Why hotels are happy to accommodate guest requests — up to a point

When Jim Reid checks into a Westin hotel, he inevitably catches a whiff of a “woody cedar and vanilla” scent called White Tea. It’s a pleasant smell to most guests, but not to him.

“I had a headache for about a day,” says Reid, who works for a transportation services company in Washington, D.C. He suspects he’s having a reaction to a chemical in the hotel’s signature scent, but he isn’t sure, because the hotel won’t tell him what’s in the diffuser, beyond “cedar” and “vanilla.”

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He has a simple request for Westin: Lay off the White Tea, please.

Customers like Reid ask hotels to change the way they do business every day. They complain about everything from the smells in the lobby to refund policies. Normally, hotels are happy to accommodate small requests. But there’s a bright red line that they almost never cross, and you need to know where it is before you start asking favors of your hotel.

Smells, it turns out, are non-negotiable for Westin. It would not unplug the scent, probably because these trademark smells are proven to elevate the mood of guests and prod them into spending more.

“If the scents at Sheraton and Westin properties are uncomfortable,” a representative wrote Reid in an email, “we would encourage you to try another one of our brands.”

Not all hotels turn up their nose at guest requests, though.

Hotels are happy to comply with small, relatively inexpensive changes. For example, when guests told innkeepers at the Claiborne House bed-and-breakfast in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that they didn’t like having a 10 p.m. curfew, the owners responded by installing a keypad, which allowed guests to come and go as they pleased.

“They did not want to be treated like they were staying at Grandma’s house,” says Shellie Leete, the Claiborne’s co-owner. (As a bonus, it meant that she didn’t have to wait up for the guests, either.)

At the Normandy Hotel in the District, customers griped about the closets. “Guests were having trouble hanging clothes in the closets,” explains hotel general manager John Paul Wood. “The room’s safe was in the way.” So the hotel relocated the safes to a top shelf.

And at the Seaport Hotel in Boston, travelers asked for dark washcloths for makeup removal, according to Jim Carmody, the property’s general manager. The hotel complied. “We are changing many of our exterior doors to sliders for easier entry and exit in response to guest comments, too,” he adds.

How do you get a hotel to grant your wishes? You have to say something at the right time and in the right place.

“In some instances, we’ve made changes based on feedback from guests who are still at the property, and in other instances, we’ve made changes based on guest feedback provided in online reviews,” says Stephen Fofanoff, the innkeeper for Domaine Madeleine Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles, Wash. The hotel recently loosened its refund policy, reversing the room charges if a room is resold. (Most hotels have cancellation fees or charge for a full night.)

But bigger requests from guests are routinely denied or ignored by hotels. For example, when properties are asked to change their restrictive refund policies, they rarely do what the Domaine Madeleine did. If the fees are considered to be nonrefundable, it doesn’t matter whether the property can resell the room — the hotel keeps the money.

Indeed, if there’s a common thread in the dozens of interviews I conducted with hoteliers, it’s that they are proud to comply with smaller requests. But generally, they’re not open to larger ones.

There are workarounds. Reid could still stay at a Westin, but away from the smell. While Westin refuses to unplug its diffusers, it offers “allergy-friendly” rooms at some of its properties “for travelers that suffer from asthma and allergies triggered by seasonal and environmental microscopic allergens.” At the Westin Southfield Detroit, for example, the rooms have filtration systems. They also treat surfaces to minimize the growth of bacteria.

Unhappy guests can also take to social media and ask a hotel to stop a practice or policy, but the request has to be reasonable. A property making millions of dollars a year with a restrictive refund policy isn’t about to surrender that revenue, even if it is called out on Facebook and Twitter every day.

However, if Reid and some of his friends banded together to create the Concerned Guests Against White Tea movement, they might be able to persuade Westin to dial down the smell.

Bottom line: Hotels listen to their guests but, like any good businesses, draw the line when it comes to interfering with the ability to earn money. So if you want something from your innkeeper, make sure it isn’t too expensive.

20 thoughts on “Why hotels are happy to accommodate guest requests — up to a point

  1. There are some people that are just never happy. Sometimes it’s better for the business to just let them go and be someone else’s headache.

    1. I’ve fired customers before. I just won’t work with them. My company has been pretty supportive usually they just assign another consultant, and on a few occasions they have exited or non-renewed the contract. I think the most egregious was a manager who wanted me to pick us her dry cleaning, as if I was her assistant. I was polite in declining but she than wrote a triad of emails to my VP, claiming we weren’t willing to go the extra distance. We no longer work with that client.

