How hotels deal with rising costs of guests with sticky fingers

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on July 30, 2019

Most hoteliers in India say the cost is minuscule and factored into their operating costs. Representative image

The swank Hyatt Regency in Delhi’s Bhikaji Cama Place stocks 10-15 per cent extra supplies of amenities than what is needed for the 494-room and 15-apartment property. Much of the additional stock is keeping in mind pilferage by guests.

A viral video showing an Indian family caught stealing all sorts of accessories from their hotel room has caused national outrage. It has also resulted in a clever moment marketing video from travel booking site ixigo that tells guests what is appropriate to take away from a hotel room and what is not.

While social media has put the spotlight on pilfering guests, hoteliers say this is a phenomenon as old as the hospitality industry. It is a recurring theme at general managers’ conclave, where hoteliers share knowhow with each other on how to curb pilferage.

Cost of pilferage

Most hoteliers in India say the cost is minuscule and factored into their operating costs. Dilip Puri, former Regional V-P South Asia for Starwood Hotels and founder of the Indian School of Hospitality, argues that if what guests are taking away is restricted to toiletries and other small amenities there is hardly any economic cost, and it would be paid back by the brand visibility costs. “At Starwood, we would even brand the clothes hangers so that our brand would get reinforced,” he says.

However, the larger cost is pilferage from mini bars and the occasional thievery of big items like hairdryers, kettles, sometimes paintings and even curtains!

Surveys at various points in time by different hotel associations shared on the Internet do point to heavy losses incurred by hoteliers. Spanish Hotels Association finds the country’s hotels lose as much as $200,000 per year from pilferage, American Hotel & Lodging Association estimates thefts costs properties in the $100 million per year, while in Japan the losses are more modest – $179 per property. Indian travellers, contrary to the impression created on social media, are not among the world’s biggest stealers from hotel rooms — a survey by puts Argentinian and Spanish travellers as the ones with the stickiest fingers.

Vishal Sapra, Director of Rooms at Hyatt Regency, feels the pilferage has gone up at his hotel. He feels it could be because the guest mix has changed slightly over the years. Two large segment of guests at the hotel are airline crews and global travellers, who are members of Hyatt loyalty cards. “These two segments rarely take anything,” says Sapra. However, a new upwardly mobile aspirational domestic traveller has begun to be seen at the hotel. The guest ratio at the hotel is 60 per cent domestic, and 40 per cent international.

Checks and systems

On the other hand, Rattan Keswani, Deputy Managing Director of Lemon Tree Hotels, feels that pilferage levels have come down. “Most hotels now have checks and systems in place to prevent these. It’s only on the odd occasion that slip-ups happen,” he says, though he admits that pilferage levels depend on the type of hotel, demographic profile of guest, location, and so on.

Agrees Sachin Maheshwary, General Manager, Novotel Kochi Infopark, “The cost of pilferage changes from hotel to hotel depending on the guest type, occupancy and length of stay. Generally hotels catering to MICE (meetings and conferences) and Leisure segments tend to have much more pilferage than business hotels,” he says.

Dealing with Pilferage

Big data, tech and more efficient systems are helping hotels to rein in pilferage. Hotels now have reams of information on individual guest behaviour and the next time a traveller with a record of pilfering items checks in, they can keep a unobtrusive tab. There is even a site — Who’sYour Guest, which is a worldwide network of accommodation providers, who share information about their guests, so hotels can have advance knowledge about the type of guest, before receiving them.

Sensors on mini bars have had a mixed record – many hotels have discontinued them as they lead to faulty billing more often than not and lead to arguments during check-out. “We cannot keep the guest waiting for more than five minutes during check-out,” says Sapra. But there is RFID technology — used in retail — coming in now.

Big items such as hairdryers, televisions, paintings are being nailed in and made immovable. A growing trend among hotels is to insure paintings and artefacts.

But above all these smarter hotels are taking to subtler means of changing guest behaviour. For instance, some hotels are creating branded souvenir kits of items that guests commonly steal – bathrobes, mugs, towels and so on. And keeping them in the room, encouraging them to buy rather than take away. “At W hotels, we put branded caps and umbrellas,” recalls Puri.

Be that as it may be, brazen thieves can still outsmart hotels — after all, the story of how a Grand Piano was stolen from a hotel lobby by three crooks dressed in overalls, who walked out with it as cool as cucumbers — is now part of hotel legend!


Published on July 29, 2019

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