5 min read

The Struggle to Get Housekeeping Right

The struggle to get housekeeping right

A recent Associated Press article outlined the challenges that hotels, hotel staff, and hotel guests are facing when it comes to housekeeping these days. You’re in the industry, so you know the highlights, even if you haven’t read the article: Hotels are short-staffed; guests don’t want their rooms cleaned every day; and housekeeping staff is trapped in the middle, trying to walk an ever-changing line. Readers have weighed in on all sides of the story, debating who is the villain and who is the most injured party, talking about whether labor unions help or hurt, and often just looking to find fault.

Something about all of that just rubs me the wrong way. There is no villain here. Yes, there is a labor shortage. And of course management is trying to control costs, maintain or increase profits and keep their properties running efficiently. Are some people deliberately keeping their staffing levels too low and sacrificing quality for short-term profit? Probably, because someone always is. But we work with hotel owners and managers every day, so we know you know that a stressed-out, overworked team, and rooms that aren’t up to standard hurt your business. You lose employees and you lose guests, and that stresses you out. No one wins.

This leads me to what I think the biggest addressable challenges actually are: Understanding guest expectations and handling what my mother would call “bad actors”--the guests that trash your rooms, treat people poorly, and who you hope you never see again.

In all honesty, I don’t know what to do about the latter. In my brief stint as a hotel housekeeper, we had one terrible guest and he was so embarrassed by his own behavior that he was never coming back. It was a different time, a different place, and we were lucky. You can’t predict who’s going to be a nightmare when they walk in the door. Well, sometimes you can, but at that point it’s too late, unless they don’t have a reservation and your front desk person can direct them to another hotel, pleading no vacancy. Evicting someone from a room after you realize it’s going really badly is tough to do, and not a task anyone wants to take on. (I’d love to hear how you handle challenging guests–please comment below if you have tips to share or just a really good story.)

Which brings me to the question that actually interests me the most: What are your guests’ housekeeping expectations, how do you figure that out, and how do you adjust your own processes to accommodate their changing needs? Especially when you don’t have time or staff to handle it all. I know from years of working with marketing and customer research that people (including myself) are remarkably bad at describing what we want. Most of us can only describe our vision in terms of what we have now. That’s how you get to the metaphor of people wanting a better buggy whip when what they really wanted was a car. Who knew they wanted a car when it didn’t exist yet? The point is, when you ask your guests what they want, they’re probably not great at telling you, at least not accurately. Which leaves it to you to be part psychic and part inventor, with no time to think about it.

So, as someone who spent a lot of time in food service, a former business owner, and a marketer, here’s my advice:

Give people options. Whether it’s for environmental reasons, health concerns, or just plain privacy, people want and need flexibility. I recently declined housekeeping simply because I had meetings that I was taking from my room and didn’t want someone knocking on the door when I was on one of those calls. And (again, a personal choice) I don’t want you to wash my sheets and towels every day because it wastes water. But I would love to have someone make the bed and empty the trash–one makes me feel happy and cared for and the other just seems like good hygiene.

The options you give may be dictated by your brand. They may be based on a guest profile you already have, or you may be trying to figure it out as that profile is changing. If you have flexibility, ask your guests what they want, but…

Put guardrails around those options. Only offer what you can and are willing to give. If you don’t want guests to go more than three days without cleaning the bathroom (thinking of that “five days of…scum over scum” comment from the article), then your offer of occasional housekeeping might say something like, “Full housekeeping every three days.” If you’re not willing to let people go on indefinitely without services, then don’t offer that option, and make sure your staff has a consistent explanation for why a ‘no housekeeping’ option is not available. It’s ok to say that you need to keep the room in the best possible condition long-term so you need to clean frequently. And…

Build in a cost to protect you if something goes wrong. If you don’t do this already, let people know that there will be an extra charge if they trash the room. You’ll want to say it more professionally than that, perhaps, “An additional charge of $X will apply if the room requires deep cleaning after your stay.” You have their credit card information, and you’d charge guests if they walked off with a comforter, so why not apply the same rules that apply to house and apartment rentals? You do not get your deposit back if you create more than normal wear and tear. And if someone wants to stay for a week with no housekeeping, maybe that’s fine, but the deep cleaning fee kicks in. I think we all know that it takes longer to clean our homes if we save it for Saturday instead of cleaning as we go.

Ask your guests what options they’re looking for, but watch what people do more than you listen to what they say. If your guests tell you they don’t want housekeeping, but consistently call for additional towels or catch housekeepers in the hall to ask them to please just make the bed, then they really do want housekeeping. They just need an option between all and nothing, or maybe they need the ability to specify time of day so that it happens when they know they can be out of the room. If you have the flexibility, try different policies and see what works the best at your property. Just make sure the test periods are long enough to even out good days and bad days–you’re trying policies for several weeks or even months at a time.

Be kind to your staff. My daughter is in the process of getting a sailing certification, and the mantra I hear around the house these days is, “People first, equipment second.” That’s the guidance for boating rescue. The same applies to you and your teams. Take care of your people and they will return that care to you. That means listening to your staff just like you listen to your guests, ensuring that their workloads are manageable, and being transparent about some of the things that you’re working on. If you’re trying different housekeeping policies to see what works best, ask for their help and their ideas. People on the front lines often have the best suggestions because they are in the details every day in a way that you just can’t be. They are constantly finding creative ways to get their jobs done better, faster and more effectively. They will also put up with a lot more confusion when they know why it’s happening and can see a benefit at the end. And if someone has to deal with a particularly awful room, pass on some of that deposit money to the housekeeper as a ‘hazard bonus.’ Maybe you’ll have people asking to take care of the awful rooms instead of wishing they could avoid them.

Whether you blame COVID, evolving expectations, or both. The fact remains that your customer expectations are changing and you have to adapt along with them to thrive. There is no clear or easy answer, and figuring out the “new normal” takes time. If you do have an easy answer, or just something that’s working for you, please share it. We’re all learning together.

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