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Nothing to Sneeze At: 
Health-Friendly Hotels
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by Barry Napier, May 2007

Only a few people with ill health are actually aware that an allergy may be triggering their problems. From my own past work in the health field I know that many more are unaware of how their environment can make them feel unwell, if not make them seriously ill. We all know about peanut allergies, but there are countless others. 

For some this article will be a ‘diatribe’ that ought not be found in an hospitality publication. It is far more than mere diatribe – it is about people who cannot stay in hotels because of allergies. And this affects profits and market segment. Therefore it is to do with good management practice.

At the start of my middle age I started to have some slight wheezing and tightness of the chest, hardly noticeable. I was able to trace the symptoms myself and realised it was a form of asthma, probably caused by hay fever. Since then, I get the same symptoms every spring, though until that time I never suffered from hay fever.

The allergy began when I worked in a rural setting. During the spring I was okay indoors, but often, when I drove home, I had to stop my car because my eyes were streaming and stinging. On one occasion, on holiday, the symptoms came so suddenly (when we passed a field of hay) I had to swerve to the side and park, unable to see anything. I was able to drive again (with a wet shirt) after I poured the contents of a mineral water bottle into my eyes to wash away the pollen. 

Allergies can come quickly, and do not need to have been with you from birth.  Extreme reactions, called anaphylactic shock, can arise even more swiftly and can be fatal. More and more people are now allergic to something or other, and the causes are usually man-made, such as chemicals. In another place of work I suffered bright red blotching of the face with severe itching. When I was home a few days, the symptoms went away. The culprits were cleaning chemicals.

Increasing Incidences

Allergies are on the increase and man’s inadvertent desire to poison us is at the forefront of blame. There are chemicals in everything and it is now almost impossible to avoid all the things that make us cough, sneeze, itch, or have skin, lung, stomach, and even brain problems. Let me tell you a story; it will illustrate just how violent and fast an allergy can arise.

One woman I treated took iron tablets for many years without a problem. As I was about to go home one evening, we had to call an emergency ambulance because adrenalin injection did not work. The woman had black tongue and lips, and was experiencing the most horrendous anaphylactic shock symptoms that caused her throat to close with swelling membranes. From start of symptoms to complete blockage of her airways took just a few minutes, and gross swelling arose as we watched.

Her life was saved, but what happened to her could have happened to anyone, of any age. What caused it? She had been started on iron in capsule form, and she chewed the outer coating away. The black colour was caused by the iron, but the allergic reaction was caused by chewing the capsule. Capsules are supposed to be swallowed, not chewed. It took a wrong action plus a reaction to the capsule covering to bring about near death! If she had swallowed the capsule she would have been okay.

Need for Change

What has all this to do with hotels? You might say nothing. After all, so long as an hotel does its best to use safe chemicals and interiors, its duty is done.  With so few with a suitable understanding of their condition, hotels have had no real reason to take notice. Even in law, no business can be held liable for occasional and unprecedented problems.

But this is changing, so it seems, and I can only commend those hotels who have taken the lead in the matter of allergies. Probably, only chains can take this lead, because of costs involved, but it is a good example of hotels with conscience. It is also an example of how addressing a health risk can increase business. If customers with allergies cannot enter an hotel for any reason, then they are lost revenue. How, though, can hotels sort out such a problem? Is it costly? Is it worth tackling? 

Once rooms are refurbished to be allergy-free (as far as is possible) the initial costs can be spread over time. What you then have is a room suitable for sufferers of the most pernicious of allergies, who would no doubt accept that such a room will cost more.

There is another way of looking at it: if all rooms were made allergy-free, it opens up a whole new world of business for enterprising hotels. When I go to an hotel, I insist on no-smoking, no dogs. Thus, if I come across a smoking hotel, I simply don’t patronise it.  So, if allergy sufferers, who don’t go to hotels because of reactions to all sorts of factors, suddenly find an hotel that caters to their problem, they will make a bee-line for it. Straightforward niche marketing and sound business sense. Reduce allergens and create more business!

Examples of Allergens in Hotels

One woman had a reaction to lasagne served to her in an hotel restaurant. The food was fine, but her symptoms began when she went to bed. The hospital traced the meat used in the lasagne. It was fresh and kept properly, but the animal the meat came from was treated routinely with penicillin. The woman had an allergy to penicillin so this was an hidden enemy within. Cheaper hotels can sometimes buy indiscriminately, but there is much sense in not harming your customers!  The answer is to buy meat that is free-range/fed organically/not given antibiotics routinely. Might push prices of meals up, but better than being at risk.

