|By Louis R. Carlozo, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 19, 2008 - Ever since she was a little girl in the Robert Taylor Homes, Linda Davis has hated cigarette smoke -- hated it. The soft-spoken Swissotel housekeeper, who wears a four-star-crisp white apron and immaculate matching sneakers and socks, winces at the memory of her mom filling her childhood home with billows of tobacco exhaust.
To demonstrate how it makes her feel, she massages her temples as if fighting off another tension headache -- the kind she gets only when facing the remains of cigarettes, pipes or cigars.
Especially cigars. "They're the worst," says Davis, 34, her ever-present smile curdling for a moment in disgust.
Back when her mother turned the family apartment into a smoke box, Davis fought back by flinging open the windows, even when winter weather might discourage it. Now, when Davis walks into a Swissotel room and catches that telltale scent -- and she can always catch it, thanks to her hair-trigger headaches -- she sets about freshening the premises, changing the linens.
Then she turns the guest in, for which she gets a $10 reward -- while the offender gets slapped with a $250 fine.
Swissotel isn't the first Chicago hotel to ban smoking and levy stiff penalties against rule breakers. But with a top-to-bottom renovation of 632 rooms under way, Swissotel is getting extra tough, paying housekeepers such as Davis for turning in no-smoking scofflaws. This makes Swissotel the only hotel in the country that rewards staff for collaring smokers in its rooms, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group in Washington.
As for why Swissotel went to such lengths to extinguish smoking, "It was quite simple, really," says hotel manager Jack Breisacher. "The housekeepers spend between 30 and 45 minutes in the guest room and they were being impacted healthwise; they taste the smoke and breathe the smoke. So even without the meager $10 we give them, they're quite on board."
That goes for his guests, too: "We started a blog a few weeks ago and the response was unbelievably in favor. Of the 50 or so people who wrote in only two said, 'We can't believe you're turning the maids into vigilantes.' But some people are saying, 'We can't believe you didn't do this sooner.'"
What's more, three staffers have since quit smoking. Breisacher's thrilled, for the most part.
"I wish I could get my wife to stop," he says.
The strategy also points to Chicago hotels as another front line in the city's ongoing battle against smokers. Swissotel doesn't just want to sweep out the ashes -- it's shooting for green certification from the city, meaning it has to prove the building has superior air quality. To that end, Davis maintains she's caught a few people each week since Swissotel's all-room smoking ban began Dec. 3. To date, 22 guests have gotten socked with fines -- with two granted amnesty because it turned out that friends did the smoking, according to hotel officials.
While not on the level of "CSI: Swissotel," Davis and her co-workers rely on circumstantial evidence to prove a case of surreptitious smoking. Besides using her sense of smell, Davis inspects for telltale signs of cheating. Smokers for example often use glasses as ashtrays then wash out the offending ash. The visual evidence may be gone but in many cases, odor lingers in the glass. Or a guest might spray air freshener in the room. That's often a dead giveaway, because Swissotel doesn't spray cheap scents in its rooms (let alone ones commingled with the aroma of stale ash).
When Davis thinks she's got a live one, she reports it to John Weiss, Swissotel's head of housekeeping. More sniffing ensues; if they make the determination that someone has been puffing in the room, they take it to the hotel brass. So far no one has fought the charges for covert smoking, save those two whose pals did the puffing.
Some guests have even been fined after checking out.
How much dough has Davis made on all that illicit smoke? "It's not really about the money," she insists. "It's about my health. It just slows you down."
Even more so when some cagey puffers try to make a game of it. "I had one guest who stayed with us three days -- and he would hide his cigarettes under a mattress," Davis recalls. "And he'd say, 'Oh, you don't have to make the bed today.' But I'm going in there with a fresh nose."
Does she feel bad turning in, say, big-tipping tobacco truants? "Sometimes," she says. Then she remembers her headaches and gets ornery: "It gets me dizzy, like a hangover."
A few steps north at the Michigan Avenue Marriott, a similar ban has been in place since September 2006, with an identical $250 fine. As for turning housekeepers into paid mercenaries on the no-smoking front, "We do not do that, but I think it's a clever idea," says Marriott general manager Doug Ridge. As for how many smokers they catch, Ridge estimates the number at fewer than a dozen per year.
"We don't make money off it," Ridge says of the fines. "Depending on how strong the smell of the smoke is, we lose the room from inventory for two to three days."
Ditto at Swissotel, where it costs at least $400 to refurbish a room back to its pre-smoky state. The painstaking process begins with a total washdown of all surfaces -- hard-cased woods get lathered in oil soap, draperies stripped, feather duvets and bed skirts dry cleaned, bathroom surfaces scrubbed.
When all that's done, an ionizer the size of a large toaster oven -- known to the hotel staff as "the red box" -- sanitizes the air overnight. Because it produces pure oxygen, no one can stay in a guest room while it runs.
While the policy change has been personally rough on some Swissotel employees -- including Weiss, who admits to smoking nearly a pack a day -- Davis loves the sharp drop in headaches she's experienced as the hotel has phased out smoking. She celebrated her ninth year at Swissotel on Friday; about a decade ago, the building had roughly 170 smoking rooms on nine floors.
Maybe it's all that clean air that's making Davis extra feisty. "I know somebody's been smoking up there sometime today," she says, sounding more like a sly private eye than a meek maid. "And I'm going to find them."
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