Hotel Nudge

Hotels are willing to pay me if I accept less frequent maid service. I approve.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

16 thoughts on “Hotel Nudge”

  1. Given what would likely happen to hotel staffing, it sounds like daily maid service is a type of featherbedding.

  2. The trend is already away from customer service in a whole range of retail industries. Why do we want this to extend to hotels as well? Moreover, you say they should make offerings subject to technological improvement, seemingly taking for granted that maid service is not one of these. Why?

  3. Maid service is irreducibly labor-intensive; the big improvements (like vaccuum cleaners) have already been made. I suppose that we could replace maids with robots, but it would be a long time before I’d trust a robot not to smash my laptop instead of cleaning around it and not to take my handkerchief thinking it’s a towel.

    If I regarded daily maid service as “customer service,” I’d resent its absence. (Note that I didn’t propose eliminating front desk clerks or hotel operators.) But actually, I think that the expectation of daily cleaning and laundering is a strange habit, a residue of the times when only the rich stayed in (what would now seem) even modest hotels. I don’t miss maid service when I decline it and don’t feel happier or more respected when I have it. Again, a luxury establishment, the kind of place where you intend to feel pampered for a couple of days, might be an exception–but I’m talking about places to lay my head when traveling on university business.


  4. 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.

    (a) A coupon that’s redeemable only for alcohol, not money, is not going to do much to incentivize me. Rather it’s the kind of thing that will make me deliberately choose maid service, even though my inclination is to forego it, to show my displeasure. What’s next — a coupon redeemable for a gram of crack?

    (b) If a hotel ACTUALLY cared about the environment, the issue they would allow you to opt out of is having the air con switched on in your room, even when you are not there.

  5. It’s pretty obvious that if you give Americans as a whole a choice between paying a little more for better quality and service, or paying less, they’ll stampede for the “less.” And then complain loudly and forever about the lousy products and service. The older among us will pine for the days when we got good and personal service, both in person and on the phone, at almost any business you can name. We will go on about how much better air travel was before airplanes became cattle cars. We will bemoan all the now-disposable products that we remember used to last for years, and if something semi-expensive broke, there was someone who could repair it more cheaply than buying a new one.

    But we have, as a society, voted with our dollars. We will save a few bucks and buy junk so often that now, for some products, nothing but the junk is even available. An airline or two tried offering (and advertising) more room in coach, for a small difference in fare from competitors. They couldn’t sustain the effort. We want to pay yet lower taxes, and then complain about lack of personnel in public agencies we have to deal with which used to be adequately staffed, and no longer are. We cut teachers’ pay, and complain about how inadequate education is. We say we want better service (and more jobs,) and then we shop at places we know have the fewest “associates” possible to keep the stores running, with poor and inadequate training and low pay.

    We say, ad nauseum, that we value quality, service, and excellence. But we shop at Wal-Mart. So ask me if I’ll be surprised when the services in the hospitality industry that we like and are accustomed to go away, one by one, for the “average” guest at the “average” motel. Because those guests will take the cheapest option on offer until the business has done away with some housekeepers and couldn’t manage to make up most rooms daily even if guests want it, and it’ll soon not even be an option. And people will complain. But they will have voted with their dollars…again.

  6. Can’t help thinking about all the tips the housekeepers aren’t collecting; even at only a couple of dollars a room, I’d imagine foregoing this extra money is a big bite for them. So a crappy, underpaid job gets even more underpaid.

  7. 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.

    I’d settle for making subsidizing the sports program opt-in, but start bargaining with cutting administration in half.

  8. I know it’s humorous to Americans, but Japanese and Korean companies have developed and are continuing to develop rudimentary robot maids. If the U.S. hadn’t given up its industrial base and expertise in robotics, after being the originators of the entire industry, then it would be possible for us to advance these systems considerably beyond what our East Asian counterparts have done. As it is, only the military and military-linked institutions like MIT keep U.S. robotics firms going. But then, our labor surplus gives no incentive for such technology, which only compounds the effects of our de-industrialized economy.

  9. Maynard Handley: I though of it as a drink voucher because that’s what I intend to buy, since I arrive at the hotel after already having eaten (and, frankly, because it makes for a funnier blog post). But I’m pretty sure that I could redeem the voucher for food if I wanted to; the hotel’s bar is also its restaurant. If not, I’ll take it as a friendly amendment to make it so.

    Ohio Mom: I thought about the maids’ tips. And I tip generously for the day of service I get upon checkout. (I suspect others might not, since “they” didn’t get any service–but then they should tip the day they arrive, on the grounds that someone made up the room before they got there.) But think about it a little further: if the innovation catches on, the result will be less cleaning of rooms going on overall, hence fewer jobs for maids to begin with–and more food and drink being poured in the restaurant, hence more jobs there. I can’t see why the first job is better than the second. And I’m a big tipper in restaurants too. If the vouchers die out over time, that means more of hotel guests’ disposable income going on something else. And the idea that well-paying jobs lost will be replaced by lower-paying service jobs doesn’t apply to this one: the jobs being replaced *are* the low-paying service jobs, and if anything the money saved might be spent on a good or service whose makers or providers are paid better than hotel staff.

  10. I see this as yet another way to eliminate service jobs and give people lousy service. Why is that to be encouraged?

  11. While I like the idea of being able to opt out of some of the daily cleaning, I agree with the other posters that this is just another step in reducing service and eliminating costs. It is also part of the inevitable corruption of “green.”

    What hotel/motel services couldn’t be eliminated under the rhetoric of “being green”? No newspaper, reduced water pressure, less A/C, no more coffee packets in your room — it’s all “green.”

  12. EMR: honestly, I think I’d pay extra money for half the things on your list. I’d totally be willing to chip in five bucks to get the housecleaning service to leave my room the hell alone while I’m staying in a hotel. But even better if they’ll pay me five bucks, of course.

    On a separate note, can everyone try to make more noise about maid tipping? It’s a practice I’d literally never heard of until very recently, and now I feel guilty about years of hotel stays. There are probably more people like me who had no idea that that was a thing anyone did, and so we’d probably tip more if people talked about it more.

      1. We always leave a couple of dollars and a note on the telephone message pad saying Thank you!, even if we only receive normal services (we usually left more when our kid was young, since he usually ending up doing something messy, e.g., cookie crumbs everywhere). But we are soft touches.

  13. My wife and I recently stayed at a Marriott TownPlace Suites in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They brought us fresh towels when necessary but did not clean the room the entire five days we were there. The room was spacious, and the bed was comfortable, but $507.30 for five nights in Fort Wayne without maid service strikes me as a bit pricey. Come to think of it, any sum for any number of days in Fort Wayne seems pricey, but that’s just me. 🙂

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