Dunblane Hydro is a magnificent luxury hotel in Scotland, whose staff are trained to deal with anaphylactic shock and food is natural, local and ‘organic’. No chances taken. (dunblanehydrohotel.com)

Carolyn James suddenly started to have multiple chemical sensitivity, to a wide range of things found in hotels, so she had to almost stop travelling. Scents, carpeting, glues in furniture, fabric softener, detergents, and many commercial products used by hotels, caused severe reactions. And this is becoming more common. She usually takes a mask, oxygen and her own bedding. Even hidden mildew can trigger an attack. She tried renting a private apartment in Paris, but had to move out because the owner had perfumed clothing in locked cupboards. (theglobeandmail.com)

Dr Susan Waserman, past President of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, says that 10% of people have asthma, which is just one allergy form, and over 2.5% of all people have multiple chemical sensitivity.

In the same article we are told that some hotels are now starting to take note, and no longer accept pets, or allow smoking. “Others are removing carpets, drapes and feathers, using chemical-free cleaning products…”  Some are now installing ‘pure rooms’, which reduce viruses, mould, bacteria and fungi.

Six years ago Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel revamped 42 rooms with hypoallergenic pillows, hardwood floors, water and air filtration units and central vacuum system. That makes them pioneers. On top of that, they use special non-allergenic products for cleaning, ban nuts and nut products, smoking and pets. In 2005, the nearby Fairmont Waterfront hotel announced a ‘featherless floor’. Interestingly, the hotel occupancy has gone up during the low season (from less than 70% to 87%), and yet the charges at both hotels remain normal. Pure rooms are now appearing around the world. Most charge extra for allergy-free rooms, though, as I said earlier, the extra costs involved are quickly absorbed.

Budget hotels are also getting in on the act, thank goodness. A writer has to cut corners when going about his business. That is why I tend to use budget hotels. It intrigues me that when I ask for ‘non-smoking’ a room is always available. This is not possible! I can only assume that a non-smoking room is just a room that is sprayed with Febreze on the day! If these cheap-end companies can serve up allergy-free rooms, I will be first in the queue!

Remedies can be effective even when not expensive. Some smaller hotels use a mix of water and vinegar to flush rooms when cleaning. They wash down shower curtains, etc., with ordinary water.  Easy to do.

One article in Investigative Dermatology, advises that dust mite bites can remove our natural resistance to all allergens and make existing allergies much worse. Watch out hotels! Especially if you don’t wash linen every day. The WHO says 300 million are affected by asthma alone, and quarter of a million die from it. They expect these numbers to rise by 20% over the next ten years (achooallergy.com). 

So, am I writing a ‘diatribe’… or a health warning to hotels everywhere? (Hotels interested in having a ‘ready reckoner’ can request a list of symptoms of severe allergy/anaphylactic shock from me. It could save lives). The problem is becoming more obvious and this is why the UK government have been advised by The Anaphylaxis Campaign (parliament.uk).

What To Do?

Generally, for example, hotels should not offer nuts freely, as in bars or restaurants. Adults can avoid them but children are not so discriminating. Open containers of snacks (like potato chips) and nuts ought not be on any open counter anyway, because they can harbour other nasties, such as faeces and urine bugs kindly donated by people who do not wash their hands after visiting the toilet!

Chefs should clearly point out in menus if any of their dishes contain nuts (and chillies/peppers). And if a meal is ordered containing them, the waiter should remind the customer, even if it is written on the menu.

Foodstuffs should be fresh and as free of additives as possible. Meats should be ‘organic’ with a properly traceable line of distribution, and from a reputable and known dealer. Dogs and smoking should be automatic non-no’s in rooms. 

Rooms: no need for fragrances, or scented sprays, etc. Open windows instead, clean with non-allergenic products. Use non-feather duvets and pillows. Make sure your laundry service is second to none…. Bear in mind that one high-flying U.S. lawyer recently sued an hotel because he and his wife had bed-bug bites, causing severe rashes! By all means ask customers if they do not require a daily laundry service, but beware of possible consequences. It could come to a point where customers who want to save on energy in this way will have to sign a disclaimer! 

By the way, in the private health field, there are files and files of similar disclaimers, such is the fashion for suing the pants off everyone who provides a service. Hotels are prime providers of personal services, so should make very sure their disclaimers are in place. They must be genuine, though. You can’t just push aside responsibility if the law says otherwise. The disclaimers are not bits of paper or small boxes at the end of a contract. They must be supported by properly written health and safety policies and taught to all staff.

Pure Solutions

This is not an advertorial! I am giving an example of a company that specialises in giving solutions to hotels and other industries. Pure Solutions merged with Comsys in 2005, and is part of a public company worth £700 million, so it has the technical wizardry behind it. The company tailors solutions to the individual needs of a company. There appears to be a complex way of working which might suit larger hotel chains better. I can’t see how individual hotels can pay out for these services, though they may be excellent. However, it is up to hotels themselves to find out what the costs are. Why not get the specialist work done on a sample room and use that information to produce other rooms of the same type?

Perhaps I am being simplistic in the above suggestion, but I see very close relationships between hotel solutions of this kind and the services offered in private healthcare. In my own places of work, I scoured resources to obtain best information and then prepared and delivered my own solutions, backed by monitoring sheets, check criteria, supervision/quality control checks, policies, and working procedures. 

