, this practice has become something that hoteliers do because they have to do it and guests go along with. It's like doing a little waltz that's going nowhere.

I wonder too if it's also due to the way it's communicated. A sentence that says "this is being done to save the environment" is too general and vague for anyone to connect with.

But perhaps if people were given the actual facts – for example, washing one towel does this and by re-using, you do this – and this was then followed up by a programme where guests could actually see where the savings was going to, it might work better.

Often, it's not what is told but how it is told that makes the difference. People need to know the whole story before they can connect with the purpose.

For example, what about those big signs at parks that just give you a list of DO NOTs? Some people take that as an invitation to DO. Wouldn't it be better if a more positive and educational spin was put on it so that people could connect better with the purpose?

Anyway back to the towels – I am glad to learn that on April 22, which it has declared as Earth Guest Day, Accor hotels around the world (19 in the Asia Pacific region) will start trialling a programme called Green Shield.

This programme will one, quantify the savings made from re-using towels, two, commit those savings to the UN's Billion Tree Programme, three, improve the signage and messages to guests and four, involve and train housekeeping and other staff in the project.

According to Accor's spokesperson, Peter Hook, hotels have a calculator that factors in the towels re-used and the savings made in terms of water, chemicals and labour.

"They tally up the sum and a donation is made to help re-forestation. This way it is highly transparent and we expect guests to be more positive towards such a move.

"Guests in places like Australia – where drought is a major problem – have always wanted to embrace the programme but over the years have become (rightfully) cynical about the hotel's commitment. The idea of Accor's initiative is to put our money where our mouth is. It also ensures the hotels take a direct involvement in the initiative."

Accor estimates that the savings could result in the planting of over five million trees in the first full year "not bad for the effort of reusing your towel", says Hook.

Now that's giving people a purpose they can connect with easily. It's like saying, one towel you re-use plants one tree somewhere. Or something like that.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.
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