  2. Cedar oils are somewhat toxic and very common allergenics. In fact, people who work with cedar wood, e.g. for carpentry and carving, or who make cedar root baskets and other handicrafts, frequently experience respiratory distress and contact dermatitis. Why do you think people use cedar chests as a place to store woolens to keep moths at bay? While I don’t happen to react to cedar as far as I know, that doesn’t mean people who do are choosing to be prima donnas. See https://books.google.com/books?id=h7tbd-5ZAQ8C&pg=PA398&lpg=PA398&dq=yellow+cedar+allergy&source=bl&ots=Rod7csGhwA&sig=eu6NRV68nZxf5xVogBCgJvYsNlg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiSltmRvdjPAhWCxlQKHd8JDFwQ6AEIczAQ#v=onepage&q=yellow%20cedar%20allergy&f=false

    If I were the Westin, I would consider developing a different signature scent.

    1. Isn’t everything at some point toxic? Sure too much water is drowning, but there is a condition referred to as water toxicity (intoxication or poisoning).

      1. Yup. Even good ol’ oxygen becomes toxic if there’s too much of it. [Right now oxygen makes up roughly 21% of our atmosphere; if it were to rise to roughly 33% … goodbye humans!]

    2. Why any scent? People are allergic or sensitive to many different things, or find them just plain unpleasant. In my opinion, scent products are used to cover up other odors that shouldn’t be there.

  3. I don’t exactly what it is in particular scents that causes them, but some cause me scent migraines so I have some sympathy. Having said that, I wouldn’t ask a business to change their signature for me.

  4. We’re in a Westin Resort right now. Personally, we like their signature scent. We only can smell this in the lobby, not in our unit. I’ve noticed that the shampoo and soap also have the signature scent and it doesn’t bother us. If it did, we would just go to the nearest store and buy the soap and shampoo we normally use.

    1. I can see how that works for tourist travel, but as a business traveler who can’t really check baggage, the idea of having to bring TSA approved bottles of shampoo, conditioner and soap takes valuable space in my carry on, and most of the time I’m arriving in destinations that it’s just not practical for me to go out and buy a bottle of something locally (I travel internationally). I can hear you thinking “well just stay somewhere else”, but I can’t do that my company has a travel portal that contracts with only certain vendors and carriers, so I’m relatively stuck with whats available. Most of the time there is one and only one property I can stay at assuming they have space (and when they don’t, the secondary property is usually a lower quality property).

          1. And that’s what we do. Mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant, facial cleansing wipes, etc. Won’t work for everyone; does work for us.

        1. I am not allergic or sensitive to anything but I do have some specific products I bring because they are medicated and aren’t available. However, with my travel schedule I can easily exhaust my supply during travel without the opportunity to replenish. Even then the amount of product they fit in those trial size bottles can be very small, the bottles of mouthwash for example are only a couple uses for me. Some things like toothpaste and deodorant last longer.
          It also creates a serious concern for me of having staining liquids possible ruin clothing or my electronics, which is why I don’t carry them and simply use what a hotel has available.

  5. I think you have to look at the request. Asking Westin to change their signature scent is almost like going into a KFC and telling them you don’t like their chicken recipe.

    However, reasonable requests that can be accommodated without affecting other guests or that make sense for all guests, are more realistic to achieve.

  6. Why doesn’t Jim Reid just stay in a different chain if Westin has an issue that irritates him? Surely taking his dollars elsewhere would be the logical answer? I’m not a big fan of scents either, and don’t believe I have ever stayed in a Westin; however if I did, and their scent annoyed me, I would not stay again. Problem solved.

    Nor would I book to stay somewhere with a 10pm (or any) curfew, although nice to see that property has found a way to work around it.

    Basically, hotel guests should be reasonable in what they request. The vast majority of properties are very happy to accommodate reasonable requests. However if the request is to change corporate policy (as with Westin’s scent), then it’s probably not going to happen and the customer should seek alternatives for the future.

  7. Glad to know that about the westin. I am highly allergic to artificial smells and will, thus, never book at a westin. We were staying at an embassy suites for a several weeks project and I had to request that they not spray whatever smell they used when they cleaned the room and management easily complied. I also didn’t have my room cleaned everyday because I wasn’t really there enough to mess it up.

    I am also allergic to down/feather pillows. I try to carry a pillow with me but I also always call in advance and request hypoallergenic pillows. In thirty years of traveling, thankfully, I’ve only had a pillow problem once and so just slept without one.

  8. I am not a fan of the “scent branding”; to me it is gimmicky. I wonder about the studies that say that certain scents induce people to spend more . There are some scents I really do not like; also I do not like to be in a room with incense either. Now I know which places to avoid. I have to say when I look back fondly on a hotel stay I usually think of service, decor, location. To me, a signature scent is so unimportant. .

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