When I recently visited the W Resort and Spa in Koh Samui, I was delighted to find the bathroom stocked with toiletries from New York’s Bliss Spa. For the three days of our stay, I kept packing bottles of face wash into my suitcase almost as soon as the housekeeping staff laid them out. In luxury hotels, bathroom amenities, bottles of drinking water, stationery, sewing kits, shoeshine sponges, tea and coffee supplies, laundry bags, umbrellas, slippers and bathrobes are standard issue. Alarm clocks (or iPods and iPads) make appearances too, and so do other electronics like universal power adapters, a business traveller’s best friend. A lot of these amenities are compact enough to slip into your bag. But where do you draw the line, and what is okay to take and when does it become theft?
When I discussed this with friends and family, they all seemed to agree that taking some face wash or body lotion from a hotel room shouldn’t cause any guilt. In fact, some even said that they used in-room products as presents for family and friends back home. Some would argue that taking a little bottle of body lotion and some toothpaste is still a grey area and the line between enjoying and stealing hotel amenities is blurred. But if, like a previous guest at a Neemrana hotel you’ve walked off with a painting of a nude lady that was hanging on the room wall, you’ve definitely crossed the line.
Andrew Harrison, General Manager of the Four Seasons, Mumbai puts it in into perspective by saying that it’s acceptable for guests to take disposables like toiletries and stationery, and nothing else. Some offer branded products, so they’re great advertising tools if the guests take them away. But the Four Seasons uses L’Occitane, Bulgari and Acqua Di Parma that don’t bear any hotel branding, and hence serve no direct promotional purpose for the establishment.
The Starwood Group explains that as far as bath amenities go, they’re taken into account as part of their operating costs. In fact, since a lot of their products (Heavenly for Westin, Bliss for W and Shine for Sheraton) are specially created for the hotel, they sometimes use them as gifts for guests (for occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or honeymoons).
The Hyatt chain restricts their bottle size to 50 ml to prevent excessive souvenir-taking. While they don’t encourage guests to take products from rooms, they agree that visitors who take accessories home are signalling that they like the product (mostly Forest Essentials toiletries) which is great for the hotel. General Manager of the ITC Grand Central Mumbai, Kuldeep Bhartee says that besides the usual bath amenities (Fiama Di Wills or Essenza Di Wills which are anyway ITC-owned) it’s acceptable for guests to even take components from their slumber kit, which includes ear plugs, aromatherapy oils, chocolates and an eye mask.
For bigger items like bathrobes and power adapters, hotels often leave a little note informing guests that these are for in-room use only, but, if they want to take them home, it is chargeable. But that’s not to say that all big items are always for sale. Neemrana doesn’t consider bathrobes as saleable items, even if you ask. And electronics like hair dryers are universally strictly for in-room use.
What then happens to unused or half-used products? Most hotels say they don’t recycle or reuse opened bottles for health and hygiene reasons. So by that logic, you may actually be preventing waste when you take your half-empty products with you, rather than letting the hotel throw them out. But this isn’t true everywhere. At the Malabar House Hotels, owner Joerg Deschel explains that the glass flasks for toiletries (from Kama) are refilled to avoid wastage. Given the rising importance hotels are giving to ecologically sound practices, this makes sense. Neemrana distributes half-used goods amongst staff and in the Neemrana village occasionally, while the ITC recycles whatever they can.
Recognising how much guests appreciate products found in hotels, establishments are creating a separate business out of their in-room product collection. The W hotels and the ITC for instance, have stores on all their properties where guests can buy memorabilia, including products found in rooms, and souvenirs like T-shirts with the hotel’s name. The bedding at the Four Seasons has such a fan-following now that its range of pillows and mattresses are for sale online. The same goes for the Westin, and even iconic properties like the Plaza in New York have set up special stores dedicated to souvenirs.
I’d like to believe that every time I see the little bottles of Bliss face wash I picked up in Thailand, I’ll be taken back to the scent of the salty beach air and swimming in the clear, blue waters of Samui. For many travellers, these free products serve as reminders of the great time had at a property. Others reason that given the excessive amount spent on rooms, it’s only fair that guests be allowed to take home everything they can. Or, it could just be that guests love the product and think finding the same item in the market isn’t possible. Whatever your line of defence, if you are taking home a few toiletries and some pens from your hotel room, you can let up on the guilt. But if you’re attacking the housekeeping cart when no one’s looking, or trying to smuggle home the fluffy bath towels, or 300 thread count cotton bed sheets then it’s clear—you’re going too far.
Famous hotels are particularly vulnerable to guests helping themselves to items to take as souvenirs. In July 2012, New York’s famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel started a programme through which guests are being asked to return anything they, or their ancestors may have taken from the hotel pre-1960. Through this Amnesty Program, the hotel hopes to get back a little of their history, and their belongings. The hotel is asking ex-patrons (or their descendants) to send in stories or memories associated with their “souvenirs”, which could be anything from demitasse spoons, ashtrays, utensils and room keys, The hotel will display the very best of these stories and memorabilia in the lobby museum. Guests who nicked these hotel goods over 50 years ago could never have imagined their story would become a part of the hotel’s history.
Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “The Hotel Freebie Conundrum”.
Mihika Pai is a freelance writer who has worked for NGT India, ELLE India & L'Officiel India. She loves checking out airport departure boards when she's travelling. They make her dream about the places she one day hopes to visit. She tweets as @mihikapai.