By Barbara A. Worcester H&MM Senior Editor - November 1998
Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels and shower curtains aren't just softgoods in a guestroom, they are the ambassador to the hotel.
Until a guest snuggles between soft, cool sheets, lays her head on a fluffy pillow, or wraps up in a thick, absorbent bath towel, she isn't truly experiencing all the comforts of home-the epitome of the guest-stay experience. If sheets are soiled, blankets are rough and scratchy, pillows thin and nonsupportive and shower curtains are moldy and stained, the entire image of the hotel is tarnished, and the guest most likely will not return.
"Our focus today is on providing individualized, luxury bed-and-bath items to give the guestroom a home-like feel," said Anna Marie Santo, director of housekeeping for the New York Palace hotel. Santo has worked with hospitality linens for more than 40 years. "Twenty years ago, durability was our main focus- today, it's personal luxury."
While The Palace hotel is a luxury property, industry experts say the upgrading of towels, sheets, blankets and shower curtains is also hitting the midscale segment.
Ann Kline, vice president of Cendant Supplier Services, Parsippany, N.J., said purchasing criteria for Cendant Corp.'s eight brands is set by Cendant's quality assurance program. Budget properties such as Knights Inns and Super 8 provide bed-and-bath linens that comply with industry standards. Its midscale brands, however, such as Ramada, Wingate Inns and Days Inns, have been upgrading sheets and towels to provide a more comfortable night sleep in a more home-like setting.
"In the Wingate environment, for example, we have a lot of women business travelers," Kline said. "Our rooms provide the softness of home, from a comfortable easy chair to larger bath towels in softer colors like cream, egg shell or pastels."
Kline said that while colors add to the appearance of a guestroom, especially in the bathroom, white is ultimately king in bedding and terry products because of its clean, crisp look and ability to hold up in the laundering process.
The buying criteria for bed sheets is thread count. According to David Kahn, president of Kahn & Co., a Savannah, Ga.-based supplier of bed and bath linens and one of four approved vendors of Cendant Corp., the industry standard for purchasing bed sheets is 180 threads per square inch-80 threads one way, 100 the other.
"These sheets are being used by 98 percent of all hotels, from economy brands to luxury properties," Kahn said. "Guests are comfortable with 180 percale because its the same quality of sheet that they have been buying from retail stores for their homes for years."
Kahn said 180 percale is the thread-count of choice because of its durability- the fabric blend is usually 50 percent cotton, 50 percent polyester or can be 60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester. He said that in the past, muslin sheets were used by hotels, but the 70 percent polyester, 30 percent cotton blend lent itself to pilling, making the sheet unsightly and reducing its shelf life. Percale sheets, he said, are pill resistant.
Several high-end, luxury properties have opted for higher thread-count products, ranging from 200 percale to 250 percale, Kahn said.
Following the renovation of its Tower rooms, The Palace opted to purchase its bed linens from Rivolta Carmangani, an Italian linen company. The Rivolta linens have a 165 thread count, but feature double twisted Egyptian cotton, Santo said.
"If you don't know any better, you would think it's a 200-250 thread count percale," Santo said. "It feels silky on your skin. One guest actually said that our sheets are 'delicious.'"
The Palace will be replacing the top sheet in all 750 rooms of the main part of the hotel with a Rivolta top sheet.
In addition to increasing the thread count on bed sheets, Bruce Cook, director of institutional sales for New York-based WestPoint Stevens, said the size of bed sheets is increasing.
"We're seeing a trend towards larger-size sheets because mattress size and thickness is increasing," Cook said. "We're also seeing the adoption of fitted bottom sheets and deeper pocket fitted sheets. Hotels typically use the same sheet for top and bottom to have only one stock-keeping unit. Basically, it's easier to control inventories, but fitted sheets give the bed a home-like appearance."
Alan Worley, director of purchasing for Promus Hotels and Resorts, said select hotels in the Promus system had experimented with fitted sheets, but from a housekeeping and labor perspective, it just didn't work.
"Fitted sheets were too labor intensive," Worley said. "We did some time-in- motion studies and found that fitted sheets didn't work into the housekeeping labor process. They weren't time efficient."
WestPoint Stevens is finding that it has a niche in the blanket market with its Vellux blanket. The product is nylon flocked with a polyurethane foam base and uses scrim (a netting-like material or open mesh) to hold the blanket together. It has a plush appearance and is flame resistant.
"The industry is in turmoil over blankets," Kahn said. "No one can deliver them fast enough. "
The reason for the lack of blankets, Kahn said, is that Dallas-based Pillowtex, a long-time supplier of nylon foam-base blankets to the hotel industry, decided to discontinue its product line and sold the plant and all the equipment to WestPoint Stevens. At the same time, Kahn said major hotel chains, such as Hampton Inns, a brand of Memphis-based Promus, decided to make the blanket a standard product for all its hotels. Cook said the shortage will betemporary.
