Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why no toothpaste in hotels?

Even the most egregious fleabags will provide a few skinny bars of soap and a flagon of shampoo. Luxury hotels sprinkle extras on the bathroom counter like confetti: a nail file, a facial towelette, a shower puff, a mending kit, a shoe mitten. And what about the toothpaste—that most indispensible tool of anyone’s toilette, a product used by virtually every hotel guest in America at least twice per day? Why should it be easier to sew a button to your cardigan or polish your loafers than it is to brush your teeth? Why have hotels forsaken oral hygiene? ...

I asked this question of executives at 18 North American hotel chains, and most provided the same pair of explanations. First, they said their in-room amenities are chosen based on extensive consumer research. In other words, if the hotels aren’t giving you toothpaste, it’s because you don’t really want toothpaste. ... (Update, July 3: There is at least one major exception to the rule. A Hyatt spokesperson reports that all of that company's hotels in North America offer in-room tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste.)

The second explanation took the form of an appeal to hospitality norms. Several sources said that their company takes its cues from rivals. “Many of our competitors do not include toothpaste as a standard amenity,” pleaded brand director Debbie Grant of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Others shrugged and pointed to the independent companies that assign standard ratings for quality of service. If the ratings don’t require it, the hotels won’t acquire it.

Sure enough, the hotel-ratings firms make very precise toiletry demands, yet as a rule omit any reference to dental care products. ...

“The diamond ratings come from what we typically see,” a AAA employee told me. “Toothpaste is not something they typically put out.”

“So you don’t give ratings based on toothpaste because hotels don’t give toothpaste to their guests?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But the hotels told me the same thing—they said they don’t give toothpaste because of your ratings.” ...

Hotel executives assured me that the price of toothpaste is generally “in line” with those of other amenities. “Toothpaste is not a cost-prohibitive addition,” said Sweeting of the Four Seasons. ...

So if we can’t blame the missing toothpaste on the stinginess of hotel executives, the dereliction of the ratings firms, or the finicky tastes of travelers, then what’s left? Only the gloomy notion that we might all be equally to blame. Hotels could give us toothpaste but they don’t. No one knows why, and no one cares. It’s how things have always been, and how they’ll always be.
--Daniel Engber, Slate, on a market failure