Guests' sticky fingers create tricky situations

NATIONAL REPORT–Some call it a cost of doing business, while others ring it up as a cost to the customer. From bathrobes and flat-panel televisions to nightlights and batteries from the remote control, it seems nothing is sacred from the sticky fingers of some hotel guests. And while some hotel operators insist the issue is nearly nonexistent, estimates place theft of guestroom products by guests at about $100 million per year.

This number might not burn a hole in the pockets of the $133-billion industry, but it still remains a hefty debt of more than just swiped travel shampoos and shower caps. The list of items nabbed from the guestroom includes more than the oft-cited towels and bathrobes, including pillows, bed linens, iPod docking stations, lapboards for laptop computers, wineglasses, coat hangers, mini-refrigerators and even flat-screen TVs, to name just some of the items sources said periodically come up missing.

"Periodically" is the key word, however, and most operators called the loss to guests "insignificant."

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"There isn't much of it ... I'm not just saying that to be clever or be positive. We don't have a lot of guest thefts," said Gerald Chase, president and c.o.o. of New Castle Hotels, citing increased security post-9/11.

He said hotel operators now have standards and policies to get identification at check-in, and most hotels take credit cards, which takes away the veil of anonymity from the guest.

"When they know we know who they are, they don't seem to take a lot of stuff," Chase said.

Not all hotels charge guests' credit cards, nor do they charge for every item taken. Most sources said the items taken were almost negligible losses, and it could cost more to charge the credit card than to purchase a replacement.

Charge it

There is a consensus that towels and other small-ticket products, such as alarm clocks and pillows, are losses for which most hotels won't charge the guest. But higher-priced goods, such as bathrobes, iPod docks and artwork, generally will end up on the customer's credit card.

To encourage guests to purchase—and sway guests from pilfering—bathrobes, hotels including the Radisson Hotel Roseville (Minn.), place cards on the hanger showing guests the price of the robe—whether they want to purchase it or suffer the financial loss when the hotel discovers it missing.

Some also offer an amenity catalog in the guest directory that lists most things found in the guestroom for sale.

"That way, instead of getting something used, they get something new for the price they'd pay if they stole it," said Scott Henning, g.m. of the 255-room hotel.

The policy to charge or not is questionable, because it's difficult to determine whether a guest or employee takes an item. If people are wrongly charged, there is "the potential for litigation [and] the potential for losing a guest," said Ray Ellis, director of the Loss Prevention Management Institute at the Conrad N. Hilton College at the University of Houston.

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