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Wall Street Journal 

Wall Street Journal

The Great Hotel Cover-Up

July 27, 2007
By Hannah Karp

After years of pushing spa mania, hotels are trying to prevent terry-cloth clad guests from wandering into lobbies, bars and weddings. Hannah Karp on the effort to get robes back into the backrooms.

Hotels have spent the last decade courting travelers and one-upping each other with plusher, sexier bathrobes. Now, the hard part: convincing guests to wear anything else.

The Ritz-Carlton in Miami's South Beach has put its employees on alert to keep guests in robes and slippers out of the club lounge on the concierge floor. Management at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco is instructing its staff not to seat anyone wearing robes in the bar. Staffers at the Four Seasons Punta Mita in Mexico have started offering to fetch clothing for guests if they show up at one of the resort's restaurants without proper attire.

Hotels that aren't vigilant risk alienating businesspeople and outside guests who come for power breakfasts or ladies' lunches, or anyone else who would prefer not to see glimpses of hairy bellies and cellulite. Gerry Hempel Davis was having afternoon tea with her grandson earlier this year at the Homestead, a luxury resort in Hot Springs, Va., when she spotted an "oversized male" traipsing through in flip-flops and a robe, revealing "two inches too many" of his bare legs. "Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but to me that is totally unacceptable -- it's atrocious," she says. (The Homestead says dress is "resort casual" in the Great Hall, where the tea is served, and that guests in robes are asked to leave.)

As the downside of the terry-cloth invasion becomes more apparent -- from increased laundry bills to awkward confrontations with guests -- some hotels are going beyond policing lobbies and bars. Chains including the Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz-Carlton are building suites connected directly to the spa, while one hotel company has called on New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to design less-revealing loungewear.

The exposure problem is largely the result of the hotel industry's aggressive push into the spa business. Nearly half of U.S. hotels and resorts now boast spas, up from 25% five years ago, according to Spa Finder, an industry tracker. Spas at U.S. resorts and hotels generated $2 billion in 2005, up from $1.9 billion in 2003, according to the International Spa Association's latest data. (The entire U.S. spa industry, which includes independent and day spas, grossed $9.7 billion in 2005, up from $7 billion in 2003.)

Guests who use Hyatt spas now spend an average of $180 per day, up from $160 a year ago, says Gordon Tareta, the chain's director of spa operations. As more hotels plug pricey -- and profitable -- all-day treatments, for more customers, changing into proper clothes for midday meals can be a hassle.

'I Believe I'm Worth It'

Not everyone is ready to diss robes. Lisa Peterson, 46 years old, says the main reason she sports a robe in public is because "it alerts the world that I am in relaxation mode and that I am pampering myself because I believe I'm worth it." But the communications director for the American Kennel Club, who lives in Newtown, Conn., says it also makes her feel "a little bit naughty."

Ms. Peterson says she found it particularly fun to slither past families in their Sunday finest in the restaurant at the Spa at Norwich Inn, in Norwich, Conn., on Mother's Day, freshly oiled from a deep-tissue massage and on her way to the hot tub.

While staying at the Ritz-Carlton for a medical conference in Washington, D.C., Lisa Giassa, a 36-year-old from Bogota, N.J., ventured in her robe to a colleague's room on another floor one morning for breakfast. Looking like "a little ball of terry cloth," Ms. Giassa boarded the elevator with several men in suits, one of whom commented that she must be on her way to the spa. "I said: 'No, I just love the robe,' " Ms. Giassa recalls.

Dr. Rebecca Arnold, a research fellow at London's Royal College of Art and the author of "Fashion, Desire and Anxiety," says wearing a robe in public is about asserting status. "It is about overtly displaying that you are 'at home' in such a luxurious environment, and therefore relaxed enough to be seen in public in your robe."

For brides who hope to be the only ones in white, getting married at hotels is an increasingly risky proposition. Uninvited robed guests have been spotted among wedding guests in hotels from the Crowne Plaza in Clayton, Mo., to the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers. Amy MacNeill, an event planner in Atlanta, says it's something to consider when choosing locations. At a wedding she put on recently at a small hotel in Roswell, Ga., two hotel guests and their child wandered into the reception's buffet area in robes -- the woman with a towel wrapped around her head -- and proceeded to help themselves to food. Luckily, she says, the bride and groom were on the dance floor, oblivious, but the groom's mother was "a little antsy about the whole thing" and complained to the hotel.

To be sure, part of the issue is a general relaxation of dress codes everywhere, including at once-stuffy hotels. In Manhattan, the New York Palace hotel says its restaurant Gilt has seen a resurgence in customers after dropping its jacket requirement for men last year. Fairmont hotels from Seattle to Hamburg, Germany, have done away with jacket-and-tie requirements for guests at their restaurants over the past four years. And when the historic resort The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W. Va., reopened in April after a $50 million renovation, it dropped its longtime dress code: Jeans and shorts are now permitted throughout the resort, and jackets and ties are no longer required in the upper lobby after 6 p.m.

"The new crop of super rich have cleared the way for the rest of us by dressing way down and leaving hotels with no choice but to accept it," says Matt Ray, a 45-year-old legal administrator in San Francisco. He says no one batted an eye on his last visit to the Hotel at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas as a steady stream of people traipsed through the lobby in wet swimsuits.

