NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It wasn't easy for Sue Brush to kick the habit. "I had a few sleepless nights," the Westin Hotels senior VP-marketing said of the chain's decision to halt smoking in its 77 North American hotels.
Hotel Industry Goes Cold Turkey on Smoking
Westin's Bold Experiment Pays Off, Triggers Trend
8% of business
Even though the company's research found that 92% of customers already requested nonsmoking rooms, "we were wondering how big of a risk were we taking," she said. "Who wants to slash 8% of your business? You're talking millions of dollars."
But some seven months after the Starwood Hotels and Resorts brand went cold turkey, it hasn't seen much falloff -- in fact, it gained some business-by the move that's also saved it money on room refurbishment. And now others are following suit. Since Westin's Feb. 1 implementation, 40 individual U.S. hotels have banned smoking in rooms and public areas, while later this month the entire 2,800-property Marriott chain will go smoke-free in the U.S.
15% of population still smoke
With cities and states such as New York, Chicago and California banning smoking in bars and restaurants, hotels were seen as a last bastion for lighting up. But now that option appears to be dwindling for the 15% of the U.S. population who still smoke-some 44.5 million people.
In fact, offering a completely smoke-free environment is poised to become the latest differentiator in the competitive hotel industry, according to the J.D. Power & Associates 2006 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study released in July. The study found that 79% of hotel guests prefer a smoke-free environment that exceeds the boundaries of their rooms.
"What was once a differentiator is now expected by consumers," said Linda Hirneise, executive director of the travel practice at J.D. Power, noting that "going smoke-free could be a powerful marketing strategy."
Westin's business gain
Westin gained business from the move. The American Heart Association recently signed a contract to return to the chain's hotels as a customer after five years.
Moreover, the more than $3 million Westin spent to convert 3,900 smoking rooms into nonsmoking is a drop in the bucket, analysts said, compared to what the company will save each year by not having to deep-clean fabrics or replace rugs or bedding due to the odor and discoloration caused by cigarette smoke.
While the move to stub out smoking in its hotels was trumpeted with a heavy marketing campaign featuring Westin's first Super Bowl commercial and a savvy media blitz from marketing agency SS&K, New York, it's now taking a more subdued approach to remind guests of the policy. Last month, the chain introduced "The Breathing Lights," also dreamed up by the agency.
"Breathing Lights" is a projection on a wall or other hotel space that features a blue light that pulses at every 4.4 seconds, the average speed of healthy human breathing. For a period of three months, each "breath" will tick up a counter displayed in the center of the projection, representing the number of fresh, smoke-free breaths taken in the hotel that day. (On average, one person takes 11,520 breaths a day.) Simultaneously, the counter will track the number of days Westin hotels have been smoke-free.
So what's a smoker to do? Though smoking advocates have disputed government claims of the effects of second-hand smoke, there is nothing legally they can do to stop a hotel chain from implementing such a policy. They could, however, book at three other Starwood brands, Sheraton, W and St. Regis, which are not planning to implement the policy.
Starwood has been reluctant to roll out the policy to all its chains in part because it operates a high number of hotels outside the U.S. where fewer have kicked the habit; the World Health Organization estimates there are more than 1.1 billion smokers worldwide.
Smokers can take solace in the idea of a German entrepreneur who has proposed Smoker's International Airways, or Smintair for short. The carrier expects to begin service next year with only business and first-class seats.
And they can be comforted by the fact that they aren't the only ones being persecuted for their supposed vice. Some 13 conservative groups have come together to create CleanHotels.com, a website that provides listings of hotels that do not offer pornographic movies on their pay-per-view service. The group has also run several ads in USA Today asking authorities to prosecute hotel chains for violating local, state and federal obscenity laws.