This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Michael Forrest Jones, Beechmont Hotels Corp.:
We expect guests to either use or to take consumable items: soap, shampoo, stationery, etc. You're welcome.
Things like towels, hair dryers, lamps, TVs, TV remotes (I think some guests are mutant aliens who eat TV remotes. Like, gee, the remote can't be counted upon to work with any TV anywhere except the one in the room, but they do travel ... ), alarm clock radios, comforters, coffeemakers, bedspreads, blankets, etc., are obviously intended for the next guests, are part of the furnishings, and we don't want you taking them. They are also a bit more costly: In a cheap motel, they cost almost as much as you paid for the room in some cases, and definitely more than our profit margin in many more cases. So yes, we go a little nuts when people help themselves to them.
Bathrobes occupy a gray area in the middle. Some hotels provide them as part of the bedding and want to launder them and hang them for another guest when you check out. On the other hand, in a more upscale property, some people actually assume that they're gifts, with the hotel's blessing. Something like that is a good promotional item, if a little on the pricey side for a midscale hotel: If you did it at all, you'd only do it for your most important customers. I wouldn't provide them in every room to every guest, but a VIP might find a bathrobe monogrammed with the hotel logo left in the room, as a gift. (Not all of them get opened or taken in places where I've seen it done that way.)
Likewise, I'd keep a few—maybe four or five—down comforters around, in case I spotted a reservation for a VIP in time to pick out a good room and tell the housekeepers in advance to make it up with one on the bed. But this is another item that wouldn't be provided in every room: only for VIPs who I knew ahead of time were coming, and who I knew liked such things. Keep it down to that scale, and you can launder them after every use, which is the way it should be, anyway, but never is. And most people know not to take them although, again, at that scale and given the VIP status of the only people that would have access to them, I wouldn't fuss too much if someone took one. (They probably wouldn't find one on the bed the next time they came, but just once? Nahhh, I'd probably growl a little bit and let it slide)
Believe it or not, that "should you take it or shouldn't you?" gray area is occupied by another, somewhat surprising, item: the Gideon Bible in the nightstand. Gideons' International sent a guy to speak at a church I attended one Sunday morning, and the speaker shared that Christian organization's dirty little secret: the Gideons actually want you to steal the Gideon Bible from your hotel room and can't get enough people to do it. (Perhaps anyone who cares enough what the Bible has to say about anything to even want a Bible, worry just a little that stealing—especially stealing something like a Bible—is the sort of thing people burn in hell for).
Before Al Gore invented the Internet, if I checked into a hotel in a new town and there was a telephone directory in good condition in the nightstand, color it gone. Back in the day, the phone book was the best that could be had for various kinds of local market research, and I knew that the hotel had been provided with a half pallet load from the phone company and could always get more, anyway.
One thing we tried in a hotel where I worked as a general manager before launching my own company, and we're going back to in our own hotels, is imprinted coffee mugs. Since we're going with real coffeemakers in the rooms (not the cheesy little 4-cup "motel models"), why not a real coffee mug? Like the Gideon Bible, we can't afford to offer it as a giveaway item to everyone, but we won't fuss if you take one or two (we plan on "losing" about one out of maybe five or six). Someone determined to collect the whole set from each of our hotels—you don't have to steal them, we'll give you a couple of them if you ask—has some potential as good, loyal, $100-a-night customers well worth the price of an occasional cheap coffee mug stolen from the room. Cost to us, even with the logo imprinted, about $2. Promotional value—an advertising impression every time you pour a cup of coffee into your favorite mug in the morning, or have guests over for coffee at any other time—priceless.
Want to steal the bathtub ducky? (These are well-received promotional items in places I've been able to use them: seeing the ducky on top of your fresh towels on the vanity top assures you that the tub is clean and is a touchstone, a conversation piece, similar to the Doubletree chocolate chip cookie.) I don't care if you take 50 of my 28¢ bathtub duckies: In order to get that many, you have to stay 50 times at $100 give or take per night. Do the math.
And finally, here's a relic that you don't see anymore: imprinted towels. Intended as a deterrent to theft of the towels when they came out years ago, they actually incentivized it—the hotel's imprint on the towel gave souvenir value to what otherwise would have been just an unremarkable, plain white towel. (I still have my "JOHNNY'S MOTOR LODGE" towel from a motel I stayed at in the late '70's).
A hotel can still order them if they shop around (and don't mind paying extra for the imprint so you can go through your terry twice as fast, as more people take them home); but they're not nearly as commonplace as they once were. In the years since, hotels have gone back to plain, white towels.
More questions on hotels: