All Marriott hotels clearing the air

2,300 facilities in the U.S. and Canada are to be nonsmoking starting in September


They've tried scrubbing the walls, deodorizing the drapes and using high-powered air cleaners and ozone treatment machines. But, the executives at Bethesda-based Marriott International Inc. say, nothing can truly eliminate the telltale odor of tobacco smoke in a hotel room.

Yesterday, Marriott took the ultimate step, announcing that starting in September no smoking would be allowed anywhere in its 2,300 hotels in the United States and Canada - not in the 400,000 guest rooms, not in the bars, not in the restaurants, not even in the employee locker rooms.

It's the lodging industry's biggest step yet in moving to a smoke-free environment and comes amid growing anti-smoking sentiment, new evidence of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke and an increased number of local and state smoking bans.

Unlike Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which launched a similar ban in January at its 77 Westin hotels in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, Marriott is applying the ban to all its brands, among them Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance and Courtyard.

Nonsmoking rooms account for more than 90 percent of the room supply, and about 60 hotels of the 2,300 had opted to ban smoking altogether, the company said.

Analysts and hotel executives said they expect any loss in business from smokers who expect a choice to be offset by a gain in business from guests seeking nonsmoking rooms.

"People can live on airplanes without smoking, and they can live in hotels without smoking," said Robert A. LaFleur, an analyst of the gaming, lodging and leisure industries for Susquehanna Finance Group in Stamford, Conn.

"It's no mystery that smoking has become less and less socially acceptable in public spaces, as any huddled mass of smokers outside an office building in the U.S. will attest to."

As for the financial impact on Marriott, "it's a wash," he said. "It could be a little bit helpful to the profitability, with less wear and tear on the rooms."

Marriott executives say one of the top guest complaints has been the smell of smoke in rooms.

"We're trying to solve a problem that our guests have been having for a long time," said Steve Lampa, Marriott's senior vice president of rooms, operations and quality assurance. "Complaints about guests encountering smoke when they don't want to is one of our biggest sources of complaints. We have tried a lot of things to remedy this situation."

Those remedies have included increasing the inventory of nonsmoking rooms - from about 50 percent, maybe 20 years ago, to more than 90 percent. Efforts to keep the rooms clear of lingering smoke have been only mildly successful.

"We've tried deodorizers, air clearing systems, ozone, increased general cleaning - washing walls, drapes, and cleaning carpet," Lampa said. "All has helped but none 100 percent."

Managers of Marriott-operated hotels in the Baltimore area shared the frustration of clearing smoke-damaged rooms, both smoking rooms and nonsmoking rooms where guests have smoked anyway. Despite having only 5 percent to 10 percent of rooms designated for smokers, demand is often greater than supply for the nonsmoking rooms, managers said.

"Usually, we need every nonsmoking room we've got," said Patrick Miner, general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott, a 188-room extended stay hotel on Water Street in Baltimore.

Miner said the Residence Inn had been in the process of upping the percentage of nonsmoking rooms from 90 percent to 95 percent. He said one floor where smoking is permitted would be converted immediately to nonsmoking, and the other smoking floor would be made smoke free by the company's deadline. Smoking has never been permitted in the hotel's public areas, he said.

At the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in downtown Baltimore, general manager Meade Atkeson said he's not concerned that the hotel's restaurant and lounge could lose business to competitors that allow smoking.

"So many places are going to go in that direction," he said. "Most of the cities that have gone in that direction have not found they have lost business."

Some hotel guests and anti-smoking advocates applauded Marriott's move, coming at a time when 17 states have passed laws that require smoke-free workplaces or restaurants or bars, or a combination of the three. Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington state have barred smoking in all three, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

"Businesses are beginning to take note and work to accommodate the fact that the vast majority of people are nonsmokers and are looking for smoke-free establishments for their accommodations," said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the nonprofit lobbying organization in Berkeley, Calif.

Sitting on a bench outside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, guest Debbie Violette, 52, of Augusta, Maine, said she demands nonsmoking rooms.

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