Two of the last three hotels I’ve stayed in have offered me something I hadn’t seen before: a chance to opt out of daily maid service on environmental grounds (or allegedly those: I’ll get to that).
For some time now, lots of hotels have let guests leave their towels on the rack if they don’t want them replaced, or leave a note on the bed if they don’t want the sheets changed. But until now, it’s been a little difficult to ask that one’s room not be made up. (Leaving a “do not disturb” sign up all day inconveniences the housekeeping staff, who must keep checking in case you later remove it and do want your room made up. Telling the desk you don’t want maid service takes effort, and the message may well be lost.) There’s no reason in the world I need my sheets changed or my bathroom cleaned every day, and during a stay of a few days I rather like being able to leave my stuff all over the floor, bed, and desk knowing that I’m not forcing someone to move it or clean around it.
However, as always when someone offering a good or service changes its customary shape, the details matter a lot. In particular, if the hotel is saving money, I want a piece of the action.
One of the two hotels used a negative opt-out: it didn’t provide maid service unless one asked for it by hanging a special tag on the door. Though I didn’t hang the tag, I didn’t like the policy. One reason is that the hotel made me take an active step to receive a service that’s customarily included with a booked room. Another is that I don’t believe the stated justification: the little card in the room made nice noises about the environment, but I don’t think for a minute that the real motivation of the hotel (part of a large multinational chain) was anything but profit, in the form of lower labor and laundry costs.
The second hotel had a better idea. It invited me to hang a special tag (green, of course) outside my room if I didn’t want maid service. For every day I did that—except the day I checked out, as they felt a need to specify for the benefit of smart-asses—I received a five-dollar voucher (also green) for a drink at the hotel bar. In accord with the spirit of things, the bar mixes a mean appletini.
I have no doubt that the hotel management saves more than five dollars from each day of foregone maid service, so it wins from the deal. Meanwhile the customer gets a warm glow from both the feeling of virtue and more tangible causes.
There’s much more to say on this subject. It seems a way for hotels to avoid Baumol’s cost disease by substituting physical amenities subject to technological improvement (good Wi-Fi, an excellent TV, elliptical trainers in the health club) for costly services. Interestingly, the second hotel advertised—accurately—a very comfortable bed, meaning a good mattress, rather than a fancy bazillion-count sheet, which sounds like a good but is really a service: much heavier than regular sheets, these luxurious numbers take great time and effort to change, and hotel housekeepers hate them.
There’s also a lesson here regarding managing consumer expectations that might apply to all kinds of other areas. If incentives to forego maid service become common, it may pave the way to daily maid service becoming optional, and finally not included in the price. In a few years perhaps “daily maid service included” will be an amenity advertised by luxury hotels only—which to my mind makes a lot of sense. Those who want servants for a few days should pay a lordly price. Nobody expects table service at Wendy’s.
The question is whether similar solutions will work in other areas where the cost disease is endemic. Casts on Broadway seem to be shrinking, but the theaters generally don’t advertise the fact (nor offer cheaper seats to audience members willing to have the actors double some of the parts). We could offer parents free drink vouchers to accept larger class sizes for their children, BUT IT WOULD BE WRONG.
Alternatively, universities could offer students and their parents a tuition cost much lower than what they’d pay at traditional universities if they were willing to accept higher student-faculty ratios, fewer curricular choices, and very little actual instruction in areas that are labor-intensive, like writing. That might be wrong as well, but would also be the status quo: we call this practice “the public university.” I think I need a drink.