Hotel guests rank cleanliness, safety as top two priorities

PHOENIX (AP) - If the first thing you do upon entering your hotel room is grab the remote and turn on the TV, you might want to rethink your habits.

TV remotes are among the dirtiest things in a hotel room, but because the dirt usually isn't visible, people don't think about it. A stray hair on the bed or in the bathroom is much more likely to elicit an "eew" from guests and result in complaints to management.

For hotels, cleanliness might be considered next to godliness, or at least profitability. Cleanliness is one of hotel guests' top two priorities - the other is safety - according to Jim Champlin, general manager at the Best Western Grace Inn in Ahwatukee, who takes particular interest in keeping rooms ship-shape.

If a guest perceives the room isn't as clean as expected, "it's very hard to undo that," he said.

From a study of Tucson hotels, University of Arizona microbiology Professor Chuck Gerba found TV remotes hold more than batteries. He said he has even found fecal bacteria on remote controls.

Mel Duchin of Colonia, N.J., saw something he didn't expect when the elementary school music teacher visited the Phoenix area recently for a continuing education course. He said he watched housekeepers at his Hilton Garden Inn room in Scottsdale rinse water glasses in the sink, dry them with a bath towel, return them to the countertop and place paper lids on them.

"You think they're sparkling brand-new and clean and sanitized; they're not, it's a fallacy, they're misleading the public," Duchin said.

Technically, that would be a violation of health codes dictating how glasses should be cleaned: in a dishwasher or three-compartment wash-rinse-sanitize system.

Hilton Hotels Corp. spokeswoman Agnes Sibal apologized for the incident described by Duchin.

"It's just unfortunate that this particular incident occurred," she said. "The cleanliness of the guest rooms is a high standard (at Hilton)."

Housekeepers follow cleaning guidelines, and all rooms are inspected before check-in, Sibal said.

Will Humble, bureau chief for epidemiology and disease control with the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there's a wide range in the vigorousness of cleaning staffs. "(But) most of them are pretty good."

County health officials try to inspect the state's 1,277 public accommodations once a year.

Health violations could result in a warning to correct the problem and a probationary period to get it fixed, or suspension of the operating permit until the problem is corrected. Failure to correct could result in permit revocation.

Humble reported five enforcement actions in the state last fiscal year: three in Navajo County and one each in Maricopa and Gila counties. There were 13 the prior year.

Maricopa County has had four enforcement actions in the past two years, all small motels or inns, said Adam Kramer, county quality assurance officer.

Hilton's Sibal said guests should expect a clean room, no matter the price paid for it.

But UA's Gerba found a "statistically significant" relationship between a room's price and bacteria levels in a study of 12 Tucson hotels a decade ago. The pricier the room, the fewer bacteria found, he said.

The researchers found fecal bacteria on TV remotes, toilet tank lids and on sinks and taps: places where moisture acts as a reservoir for bacteria.

Gerba's best tip for travelers? Bring alcohol gel to clean your hands after using items prone to bacteria.

The state's Humble said one litmus test of a room's overall cleanliness is its mattress. Lift the sheets. If it's stained, it could indicate the room's general sanitation, he said.

Like Gerba, Humble advised using common sense when evaluating a room.

"As with any kind of environmental sanitation issue, the customer's best tool is their own common sense," he said.

If something isn't right, complain to the manager, he said. Guests also can ask to see a copy of the latest health inspection and can complain to the county health department if they believe a problem continues.