Really, outsourcing should only occur if there is no-one in your company with the necessary knowledge. It is with some murmuring on my part that I witness groups of local city councillors being paid to travel to distant lands to look at things like sewage plants. None of them is qualified, so they just walk around plants, look, and get leaflets. No purpose is served, and my local tax monies are wasted! One technical expert would be sufficient.

In hotels, especially those who do not yet have mega-bucks, all you need are people experienced in basic research. They can do the majority of the intellectual legwork. Gather information and possible solutions, and carry on from there.  Call in experts only if you get stuck!

Why not start with what you know you can do? Examples have already been given above. If you have a budget suitable for the task, by all means get in the specialists. And don’t be sidelined by claims that are not all that clear, from customers or experts. 

One lady thinks that her bronchitis came after visiting a Hilton hotel. The problem here is that bronchitis is not caused by allergenics. It usually comes after a cold, sore throat or flu, but it could also be triggered by a polluted atmosphere, smoking, etc. It is doubtful in this case if the cause was an hotel of the stature of a Hilton, but, of course, I am being supportive of the hotel. This is because there is no way to prove the lady’s claim. She might easily have contracted a virus or bacteria on her two flights, in the airport, in a car… so never jump to conclusions. Just provide a clean environment and excellent policies and procedures.

Environment Technology Solutions (ETS)

Nick Nardella is CEO of ETS, and he has a qualified list of technical staff (as do similar companies). Again, this is not an advertorial, but a summary of information. Letters received by ETS, from customers who have experienced their ‘enviro-room’ hotels, are quite impressive. Whilst one letter (see above) was a little over the top with claims that a previous hotel room caused bronchitis (when there was no way of proving it), what ETS offers is top class.

“”As you know, I have been homebound for six years because of a very severe toxic exposure. By modifying the intrinsic components of the Enviro-Room Design ‘allergy rooms’ at the Hilton, you have opened up a world to thousands of individuals who would otherwise be unable to patronize a business like the Hilton…. Your attempts to target a market for the chemically-sensitive individuals for whom I advocate is so greatly appreciated by many.” (Hilton Guest Letter, ETS files. For copy make request to nick@etsil.com). This is not an isolated letter. ETS reports contain letters of commendation from MD’s, too, plus reference to over 400 articles on the subject. There are also the findings from Cornell University (sri.cornell.edu). 

Cornell found that one third of travelers had allergy problems and 83% said they would prefer to stay in ‘pure rooms’ if they had the chance. More interestingly, 81% of people who did not have allergies said they, too, would prefer an allergy-free room. Almost 60% said they would book with the hotel that offered such a facility, and almost the same number said they were willing to pay extra. The extra was qualified, by about one third of respondents, as about 10%. 90% of business travellers said they would prefer an allergy-free room and would pay extra. (hotelmarketing.com).

The same study shows that employees can also suffer allergy problems by working in normal rooms, so it affects productivity and absenteeism through sickness. This looks more and more like a legitimate issue, rather than ‘politics’ or ‘diatribe’! Especially when over half of frequent travellers said they would remain loyal to any hotel that provided allergy-free rooms. Did that hit the right button? One ETS test facility in Chicago charged $20 - $30 above standard room rate. And these refurbished rooms can target a staggering 28% of a hitherto untouched market segment. For ROI see ETS literature.

Its literature points out that 100 million Americans have some sort of respiratory problem, ranging from cancer to asthma, that are affected by chemicals used in hotels (and other public places). 

ETS say they do not just enter rooms and spray them – they turn rooms into something completely different. Every single component is examined in a room, from floor to ceiling, walls to furniture, even down to the kind of glue used in their manufacture, and the kind of adhesive used to hang the wallpaper. After this needs-analysis they provide the answers by removing drapes, installing purifiers, etc. The Hilton O’Hare hotel also claims to have increased occupancy because they installed ETS solutions. That is, cleaned up rooms and made sure they contained nothing harmful to those with allergies.

All hotels should see the provision of non-allergenic rooms as both a challenge and an exciting business prospect. Unlike unrealistic attempts to ‘save the planet’, this is an active, real way, to clean the hotel environment to help sufferers, whilst increasing revenue substantially. 

© Barry Napier
barry.napier@ntlworld.com

Contacts:
puresolutions.com
www.enviro-room.com
www.etsil.com
nick@etsil.com

For study results: 
Cornell University: sri.cornell.edu

 

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Contact: 

Barry Napier
barry.napier@ntlworld.com





 

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Also See: J. Peter Lynn, GM of the Hilton O'Hare Airport, Pilots Project of Environmentally Friendly Room Design for Guests with Allergy Related Sensitivities / April 2005
The Doubletree Hotel Tucson Used a Seven-step Process to Convert 10 Guest Rooms into Allergen-Resistant Environments at a Cost $2,100 per Room / June 2006
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