Bed bugs are the industry’s favorite topic—to avoid. Hoteliers fear that talking about bed bugs—or even their bed bug mitigation efforts—will bring unwanted negative attention to their properties. The problem is that while we rather would change the subject, no one else seems to be able to keep quiet about it.
In a story this month entitled “Bedbug threat irks hotels, spooks guests,” CNN noted that hoteliers “are loath to even mention the b-word—even in the context of being bedbug free—for fear of scaring away guests.”
"It's a word that makes everybody very nervous," said Daniel Mount, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University's School of Hospitality Management. "It's such an obnoxious, gross issue."
So who is talking? A cast of thousands, including local and national news outlets, guests who post comments on TripAdvisor and other online travel sites, pest-control companies eager to tout their solutions and self-styled bed bug impresarios who keep the chatter buzzing on websites including bedbugregistry.com and bedbugreports.com.
As a consequence, the discussion is monopolized by outliers who focus on the extent of the “plague” and rankings showing cities with the worst problem (sorry, New York and Philadelphia) and graphic details about how the blood-suckers attack their victims (don’t worry, they anesthetize the skin before biting).
If there’s any good news for the lodging industry, it’s that hotels aren’t the only places getting a bad rap. Recent news reports have highlighted infestations at a Niketown shoe store, two Abercrombie & Fitch clothing outlets, AMC Theaters and the Time Warner Building in New York. And now, the renowned U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., has confirmed beg bugs in its barracks.
Bed bugs and their resulting bad PR share a critical element: They’re both difficult to eradicate, and both apparently will be around for the foreseeable future. Does the fact that hotels equally are subject to the same problem mean the playing field is level? There is evidence that hoteliers who reject the “see no evil, speak no evil” mindset can gain a competitive advantage.
Wes Tyler, general manager of the Chancellor Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco, demonstrated the power of candor when he was interviewed for a story in The New York Times earlier this month.
“Short of putting a bed bug-sniffing beagle at your door to check everyone before they come in, you’re going to get bed bugs,” he said. “Dealing with them is the cost of doing business these days.”
The Times credited the hotel with instituting “a comprehensive bed bug detection program” including bounties paid to employees who find insects. The story described how the affected room and adjacent rooms are taken out of service, steam-cleaned and chemically treated. The cost, including the disposal and replacement of mattresses and lost bookings, was estimated at $2,500.
“It sounds like a lot of money, but the value of a good reputation is infinite,” Tyler told The Times. “Your biggest fear is that someone will get bitten and post something about it on an online travel site, and that’d be a killer.” For a prospective guest, it’s one thing to know that bed bugs can be found anywhere, but it certainly is comforting to know that this hotel is doing something about it.
After nearly a decade of being bombarded with bed bug stories, consumers are beginning to understand that the pests can invade the cleanest and most prestigious hotels, retail stores, movie theaters and homes by hitching a ride on suitcases, computer bags and clothing. And most acknowledge that the chance of encountering a bed bug in a hotel room isn’t very high.
But that realization does not assuage their fear or relieve the hotelier of responsibility for providing a bug-free environment. As Joe McInerney, president and chief executive officer of the American Hotel & Lodging Association was quoted recently in The Wall Street Journal, “The number of people who get bitten is miniscule, except if it happens to you.”
Vicki Kramer, chief of the vector-borne disease program for the California Department of Public Health, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that bed bugs are responsible for causing both physical discomfort and psychological distress.
“Knowing that when you’re sleeping these bugs are crawling and feeding on you for several minutes is not acceptable to most people,” Kramer told the newspaper.
Operators can address that fear by sharing details about the prevention and remediation programs they have put in place to protect guests. Their objective should be to demonstrate that every reasonable effort has been made to reduce the likelihood that a guest will encounter a bed bug at their hotel. The more robust the programs, the more assurance those messages will provide.
Consumers then can add “bed bug protection” to the other criteria they consider when deciding where to stay. For those prospective guests, hotels that post details of their program online and are willing to spell out their programs in response to public inquiries would represent a clear advantage over hotels that refuse to do so.
That approach certainly is gaining traction among people who deal with the pests on an ongoing basis.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking, ‘What program do you have for bed bugs?’ when you make a reservation,” Ron Harrison, director of technical services for Orkin, the pest control company, told The Wall Street Journal.
A corollary of communication transparency is willingness to admit to problems. Guests who suffer bed bug bites or spot the pests should be expected to post complaints online or complain to the news media. Operators then must decide whether to ignore the matter, issue a denial or respond by admitting to the problem and detailing how it was resolved.
A basic strategy of crisis communications is to seize the information initiative by speaking often and honestly, filling the vacuum that otherwise enables outsiders to control the discussion and characterizations. Hoteliers who openly discuss both their preventative and remediation programs can offset the negative reports and demonstrate that they are responsible and trustworthy.
Rich Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) a 35-year communications veteran who has worked for two of the world’s largest lodging franchisors. He now is president of RDR PR LLC, which provides media relations, speech writing, executive communications, internal communications and crisis communications counseling and services. Through a network of affiliates, he also offers Web design and content, graphic design and printing and This Just In, a low-cost television advertorial product.
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