How Hotels Are Engineering A Better Night's Sleep

The Age-Old Problem Hotels Want To Help You Solve

When guests come into the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort And Spa after a day of skiing the western Colorado slopes, the number one priority for staff is to make sure everyone gets a restful night's sleep.

"We're in the business of sleep," Robert Purdy, the hotel's general manager, told The Huffington Post, explaining how that mantra permeates nearly every aspect of his operation.

The hotel restaurant's menu, for example, features an after-dinner "sleep elixir" with chamomile and apple cider, advertised as helping promote relaxation and sleep health. A dessert of banana oatmeal cookies, containing ingredients that aid guests' transition into sleep, is a house specialty.

Back in their rooms, VIP guests are provided "slumber kits" -- also available for purchase in the hotel spa -- that include an eye mask, ear plugs, and a CD of ambient music. On TV, guests can flip to channel 46, the "Sound Sleep Channel," and set a sleep timer that plays music composed by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, an expert in the field of neuroacoustics. In the hallways, quiet time rules are reinforced by mounted signs declaring "family quiet time" between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. And employees are ready to offer additional help for guests with insomnia, such as special glasses that block out blue light, which can disrupt natural sleep cycles.

Not every hotel goes to such lengths to ensure that its guests sleep soundly. But as sleep quality has grown in the public consciousness as a key measure of health, creativity and productivity, the hotel industry has taken note. To the trained eyes of hotel managers, designers and the growing ranks of for-hire sleep consultants, a hotel room contains countless potential distractions that can inhibit sleep and taint a guest's experience -- a lumpy mattress, the bright light of a bedside clock, a wall-mounted flat screen TV that the inconsiderate guest in the adjacent room left on all night. There's also, of course, a considerable financial incentive for tending to guests' unmet sleep-related needs. And so, in ways big and small, implicit and explicit, hotels are striving to create the conditions that allow for that elusive experience: the perfect night's sleep.

If there is a starting point to the modern era of the hotel industry's focus on sleep, it would probably be 1999, when Westin Hotels & Resorts introduced its line of Heavenly beds. In the years that followed, competitors and imitators rolled out made-to-order mattresses covered in layer upon layer of overstuffed comforters, igniting what hotel insiders refer to as the "battle of the beds."

"The Heavenly bed changed the way that other hotels looked at innovation," said Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer specializing in hotel development and design at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. "What Westin did that was so smart, they recognized very early that they needed something that would set them apart and give them a marketing edge. They also recognized that the bed was something that was really being ignored across the industry."

Steve Tipton, vice president of the hospitality division at Simmons Bedding, said many hoteliers turned "back to the basics" of providing restful sleep in early 2009, when the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression forced many to move away from marketing strategies that exalted opulence. Those strategic shifts are only materializing now, Tipton said, noting that "when you change a mattress for a whole hotel chain, it's a five-year project."

In an age where customer reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are real forces in the hospitality industry, hotels can't afford to overlook even the smallest detail. Some top tier luxury hotels are even eliminating services that might be seen as anti-sleep. Turndown service at the Four Seasons, for example, may include a room attendant dimming the lights, adjusting the temperature, turning on soothing music and drawing the curtains. But -- even at rates that can exceed $1,000 a night -- it does not include a chocolate on the pillow. That's because Isadore Sharp, the hotel company's founder, believes that eating sugar before bed could get in the way of a good night's sleep.

Which is to say, when it comes to a hotel's ability to woo new guests and wow them to the point that they simply must return (and tell their friends), the quality of the bed is only the beginning.

"People carry their sleep issues to the hotels they stay in," said Nancy Rothstein, a sleep consultant who has worked for Hyatt, Procter and Gamble, Sleepy's and other corporate clients. "You can get the best bed in the world, but if you don't provide people with additional resources, they're not necessarily going to get good sleep."

Robson, from Cornell, adds that hotels are gradually catching up to changes in technology, especially the widespread use of smartphones as clocks and alarms. Many in the industry, she says, are currently weighing whether it makes sense to continue to place an alarm clock on every bedside table. By eliminating clocks, hotels would be able to cut an expense and relieve employees of setting and resetting them. And Robson, whose work requires her to pay attention to hotel guests' most common complaints, sees an additional benefit.

"A lot of people find it hard to use the darn thing anyway because there's no consistency with the controls," she said. "And sometimes people find the light from it really disconcerting. I've been known to turn it to face the wall."

Rebecca Robbins envisions a time, not far from now, when every guest who steps up to the front desk of The Benjamin hotel in New York City will be greeted with the words, "Welcome to The Benjamin. Here we make your sleep a priority." Robbins, the co-author of Sleep for Success! and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, began working as a sleep consultant for The Benjamin this summer. She has led sleep sessions for the hotel's employees to help them make sleep a priority, with the hope that their sleep practices will trickle down to the hotel's guests.

In developing a sleep program, Robbins took her inspiration from a very specific demographic: children.

"Kids have a bedtime," she said. "They get ready for bed." Adults, she said, should mimic their bedtime rituals -- a consistent bedtime, a bath or a shower, some light reading -- to ease the body and the mind into sleep. "In our society, more than ever, we have a very on and off culture," she said. "But all of the evidence says that you need to create a sanctuary for sleep."

Some hotels are going to great lengths to create those sanctuaries. At The Benjamin, rooms feature only analog clocks. Guests can peruse a pillow menu that includes pillows filled with buckwheat or satin, with names like "Swedish memory" and "Lullaby." Children arriving at the hotel are given a stuffed owl named Winks, complete with a printed backstory about what happened when he did not get a good night's sleep. And guests can arrange for a "work-down call," in which the concierge rings them up an hour before bedtime reminding them to stop working and put away their electronic devices. The Four Seasons, for its part, keeps a record of its guests' pillow preferences.

Last December, Brock Cline and his wife, Bre Garvin, set out from their home in Atlanta on a cross-country road trip. Along the way, the couple stayed in various hotels, mostly seeking budget accommodations at familiar chains.

At every stop, after 10-to-12 hour days on the road, they encountered obstacles to a good night's sleep -- uncomfortable mattresses, flimsy pillows, window shades that let in too much light. "It made the trip worse than it had to be," Cline said. As they drove, they talked about how badly they'd slept, vowing not to stay in the same hotels on their return trip.

Cline, who works as a manager of a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Atlanta, said that customer service is a big part of his job, and he found himself wondering why none of the hotels he and his wife visited went further to meet their sleep needs. At each hotel, he looked for comment cards with which he might suggest sleep-related improvements, but found none. When he got home, he considered engaging with the hotels' social media accounts, browbeating them for their shortcomings, but decided against it. "Since I handle customer service in my job," he said, "it irks me a little bit."

The experience of Cline and Garvin, and countless other travelers, illustrates the extent of the opportunity available to hotels wishing to cater to a more sleep-savvy populace. Last month, in a TripAdvisor survey asking if visitors take sleep quality into consideration when choosing a hotel, 55 percent of respondents said they look for online hotel reviews that address sleep quality, compared with 27 percent who don't, a company spokeswoman said. Eighteen percent said they look for hotels that offer special sleep amenities.

As Robbins, the sleep consultant, puts it, "This is a win-win. It's good for the guests and it's going to drive the bottom line. I'm not asking people to spend another hour on the treadmill, or eat only tofu, or drink only green juice. I'm just asking them to get one more hour of sleep."

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Steve Tipton's title. He is vice president of the hospitality division at Simmons Bedding.

This story appears in Issue 70 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 11 in the iTunes App store.

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