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Upgrading Hotel Beds

With hotel companies now sponsoring sleep studies, commissioning their own branded mattresses, and even publishing sleep newsletters, the competition to win customers' loyalty by promising them a better night's rest means that putting a pillow-top mattress and higher-quality sheets on the bed may no longer be enough. To stay ahead, hotels are rolling out full-scale sleep initiatives.

The bed wars, as they're popularly known in the industry, have been escalating rapidly. They're already a boon to the major mattress companies, which PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates will sell $1.4 billion in beds to hotels in 2005 alone—almost double the number they have sold over the past five years. It's a movement that's beginning to force hotel chains without branded bed programs to adopt one in order to compete, says Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) in Washington, D.C. "Hotel chains are coming out with new beds because that's what their customers want," he says.

Most credit Starwood's Westin Hotels & Resorts with starting the trend six years ago when it introduced the Heavenly Bed. The first bed commissioned by a hotel company and given a brand name, the Heavenly Bed was billed as an "oasis for the weary traveler," and it looked the part: a bright white duvet, a down blanket, five feather-and-down pillows, three 230-thread-count sheets (one sheet is laid over the blanket, a practice known as triple sheeting), and a custom-designed 12 1/2-inch-thick Simmons mattress with 900 individual coils. Within one year, Westin had increased its occupancy rates and had begun the first retail bedding operation of any hotel chain, selling the Heavenly Bed on its Web site. To date, 30,000 people have bought merchandise on Westin's site; 7,000 have bought the entire queen-sized set for $2,565.

In 2003, Starwood followed its own success by launching the Sweet Sleeper at its Sheraton chain, and most recently, the Four Comfort Bed at its Four Points by Sheraton hotels. In the past year, Radisson began replacing 90,000 mattresses with the Sleep Number bed, which lets couples adjust the firmness of each side of their mattress separately using a remote control.

Marriott and Renaissance hotels started getting new mattresses three years ago, but in January, Marriott said it would replace most of the mattresses and all of the bedding in eight of its chains. JW Marriott, Marriott, and Renaissance will get the best bedding : a pillow-top mattress, 300-thread-count sheets, six pillows, a white duvet, and a decorative bed scarf across the foot of the bed. The entire project, which will roll out through 2005, will cost the company around $190 million, including marketing efforts. Marriott is also selling its bedding on-line this summer.

Hyatt's Grand Bed is on the way for all Grand Hyatt and Hyatt Regency hotels in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean by the end of the year. The hotel's new bed is a 13-inch-thick, pillow-top Sealy Posturepedic with 250-thread-count triple sheeting and a down duvet in place of the old bedspread.

With the bed wars in full swing, a host of new programs to personalize beds is under way. W Hotels now have a twilight service ; housekeepers deliver a lavender-filled pillow insert, an eye pillow, and lavender essential oil to guests' rooms each evening around nine o'clock. Crowne Plaza's new Sleep Advantage program stocks rooms with curtain clips (to block out light), earplugs, and sleep CD's that play soothing music. Kimpton has put super-sized 96-inch-long mattresses in some rooms for tall guests. Loews' recovery concierge delivers white-noise machines and eye masks. Rumor has it that some hotels are even getting ready to launch special duvet menus, as well as beds that guests can lower or raise to different heights.

These programs are proliferating as the hotel industry recovers from a three-year recession. Hotel profits were up 13.3 percent in 2004 over 2003, and hospitality research company PKF Consulting expects them to rise another 14 percent this year. Analysts say the rising demand for hotel rooms—especially in the higher price ranges—has been fueled by business travelers, whose expense accounts allow them to be less sensitive to cost than leisure travelers.

While these initiatives are costly, executives at the major chains are encouraged by the fact that guests seem to be willing to pay more for a room with a better bed. In Westin's case, research showed that its guests would pay between $12 and $20 more per night. Marriott expects to be able to charge up to $30 more a night in its Marriott line of hotels, since customers perceive the overall quality of the room to be higher with a more luxurious bed. And the push to project an improved bed image is filtering to lower-priced hotels, too. Marriott's research has shown that for guests at these properties, superior beds are enough to keep guests loyal, says Marsha Scarbrough, Marriott's vice president of brand product strategy. The new standard for its Residence Inn, Courtyard, and Fairfield Inn brands (among others) is now a nine-inch-thick mattress, up from a previous four inches in some cases. Residence Inns will now get triple sheeting. "Travelers want to sleep on a bed that's at least as nice as the bed they have at home," says the AHLA's McInerney. "Now, there's no reason why they can't."

ANDREA BENNETT is T+L's travel news correspondent.

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