A Smokefree Hotel Room Can Be Hard To Find

As more and more consumers demand smokefree hotel rooms, the hospitality industry struggles to keep up. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased consumer concern about cleanliness. 

October 28, 2021

By Megan Craig

After reopening, casino operators have found that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased customers’ concerns about cleanliness, often expressed by sensitivity to the presence of cigarette smoke and the unpleasant odors of stale tobacco smoke in guest rooms. 

In September 2020, for example, MGM Resorts International responded to this new normal by converting its 3,000-room casino-hotel on the Las Vegas Strip to a 100% smoke-free environment.  Park MGM president, Anton Nikodemus, told the Associated Press, “We believe there is a high level of pent-up demand to have a non-smoking casino, especially here in Las Vegas.”[1] 

Even in casinos that permit smoking in gaming areas, guests are adamant about the importance of rooms being smoke-free. The presence of any odor or residue from nicotine smoking or marijuana smoking is perceived as unclean, unpleasant and unhealthful—and now with the pandemic—as an indicator that the air may be dangerous.

More often than not, smokers actually prefer nonsmoking rooms to avoid the toxic chemicals left behind by prior guests, “Nobody wants a smoking room,” Former Choice Hotels CEO Steve Joyce told USA TODAY. “There was a time when having the option of a smoking guest-room made sense, but that is no longer the case.”[2]

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of casino management and staff, too often guests light up in non-smoking rooms. Not only is this unacceptable to neighboring guests and subsequent occupants, but it is a significant problem for the casino’s bottom line. Let’s consider the impact of unauthorized smoking in guest rooms and the mixed results of the most common mitigation efforts by casinos and casino hotels and how new technology is proving to be a better solution.

As cigarette smoking has become less common over the past few decades, the tolerance for secondhand smoke has declined dramatically, and guests are more apt to be angered by exposure. Even before the growing sensitivities due to the pandemic, people had become more forceful in expressing their concerns about the unpleasantness and potential health effects of being exposed to cigarette smoke. There is the further issue that as cigarette smoking has declined, marijuana smoking has become more prevalent, and guests sometimes mistakenly assume that because it is legal in a state it is allowed by law and hotel policy in guest rooms.

People intuitively react to the “dirty” visual and tactile sense of a room where tobacco or marijuana smoke has accumulated, even if they are not aware of the scientific evidence of the harmful consequences of “thirdhand smoke,” the residual nicotine and other toxic chemicals left behind on indoor surfaces such as walls, carpeting, curtains, and furniture after smoking stops. A 2013 study of California hotel rooms found that this residue exposed guests to dangerous chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces and breathing off-gassing from these surfaces.[3] 

Being unhealthy for customers is not good for business. Perceived cleanliness is a key driver of customer satisfaction. Odors experienced as unpleasant or perceived as unhealthy lead to bad online reviews and to general damage to the hotel’s reputation. These bad experiences damage loyalty programs and chase away potential returning customers. 

What do hotel managers do to mitigate unauthorized smoking in guest rooms? Russ W. Cole, the general manager of a hotel in Michigan described the typical process in a 2018 post on an online forum:

“Guests who smoke in their hotel room, even if they try to be sneaky by smoking in the bathroom with the bath fan/vent on, don’t realize the expense it takes to remove the odor. If it’s barely noticeable, running ozone generators in the room may eliminate enough to where the next guests won’t detect the odor. If the room reeks of smoke, then it’s stripping the room, replacing lamp shades, washing down walls and ceilings, shampooing carpet and furniture upholstery, dry cleaning drapery, basically a top-to-bottom scrub down, which often results in the loss of room revenue while the room is being deodorized.”[4]

The cost of remediation—replacing damaged items and cleaning—can be several hundred dollars. Add to that the lost revenue and risk of overbooking when the room is unavailable for one to three days while it is cleaned and aired out. The costs of smoking events vary, but in one survey hotels were asked the hypothetical question of how much they would charge to let someone smoke in a no-smoking room. Half or the respondents said, “at no price,” and the average for the remaining respondents was $750.

Charging guests caught smoking is an increasingly common practice as hotels attempt to recover some of their direct and indirect costs, with fees typically ranging from $250 to $500, and sometimes as high as $2000 or $4000 at upscale hotels. “We are starting to see more hotels making efforts to hold guests accountable for damage,” John Welty, a practice leader for Suitelife, an insurance and risk program for upscale hotels and resort properties told the Washington Post. “However, for the hotel, proving after the fact that the guest caused the damage can be difficult.”[5] With the hotel’s lack of objective evidence, customers often succeed in contesting the charges, and hotel incurs chargeback fees from credit card companies.

Casino hotels have sought a better way to ensure a pleasant and healthful environment for guests, without the costly, time-consuming, and frustrating efforts of belatedly sniffing under doors and responding to complaints from other guests after the damage is already done. The key is timely notification. If hotels can be alerted that a customer is smoking in a room from the first cigarette, the need for a lengthy and costly remediation process is eliminated, and so too is the risk of significant dissatisfaction among neighboring and subsequent guests.

Typical smoke detectors use light or radiation to detect the general presence of smoke particles. They do not specifically identify tobacco or marijuana smoke, and they require a significant amount of particles to be triggered. They are very unreliable indicators of smoking incidents and do not provide any detail or proof of the incident. Newer sensors are capable of detecting and reporting the specific presence of molecules in tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke, protecting non-smoking areas in real time. 

Click here to learn more about the study.

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