Hotels' bid for guests: home comforts and towel warmers

Tough competition in the hotel-motel industry is forcing many of the nation's hotels to fill their guest rooms with all the comforts of home -- and then some.

The new in-room amenities run the gamut from padded exercise chairs, equipped with overhead pulleys, bicycle pedals, and weights, to bedside libraries and electric towel warmers.

Hotel officials like to describe all these extras as just another way to make travelers feel ''at home.'' But as entrepreneurs, they are finding that luxury can be good business. Their former focus on improving public areas, such as swimming pools and lobbies, has shifted to sprucing up individual guest rooms -- the place where most travelers spend more of their waking hours.

''The consumer has become much more aware of what he's paying for, and once you get beyond a certain level of basics in a luxury-class room, services and small amenities become the thing that makes a different product,'' says Dennis Lombardi, a partner with the accounting firm of Laventhol and Horwath.

Here in Chicago, for instance, it is possible to book a room with your own steam bath and whirlpool spa at Americana's Congress Hotel. A standard room at the Park Hyatt, near Chicago's bustling Water Tower shopping mall, comes equipped with a shell of imported candies, a flowering plant, and the hotel's own line of toiletries from imported soaps to bath gel. If you take a junior suite, you get Park Hyatt foot socks as well. Nearby at the small Raphael, in addition to the turned down covers and Blum's mints on the pillow, you'll have an AM-FM clock radio to set as an alternative to the usual telephone wakeup call.

And over at the Ambassador East, home of the famed Pump Room, guests these days can reserve a room furnished with an original painting, sculpture, or print by the likes of Jean Dubuffet or Louise Nevelson. If any guest decides to buy the art on the surrounding walls, the $25 flat rental fee will of course be deducted from the overall $300 to $80,000 price tag.

According to Pannell Kerr and Foster, an international accounting firm, the average price of a hotel room in the United States is now close to $51. Just a decade ago it was a mere $20.07.

Many travelers who think the price of a night's lodging has shot beyond the bounds of normal inflation have been showing their concern for room dollar value by choosing budget motel chains. One such chain, Motel 6, offers rooms with neither telephone or television as standard equipment but where such basics as clean sheets and a shower are assured for under $15 a night.

At the other end of the scale, many hotels are finding that customers are willing to pay as much as $15 to $20 a night over the average price of a room for such amenities as a speedier check-in, 24-hour room service, complimentary breakfast, shoeshine, shampoo, and shower cap. While some small luxury hotels offer such extras as a matter of course, larger hotels are increasingly setting aside special ''luxury'' sections or floors, says Albert Kudrle of the American Hotel and Motel Association.

''They're trying by more personalized service to cut out inconvenience -- and people don't seem to object, whether it's because they're more affluent or on an expense account,'' he says.

Some of the extras offered vary by geography. The Park Hilton in Seattle, for instance, offers guests a free umbrella for those frequently rainy days in the Northwest.

Many hotels are also noticeably catering to the increasing number of women professionals traveling alone. The Hilton hotel chain, for instance, offers special rooms with bath salts, magnifying mirrors, hair spray, special coat and skirt hangers, and velvet-lined jewelry boxes.

Ann Picker, director of business research for Pannell Kerr and Foster, says as a frequent traveler that she especially appreciates the amenity of around-the-clock room service. She can get a late or early morning snack -- ''I like to do a lot of work before going to the office in the morning.''

In partial recognition of the fact that many business travelers like to work in their rooms, the Holiday Inn chain has been involved in a major overhaul of many of its rooms -- installing bigger, more comfortable lounge chairs and building in a larger desk area.

But probably the ultimate offer in room amenities was the one made several years ago by La Posada Motor Hotel in McAllen, Texas. For a couple of months after the hotel opened, it offered anyone from out of town who had never been a guest there to stay one night free of charge. The privilege was ''badly abused'' by many returning more than once, according to the current manager, but he stresses that the hotel is not part of a chain and had to make itself known.

''We had to get the word out,'' he says, ''and I think the offer probably served its purpose.''

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