|By Suzanne Marta, The Dallas Morning News|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 19, 2005 - Donna and Ian Seaton never thought they'd paid $65 for a pillow.
But the Austin couple slept so well on the Joseph Abboud pillows during a recent stay at the Wyndham Dallas North, that they ordered a pair as soon as they got home.
"I didn't even flinch," Ms. Seaton said. "We just slept so well."
Plush bedding, a hallmark among luxury hotels for years, is rapidly making its way across the lodging industry.
From budget brands to the leading mid-priced and upscale chains, hotel companies are betting that nicer beds will drive loyalty among business travelers, their best customers.
Like many travelers the Seatons have had their share of uncomfortable nights at hotels, tossing and turning on lumpy mattresses, or adjusting oversized pillows.
"You can never make most hotel pillows comfortable," Ms. Seaton complained. "You can fold them around, but they always feel like they're about to pop out from under your head."
Marriott International Inc. launched a $190 million bed program last month that will upgrade 628,000 beds in full- and limited-service hotels worldwide this year.
The chain is offering higher thread-count sheets with fitted bottoms that don't easily come undone and triple sheeted tops that do away with bedspreads that are expensive to clean.
Marriott and Renaissance hotels will get plush mattress toppers. Its limited service properties, such as Fairfield Inn, Courtyard and SpringHill Suites, will get mattresses that are more than twice as thick.
Irving-based La Quinta Corp. recently upgraded some 45,000 pillows at 75 of its Inns & Suites properties with versions that are twice as expensive.
The limited service hotelier has also begun testing a new bedding package at its newly opened flagship property in San Antonio. The beds have thicker, pillow-top mattresses and higher thread-count sheets that look and feel similar to ones found in most homes.
And Friday, Dallas-based economy brand Red Roof Inn, a unit of Accor SA, announced a chain-wide program that will upgrade beds with thicker mattresses, polar fleece blankets and a turndown-style service.
The race to offer the best bed began in August 1999, when Starwood Hotels & Resorts launched the "Heavenly Bed" for its Westin brand.
The 12 1/2-inch pillow-top mattress beds were so popular that the company soon added a mail-order catalog so customers could have the same experience at home.
Since then, some 30,000 guests have made purchases. More than 7,000 customers have bought the whole ensemble, to the tune of $2,565 for queen size bed.
Westin's Heavenly Bed drew competitors with upgrades such as Hyatt's "Grand Bed," Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resort's "Sleep Advantage," and Radisson Hotels & Resorts rollout of the "Sleep Number" bed.
Dallas-based Wyndham International Inc. upgraded its beds in 2000, as part of its By Request frequent guest program, using higher thread-count sheets, and pillow top mattresses, and replacing bedspreads with coverlets and duvets.
Guests can customize the room, so special requests such as extra pillows or blankets are in place before each arrival, a distinction that company officials say has proved more important to building loyalty than having a bed that has a brand identity of its own.
"A lot of customers aren't sure which hotel brand has which bed," said Andrew Jordan, Wyndham's executive vice president of sales and marketing. "Our focus is on personalization."
Beds have gotten more attention as hotels try to balance the growing number of amenities that customers expect with what ultimately sells a room.
"Warm chocolate chip cookies are nice, but a comfortable night's sleep is essential," said John Keeling, a lodging expert with PKF Consultants in Houston.
In the last few years, business travelers have come to expect more from the beds they sleep in when they're on the road.
And hoteliers are trying to capture the success of Starwood's "Heavenly Bed," which was so popular with women that "some women said they wouldn't stay anywhere without one," Mr. Keeling said.
"We used to say, you can go to the Ritz-Carlton to expect these things, now, you have to have it at a Hampton Inn," Mr. Keeling said.
Driving Marriott's new bedding plan was research that showed comfortable beds ranked behind only high-speed Internet access among travelers' top priorities in choosing a hotel.
And for guests at limited-service properties, the research showed better beds were enough to cause travelers to switch loyalties, said Marsha Scarbrough, Marriott's vice president of brand product strategy.
Marriott's model of 4-inch foam mattresses was okay for years at limited service properties, "but customer expectations have changed," Ms. Scarbrough said.
The company's new standard for its limited service brands is now 9 1/2-inch mattresses.
And like Starbucks, which transformed buying a cup of coffee into an upscale experience, hotels are hoping to provide a plusher "sleep experience," Ms. Scarbrough said.
"Even places like Target have convinced us that we need nicer bedding," she said.
Beds have become a hot issue among business travelers, many of whom have faced more pressure to cut costs by staying in cheaper hotels.
Even customers booking a night an economy hotel are more discriminating when it comes to beds, said Joe Wheeling, Red Roof's chief operating officer and executive vice president.
"People bounce between segments," he said. "Once they've experienced something at home or at a upscale hotel, they expect it in an economy hotel as well."
But with a $50 average room price, Red Roof had to be careful not to price itself out of the market in its $200 million renovation program aimed at attracting more business travelers.
As upper-end competitors work to exchange bedspreads for easily laundered duvet covers, Red Roof will offer its own twist on "triple-sheeted" beds by rolling out longer top sheets that fold back to cover the top third of the bedspread.
"It's a fine line to walk," Mr. Wheeling said. "We have to come up with really practical solutions that aren't over the top."
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