A few weeks ago, I spent a night at the Kendall Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., a congenial place done up in a firehouse theme with an atrium on the top floor. There’s a bowl of apples in the lobby, free wine and snacks at happy hour, high-thread-count bedsheets, super-plush towels, a complimentary breakfast, and—just like at every other hotel in North America—a set of toiletries so paltry and penurious that it wouldn’t be out of place in a federal prison.
Standard rooms at the Kendall come with four bathroom items: two bottled hair products (labeled “hair purifier” and “hair protector”) and two bars of soap (labeled “cleansing” and “exfoliating”). These come from Gilchrist & Soames, a high-end purveyor of sample-size cosmetics for the hospitality industry, and they’re more than acceptable for an overnight guest. Yet despite the fancy branding, there’s one way in which the Kendall Hotel leaves its visitors vastly unprepared to face the day. I’m grateful for a single bar of soap, and glad to have a second one in case the first slips down the drain. Still, who wouldn’t trade a soap—not to mention a bottle of conditioner—for a tube of toothpaste on the road? It’s nice to cleanse and exfoliate your skin, and a luxury to protect and purify your hair, but isn’t tooth-brushing a necessity?
Hotels distract us from this essential, unmet need with a thin illusion of excess. Even the most egregious fleabags will provide a few skinny bars of soap and a flagon of shampoo. Luxury hotels sprinkle extras on the bathroom counter like confetti: a nail file, a facial towelette, a shower puff, a mending kit, a shoe mitten. And what about the toothpaste—that most indispensible tool of anyone’s toilette, a product used by virtually every hotel guest in America at least twice per day? Why should it be easier to sew a button to your cardigan or polish your loafers than it is to brush your teeth? Why have hotels forsaken oral hygiene?
The average daily rate for staying at U.S. hotels is $111. The average number of tubes of toothpaste these hotels provide is zero. This isn’t just an industry quirk; it’s a market failure and an outrage. Hotels won’t supply an inexpensive item that consumers clearly need. What’s behind this insane short-circuit of room supply and guest demand? What dark forces underlie the mystery of the missing toothpaste?
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A couple of years ago, the travel section of the Washington Post reported on a post-recession trend in the lodging business: high-end hotel swag. The big chains have been competing, the article said, on fancy accoutrements. In place of standard alarm clocks, they’re furnishing their rooms with iPod docking stations. In place of house-brand bottles of shampoo and conditioner, they’re offering L’Occitane.
“Amenities wars” like this have been breaking out for decades. In 1987 the Los Angeles Times described an industry so embroiled in freebie one-upmanship that a hotel in Wabasha, Minn., was offering live cats to its guests. As the “goodies war” intensified, hotel executives decried the wasteful arms race it had produced. “Amenities have truly gotten out of hand,” the president of Regent Hotels told the newspaper in 1990. “So much of it is just garbage, or it simply insults the guest.”
Still, after a period of toiletry retrenchment, the amenities war erupted once again in 2005. This time, it started with a fight over which hotel could claim the most luxurious bedding and ended—as such conflicts often do—in the bathroom. Hilton Hotels launched an upgrade to its toiletry kit, stocking baskets with body lotion, body wash, mouthwash, moisturizing soap, a shower cap, a sewing kit, a vanity kit, a shoe mitt, a shoehorn, and an aqua brush with pumice.
But through all these cycles of competition, one fact has remained more or less the same: Hoteliers never deigned to add a tube of toothpaste to the growing bonanza of cosmetics. Now, as always, any guest who wants some toothpaste—or deodorant, tampons, or any other item that isn’t provided in the room—must request it from the front desk, through the hotel’s “forgot an item” program.
Why has toothpaste been relegated to this supplementary status? I asked this question of executives at 18 North American hotel chains, and most provided the same pair of explanations. First, they said their in-room amenities are chosen based on extensive consumer research. In other words, if the hotels aren’t giving you toothpaste, it’s because you don’t really want toothpaste. “If such requests did begin to trend,” explained a representative from the Wyndham Hotel Group, “we would evaluate our brand standards and offerings.” (Update, July 3: There is at least one major exception to the rule. A Hyatt spokesperson reports that all of that company's hotels in North America offer in-room tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste.)
The second explanation took the form of an appeal to hospitality norms. Several sources said that their company takes its cues from rivals. “Many of our competitors do not include toothpaste as a standard amenity,” pleaded brand director Debbie Grant of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Others shrugged and pointed to the independent companies that assign standard ratings for quality of service. If the ratings don’t require it, the hotels won’t acquire it.