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Westin's Smoke-free Policy Expected to Spread, Over Time,
to All Brands in the Lodging Industry

By Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

December 6, 2005 - While Chicago aldermen continue to debate how hard to clamp down on smoking in public places, Westin Hotels & Resorts on Monday became the nation's first major hotel chain to commit to going smoke-free in North America.

At the start of 2006, the 77 Westin hotels in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean will ban smoking in public areas and all 37,979 guestrooms.

"That's a very bold move," noted Ted Mandigo, an Elmhurst-based hotel consultant.

There is a risk of losing clientele, particularly visitors from Europe or the Pacific Rim, where smoking is still very prevalent, said Mandigo and others.

So far, that hasn't been an issue, according to Brent Menzel, general manager of the Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, one of eight Westin properties that went smoke-free ahead of the overall corporate move.

"Going into it, I was a little apprehensive," said Menzel, whose 525-room property went from 90 percent non-smoking rooms to totally smoke-free in May at the request of corporate headquarters.

Prior to the shift, "we did inform every guest who'd requested a smoking room, and all of our group business," he said. "And we didn't lose any business."

Among overseas visitors, there's a growing perception that the U.S. is moving toward smoke-free environments, given smoking bans in various major cities, including New York, he said.

The Chicago City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to ban smoking in public places. Aldermen remain divided on whether to approve an all-out ban or to exempt taverns and restaurant bars that are walled off from dining areas.

Within the hotel industry, non-smoking guestrooms have been on the rise, from about 30 percent of inventory in 1988 to 73 percent last year.

"When you're not able to deliver a non-smoking room to a guest, especially a frequent traveler, you have a very unhappy customer," noted Patrick Ford, president of Lodging Econometrics, based in Portsmouth, N.H.

While observers don't expect other major chains to jump aboard immediately, they do expect the trend to build.

"It's a trend that's been appreciated by consumers, and over time, it will spread to all brands in the lodging industry," said Will Marks, managing director at JMP Securities.

Westin is hoping to woo some of the nation's 1,400 health associations, said Sue Brush, senior vice president for Westin, an upscale brand of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

"We're starting to contact them," she said.

`Personal renewal' emphasis

The conversion of 2,400 existing smoking rooms is in sync with the brand's emphasis on "personal renewal," said Brush. The brand also offers guestrooms with workout equipment, "running concierges" to accompany guests on their jogs, and a trial rollout of spa rooms, which include massage chairs.

At the Westin O'Hare, the smoking rooms underwent a deep cleaning, with walls scrubbed, carpets shampooed twice, bed linens replaced and draperies dry cleaned. The cost averaged $400 a room, Menzel said.

All the affected hotels will offer designated outdoor smoking areas. The Westin O'Hare is installing overhead heaters in its area.

Westin's move does not apply to the 44 properties it operates outside of North America.

"There are much larger percentages of smokers in those areas, though we see changes," said Brush. "I wouldn't be surprised if they don't follow suit in the next few years."

As for other Starwood brands, among them St. Regis, Sheraton, W and Le Meridien, discussions are under way, she said.

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Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune

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