From Swanky to Standard Issue

For years, robes were only standard in the swankiest suites. When the Sheraton chain first put robes in the rooms on its executive floors in the 1970s, many guests mistook them for gifts and took them home. But as other hotels began to follow suit (adding those now-familiar cards warning guests that they'll be charged for missing robes), customers began to expect in-room robes as part of the luxury experience. Now, most hotels are stocking rooms on every price level with two robes instead of one, to save housekeeping staff extra trips and to lure more guests to new, multimillion-dollar spas.

Even cruise lines are stocking more cabins with robes, as well as upgrading fabrics and hosting "robe parties." Holland America two years ago replaced the polyester-and-cotton-blend robes on many ships with waffle-knit, terry-lined versions. Oceana Cruises holds a "White Robe Breakfast" on each cruise to help guests relax between shore excursions. And on ships that don't sponsor such events, cruisers are starting to throw their own.

Keeping all those robes clean is expensive. Mission Industries, which launders towels and linens for 77 Las Vegas properties, says it now earns 4% of its revenue from spa robes, compared with 1% five years ago. Miguel Montenegro, regional director, says the increase is due to hotels expanding their spas and starting to stock each guest room with two robes. The laundry giant says it washes 60 to 160 robes a day for the Four Seasons, double the number laundered five years ago.

Last year, U.S. businesses (including retailers) spent a record $401 million importing cotton robes and dressing gowns, up from $377 million in 2005, trade group Cotton Incorporated says. This year, robe imports are expected to grow 16.7%.

Having people traverse lobbies to and from spa treatments is also a potential source of accidents. At the suggestion of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Floor Safety Institute, a nonprofit based in Southlake, Texas, is developing a "wet barefoot test standard" to define a hotel's liablity if a guest slips on the lobby floor. (The CPSC says the standard would be voluntary.)

Not Dressed for Breakfast

In Beverly Hills, the Peninsula hotel says it can't dictate a formal dress code to its Hollywood clientele -- the best they can do is turn away from the restaurant underdressed visitors who clearly aren't staying at the hotel.

On a recent Thursday morning at the Peninsula, waiter Troy Price watched aghast as a man sauntered past the restaurant in a bathrobe for all the diners to see. Minutes later, as patrons in business suits tucked into stacks of pancakes, another man walked past the restaurant window -- in a white robe that barely covered his knees. "I don't know what the story with that is," says Mr. Price, who says he refuses to seat people in bathrobes on the few occasions they've approached. "It's not normal."

Some hotels are taking steps to mute the impact of the terry-cloth invasion. Larry Korman, co-president of real-estate development company Korman Communities, which operates AKA extended-stay hotels, is asking students at the Fashion Institute of Technology and working with indepenent designers to create loungewear that guests can wear that won't make others feel uneasy. "We've had some residents complain about people coming in their bathrobes for afternoon tea, while they were in a business meeting," says Mr. Korman.

The new outfits, which Mr. Korman hopes to introduce this year, will resemble the flowy togs donned by some spa employees at the Mandarin Oriental: mandarin-collared shirts and loose-fitting pants that tie with a fabric, all made from a super soft organic material. Footwear will have the outer appearance of a loafer but will feel like a slipper inside.

Other hotels are trying to circumvent the problem. At some new hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental in Miami, two Park Hyatts opening next year in Beijing and Shanghai and a Ritz-Carlton due to open next spring in Rancho Mirage, Calif., suites will be attached directly to the spa. The Sanctuary hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort off the coast of South Carolina opened in 2004 with 11 rooms adjacent to the spa so guests could walk from their rooms to the spa in a robe without passing through any public areas of the hotel. Spokesman Matt Owen says so far there have been no reports of bathrobes in other areas. JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix added six suites near the spa in February, and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island opened two spa suites in December.

Costa Cruise Lines introduced Samsara Spa cabins on its Costa Serena ship this May and Costa Concordia ship last summer, with direct access to the 23,000-square-foot spa to sequester robed guests. And Celebrity has started putting notices in cabins asking guests to leave Celebrity logo robes in their rooms, "not in the AquaSpa or at the swimming pool."

Open to Interpretation

Some hotels are giving up the fight. In San Diego, the Hotel Del Coronado says most guests now ignore the policy forbidding bathrobes, cover-ups and bathing suits in all indoor public areas. A spokeswoman says that after the new spa was built three months ago, "we really don't enforce it that hard anymore." While the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn still states the dress code in its fine-dining room Sante is "wine-country casual," spokeswoman Michelle Heston says it's not worth antagonizing the guests that interpret that to mean "spa-chic" -- and show up in terry.

The hospitality industry is set to continue rolling out new robes, which could encourage guests to wear them even more. W Hotels is working with female designers to make its robes more "fun, flirty and whimsical." And Crystal Cruises will soon introduce a kimono-style robe in all staterooms as a lighter alternative to the current terry robes, so that guests will feel more comfortable "sitting out on their verandah or the sun deck on a warm day."

Others, though, dream of a return to more discreet times. Carolyn Spencer, editor of cruise-review site CruiseCritic.com, was put off by the robe wearers at the lido buffet on a 10-night Royal Caribbean cruise through the Caribbean this year.

"It's extremely tacky," says Ms. Spencer, 46, of Pennington N.J. "I don't know you; I don't want to see you in your bathrobe." What's worse, she adds: "Most ships are stocking cabins with medium-size bathrobes, but a lot of people in America need more than a medium size."


Source: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB118549508198979702.html