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Hotels go to the mattress in the battle for beds

Business travelers demand luxury and will pay for it

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Ready for bed in his pajamas and robe, Marriott chairman and CEO, J.W. Marriott, shows off the chain's new beds and linens.

Ready for bed in his pajamas and robe, Marriott chairman and CEO, J.W. Marriott, shows off the chain’s new beds and linens.

Matt Houston, Associated Press

Marriott International Inc. on Tuesday launched a major initiative to replace nearly every bed in seven of its chains. At the Marriott chain, which is slated for the most extensive upgrade, each king-size bed will be getting 300-thread-count 60 percent cotton sheets, seven pillows instead of five, a pillowy mattress cover, a white duvet, and a "bed scarf" that will be draped along the bottom of the bed. The yearlong project will cost an estimated $190 million, and the company is saying that the cost, along with the planned marketing efforts, make it its biggest initiative ever.

It's the latest incursion in what has turned into a full-scale hotel bed war, launched by Westin's Heavenly Bed five years ago. Virtually every major chain is trying to outdo its rivals. Radisson, for instance, is buying 90,000 beds that allow each occupant to adjust the firmness of their side of the mattress with a remote control device that pumps air in and out. In recent years, Hilton, Sheraton, and nearly every other major chain has upgraded its beds, sometimes more than once. In October for instance, Sheraton Four Points added a new Sealy Posturepedic Plush Top Sleeping System bed, and tossed a few feather/down pillows on its beds.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the industry this year will buy 1.4 million beds in the United States alone. In addition, some limited-service hotels, including Marriott's Residence Inn, plan to start "triple sheeting" their beds — a practice once reserved for five-star hotels, in which an extra sheet is laid over the blanket. One hotel consultant says that next up will be adjustable-height beds that can be raised or lowered electronically.

The bed wars raise some awkward issues, such as what to do with all the old beds. Some hotels are trying to give them to charity, but "homeless shelters don't really have a use for king-sized beds," says one Marriott executive. Housekeepers complain that stuffing down comforters into all the new duvets is more time consuming than making a traditional bed with bedspread.

All the pressure to make hotel beds better is finally forcing the industry to reveal — and start to abandon — its dirtiest little secret: the fact that those colorful bedspreads on hotel-room beds sometimes get washed only a few times a year at most. Marriott hopes it will top rivals with a pledge to wash its white duvets between each guest visit, an initiative the company will call "Clean for You."

Hotels are doing all this because their research shows that people are willing to pay more for luxurious beds. Bill Marriott says he expects to be able to charge as much as $30 a night more in Marriott hotels once the new beds are installed.

And at Radisson, a unit of Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies, the decision to install new beds was easy after focus-group participants said they'd be willing to pay as much as $10 a night more for better beds. "The bed is paid for by a $1.89 increase in rate over five years," says Bjorn Gullaksen, Radisson's executive vice president.

Marriott plans to purchase 628,000 beds for hotels at seven chains. However, only the full-service Marriott and Renaissance chains will get the new white duvets, which the company is planning to launder regularly as part of the Clean for You campaign. Less expensive Marriott chains like Courtyard and SpringHill Suites, along with Residence Inn, will triple sheet their beds by putting the extra sheet on top of the (less frequently laundered) outermost bedspread.

All this comes as the hotel industry is experiencing an economic boom, with room rates and occupancies rising faster than any time since the dot-com boom, leaving hotels extra cash to spend on improvements. Much of the increase in travel is coming from business travelers, who tend to be pickier and less price-sensitive than vacationers — meaning they want things like better beds and often don't mind paying for them since their expense accounts are picking up the tab.

At the same time, Americans are getting choosier about their beds at home and on the road. In fact, one hotel consultant says that more choice may also be in the offing for guests at some properties. For instance, one luxury chain currently in development, but not yet operating, is considering offering guests the choice of a duvet or bedspread at the same time they book their room, according to a person familiar with the plans.

The Westin innovation in the 1990s wasn't merely the bedding — a mix of pillow-top mattress, down comforters and pillows, and a crisp white duvet — but also the branding of it with the Heavenly Bed name. The effort helped turn around the Westin brand by lifting the loyalty of the chain's customers. The company says 30,000 guests have bought one of the beds from Westin.

It's not the first time Marriott undertook a bed-upgrade project recently. In its first attempt, three years ago, Marriott went as far as holding an in-house contest to find a catchy name for its thicker mattresses and a colorful polyester duvet. The naming contest was a flop, and the improvements failed to catch on with guests.

One reason the previous effort struggled: Risk-averse Marriott stuck with a more traditional colorful, patterned, polyester duvet. Colorful polyester materials can hide stains better and cut down on hotel cleaning bills, but the look Marriott chose didn't help set the new beds apart from its predecessor.

When it comes to bedspread sanitation, hotel chains are typically loath to reveal how often they wash the bedcovers. Regular laundering is costly, both in terms of housekeeping and laundering, as well as in wear-and-tear on expensive linens. So most hotels launder bedcovers only when absolutely necessary.

Westin's Heavenly Beds, with white duvets, are washed when a housekeeper identifies them as stained or wrinkled, says a spokeswoman. While that means the Westin duvets are laundered often, the spokeswoman adds: "I wish I could say we do it every time for every guest."

Marriott plans to purchase 628,000 beds for hotels at seven chains. . . . All this comes as the hotel industry is experiencing an economic boom . . . leaving hotels extra cash to spend on improvements.