How could the task of cleaning a hotel room possibly evolve? The duties seem pretty standard: Make the bed, change the towels, vacuum, put new soap by the sink.

It turns out that much is shifting about how hotel chains run their housekeeping departments. Companies are looking at ways to make the departments run more efficiently and less expensively by enticing guests to skip room cleaning or linen changes, replacing housekeepers’ paper schedules with software and reducing the time it takes to clean each room.

With a strong U.S. economy and tightening immigration policies (many housekeepers are foreign-born), some hotels are struggling to hire, “and need to pay more when they do,” said Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality industry consultant and former dean of New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.

Ron Oh, a board member of the Washington Hospitality Association and general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle, said, “Everyone I speak to in the industry is having trouble getting housekeeping. It’s always been one of the hardest jobs to fill and harder than ever now.”

It’s typically a low-wage job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half a million people work as maids and housekeepers (called “room attendants”) in the American hotel industry, and the average hourly wage is $12.19, or about $25,000 a year for a full-time position.

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Many hotels have begun offering guests incentives like loyalty program points or food and beverage vouchers to skip their daily room cleaning, promoting the program as a “green” choice that reduces the use of cleaning products, energy and water. Hanson said that in his experience, while hotels are trying to reduce their environmental impact, “cost drives it more” because fewer rooms to clean means fewer housekeeping hours are needed.

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Some housekeepers see a downside to the incentive programs. Tiffany Ten Eyck, a spokeswoman for the labor union UNITE HERE, which represents more than 50,000 hotel housekeepers, said skipping a day of cleaning on a guest’s two-night business trip might not be a big deal. Skipping four or five days, however, especially at a resort hotel or in a room where a family is staying, can mean extra work later — like heaps of extra towels to wash and overflowing trash containers.

Edith Garibay, a housekeeper at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort and Spa in San Diego, said she was given the same 30 minutes to clean a room no matter how many days a guest opted to skip service.

“When the rooms are very dirty, we use more water, more scrubbing, stronger chemicals,” Garibay said. “It’s very hard because we have a lot of pressure to clean the rooms on time.”

Hotels are still figuring out how to reduce guest-room services. William Frye, an author of the book “Managing Housekeeping Operations,” published by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute, described the change as “still in its infancy.” He said hotel management could do a better job of determining how long rooms would take to clean if service had been skipped for several days, adding that hotels that don’t find a way to adjust to the new normal may find themselves losing housekeepers to those that do.

Barbara DeLollis, a spokeswoman for Marriott, said housekeeping managers could assign extra help or extra time if an excessively dirty room was brought to their attention. Oh said that was the practice at his property, too.

Hotels are also encouraging guests to reuse towels and to have their bedding changed less often. With fewer linens to wash, hotels save money on laundry services and can reduce housekeepers’ workload. That can benefit housekeepers in another way: Changing sheets, including repeatedly lifting heavy mattresses, is one common contributor to repetitive-stress injury, Ten Eyck said.

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Because Americans, on average, change their own sheets at home only once every 24 days, according to MattressAdvisor.com, a review and sales site, sleeping for a few days on the same hotel sheets probably isn’t a hardship.

A housekeeper uses an app on a tablet while working at the Avid Hotel Tulsa South in Oklahoma. Mobile housekeeping apps are replacing clipboards and walkie-talkies. (September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times)
A housekeeper uses an app on a tablet while working at the Avid Hotel Tulsa South in Oklahoma. Mobile housekeeping apps are replacing clipboards and walkie-talkies. (September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times)

The incentives for guests to skip some services vary. The Mondrian South Beach hotel in Miami offers free coffee if guests reuse their towels. At Kixby, a boutique hotel in New York, guests who choose to keep the same towels for at least two nights receive 15% off their next stay. And at the Heathman Hotel in Kirkland the front desk asks guests when they check in if they would like to skip room cleaning and linen changes in exchange for 10% off dining at the hotel.

At the same time, hotels are increasingly using mobile housekeeping apps, replacing clipboards and walkie-talkies. The apps, which Frye said were the biggest technological change to housekeeping in the past 40 to 50 years, can help staff members more quickly communicate which guests have checked out, which rooms have been cleaned and inspected, and if anything needs repair.

While housekeepers once received a printed list of room assignments for the day and could organize their route, the new software systems send assignments to the housekeeper’s device, typically one at a time, and in order of importance to the hotel, taking into account, for example, VIP rooms, service-time requests and groups coming in.

It is helpful for the housekeepers to be sent to a room that is ready to be cleaned, rather than knocking on doors to see if the guest is out, Frye said. “But if they have to push that heavy cart from one end of a floor to another or between floors, it can get frustrating,” he said. “With 13 to 17 rooms in an eight-hour shift, they are constantly racing the clock.”

Garibay said she was not given extra time in her room-cleaning schedule to travel between floors or to different parts of the hotel.

Frye said he expected that hotels and software companies would continue to work on the scheduling issue because once a mobile app is used, “they’re not going back to clipboards.”

An IHG “greener stay” tag for guests to hang on their doors at the Avid Hotel Tulsa South in Oklahoma. The tag promises rewards to guests who forgo housekeeping on their stays of two or more nights. (September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times)
An IHG “greener stay” tag for guests to hang on their doors at the Avid Hotel Tulsa South in Oklahoma. The tag promises rewards to guests who forgo housekeeping on their stays of two or more nights. (September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times)

Hotels have also been re-evaluating room design to make cleaning go faster. Some have replaced carpeting with easier-to-clean wood flooring or put beds on solid stands so dust doesn’t collect underneath. Some hotels are reducing the number of glasses, towels or wastebaskets in a room. Others are removing coffee makers. Duvets that don’t have to be tucked into the bed have been replacing blankets that do.

IHG’s Avid Hotel chain designed its rooms with open storage spaces instead of drawers. The spaces are easier to keep clean than dressers and, because everything is visible, help reduce the number of items guests leave behind. Avid also uses blackout roller shades instead of curtains because they don’t collect dust.

Marriott, IHG and Hyatt have all announced that they planned to replace the tiny toiletry bottles in guest room showers with larger refillable bottles. Besides reducing plastic waste, the change will save housekeepers time restocking the small bottles.

Emptying fewer wastebaskets, fluffing a bed cover instead of tucking it in and no longer replacing coffee pods and shampoo bottles may not sound like significant time savers. But when a room attendant is working through a 50-item room-cleaning checklist, a few seconds here and there can speed things along.

While housekeeping is by its nature repetitive, managing the housekeeping department is a more serious operational challenge than it has been for decades, Hanson said, because of “the lack of availability of employees for those positions.”