When Jim Reid checks into a Westin hotel, he inevitably catches a whiff of a "woody cedar and vanilla" scent called White Tea. It's a pleasant smell to most guests, but not to him.
"I have [had] a headache for about a day," says Reid, who works for a transportation services company in Washington, DC. He suspects he's having a reaction to a chemical in the hotel's signature scent, but he isn't sure, because the hotel won't tell him what's in the diffuser, beyond "cedar" and "vanilla."
He has a simple request for Westin: Lay off the White Tea, please.
Customers like Reid ask hotels to change the way they do business every day. They complain about everything from the smells in the lobby to refund policies. Normally, hotels are happy to accommodate small requests. But there's a bright red line that they almost never cross, and you need to know where it is before you start asking favors of your hotel.
Smells, it turns out, are non-negotiable for Westin. It would not unplug the scent, probably because these trademark smells are proven to elevate the mood of guests and prod them into spending more.
"If the scents at Sheraton and Westin properties are uncomfortable," a representative wrote Reid in an email, "we would encourage you to try another one of our brands."
Not all hotels turn up their nose at guest requests, though.
Hotels are happy to comply with small, relatively inexpensive changes. For example, when guests told innkeepers at the Claiborne House bed-and-breakfast in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains that they didn't like having a 10pm curfew, the owners responded by installing a keypad, which allowed guests to come and go as they pleased.
"They did not want to be treated like they were staying at Grandma's house," says Shellie Leete, the Claiborne's co-owner. (As a bonus, it meant that she didn't have to wait up for the guests, either.)
At the Normandy Hotel in the District, customers griped about the closets. "Guests were having trouble hanging clothes in the closets," explains hotel general manager John Paul Wood. "The room's safe was in the way." So the hotel relocated the safes to a top shelf.
And at the Seaport Hotel in Boston, travelers asked for dark washcloths for makeup removal, according to Jim Carmody, the property's general manager. The hotel complied. "We are changing many of our exterior doors to sliders for easier entry and exit in response to guest comments, too," he adds.
How do you get a hotel to grant your wishes? You have to say something at the right time and in the right place.
"In some instances, we've made changes based on feedback from guests who are still at the property, and in other instances, we've made changes based on guest feedback provided in online reviews," says Stephen Fofanoff, the innkeeper for Domaine Madeleine Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles, Washington. The hotel recently loosened its refund policy, reversing the room charges if a room is resold. (Most hotels have cancellation fees or charge for a full night.)
But bigger requests from guests are routinely denied or ignored by hotels. For example, when properties are asked to change their restrictive refund policies, they rarely do what the Domaine Madeleine did. If the fees are considered to be nonrefundable, it doesn't matter whether the property can resell the room - the hotel keeps the money.
Indeed, if there's a common thread in the dozens of interviews I conducted with hoteliers, it's that they are proud to comply with smaller requests. But generally, they're not open to larger ones.
There are workarounds. Reid could still stay at a Westin, but away from the smell. While Westin refuses to unplug its diffusers, it offers "allergy-friendly" rooms at some of its properties "for travelers that suffer from asthma and allergies triggered by seasonal and environmental microscopic allergens." At the Westin Southfield Detroit, for example, the rooms have filtration systems. They also treat surfaces to minimize the growth of bacteria.
Unhappy guests can also take to social media and ask a hotel to stop a practice or policy, but the request has to be reasonable. A property making millions of dollars a year with a restrictive refund policy isn't about to surrender that revenue, even if it is called out on Facebook and Twitter every day.
However, if Reid and some of his friends banded together to create the Concerned Guests Against White Tea movement, they might be able to persuade Westin to dial down the smell.
Bottom line: Hotels listen to their guests but, like any good businesses, draw the line when it comes to interfering with the ability to earn money. So if you want something from your innkeeper, make sure it isn't too expensive.