Cook said the Vellux is the No. 1 best-selling blanket in the hospitality market because of its wearlife characteristics and appearance. He said that within the next 30 days, WestPoint Stevens will add a fourth range to help in the manufacturing process. He said the additional range will increase production by at least 25 percent.
"Come first of the year, we will have ample supply to satisfy demand and increased demand as the blanket's acceptance continues to grow," Cook said.
On the high-end, The Palace hotel has replaced its blankets with down duvet comforters in all guestrooms. A more traditional blanket is kept in the closet for those who request it.
"Each hotel section of the hotel has a different grade of duvet, from 26-ounce, to 30-ounce to 40-ounce," Santo said. "We feel a duvet is better than blankets because they keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and the duvet conforms to your body. Acrylic blankets feel soft, but they leave air pockets that don't keep you warm."
There also seems to be a trade-up in quality pillows, Kahn said. "For the longest time, a hollowfill, 20-ounce pillow had been the standard," Kahn said. "But today, guests want thicker pillows with a heavier fill. We're also seeing a demand for pillows made of natural fibers, like feathers and down."
Kahn said pillows made of natural fibers have become so popular with guests, that several chains require housekeeping to keep at least 12 feather pillows in stock at all times in case of customer request. All pillows on the beds at The Palace are down, Santo said.
"Every bed gets 2 king-size pillows," she said. "One is down, that lets your head sink into the pillow, the other is a feather pillow that provides more support. Of course, a foam pillow is kept in the closet in case a guest is allergic."
Middle Georgia Textiles, Jackson, Ga., has been selling linens to the hospitality industry for 13 years. Walter Jones, Middle Georgia Textiles president, said that he is seeing less of the cheaper imported goods and more American-made products.
"Franchisors are mandating American made goods," Jones said. "We're also seeing larger franchisors having some fun with textiles, mandating larger towels and the use of Dobby borders."
Jones explained towels have two types of borders: Cam borders feature a plain flat edge around the towel. Dobby borders feature a terry texture trim around the towel in a variety of patterns.
"A Dobby border does make a difference to the guest," Jones said. "It makes the towel different, and takes away the institutional or commercial look and feel of the towel."
When purchasing guestroom towels, weight and size is important, Kahn said. The most widely used, economically priced towel weighs 10.5 pounds per dozen, and is 86 percent cotton and 14 percent polyester.
"People think that a 100 percent cotton towel would be the best product," Kahn said. "What they don't realize is that the terry loops are 100 percent cotton for absorbency and the base of the towel is polyester to resist shrinking."
Promus' Worley said Doubletree, another Promus brand, has upgraded to a 14-pound towel that is embroidered with the Doubletree logo.
"If you have a nonlogo towel, it makes it too easy for import manufacturers to come in and sell their towels to our franchisees," Worley said. "By requiring a specific embroidered towel, we feel we have better controls and offer our guests a more consistent product."
Worley said Doubletree and Embassy Suites are looking at a slight increase in the weight of their hand and wash cloths.
The Palace's Santo said that towels can be too thick to be manageable. "If a towel is too thick, it won't conform to your hand," Santo said. "While it looks good, it won't help a guest dry themselves."
Another trend in bathroom towels, according to WestPoint's Cook, is reducing the number of towels per room, from a set of four bath, hand and wash towels to three. He also said hotels are turning away from logo crested towels.
"Embroidery of logos in my estimation is waning," Cook said. "The biggest reason is that hotels are trying to get across the home atmosphere. We still manufacture crested programs to help reinforce a brand's identity. But special touches like a Dobby border seem to be more attractive to hotels that want the look and feel of a retail towel."
Behind the curtain
Guestroom shower curtains have also changed over the years. When Michael Goskowski, president of Kartri Sales Co., started the shower curtain company 23 years ago, it was making only plastic shower curtains.
"Before we knew it, plastic went from being flimsy and light-weight to a heavy, durable material," Goskowski said. "Today, many hotels want a fabric curtain placed in front of the vinyl liner to make the bath look elegant. We've even begun to manufacture straight and ruffled valances to the fabric shower curtains at the customers' request."
Goskowski said that at one time he was getting requests for 70 percent vinyl product and 30 percent fabric. Today, the curtain mix is 50/50. Vinyl shower curtains are purchased by gauge. The lightest is a 4 gauge, which Goskowski said is fairly flimsy. He recommends that hotels use a 6 gauge vinyl curtain if being used with a front fabric curtain, or an 8 to 10 gauge vinyl if the curtain is being used by itself.
Most vinyl shower curtains are treated with a fungicide that is put
directly into the vinyl to make it mildew resistant. Goskowski recommends
hoteliers replace their vinyl curtains every six to eight months
and launder their fabric curtains at least once during the same time
period. No matter what the item, there is certainly a trend toward
products that imitate those that guests use at home.