Some had damp swimsuits to pack or a dog that got sick. Others needed a makeshift pillow for the car ride or a traveler's memento. Some merely did it for the thrill. Whatever the reason, people snatched hundreds of thousands of towels from hotel rooms last year and have been doing so for decades.
For those feeling guilty about that free grease towel in the garage or the beach towel in the closet, there's a chance to 'fess up - if that towel has a green stripe.
Holiday Inn has declared Thursday its first Towel Amnesty Day, a chance to forgive guests who have "borrowed" towels.
No, the hotel chain doesn't want its towels back. It wants the story of why you took the towel and what you've done with it.
Mark Snyder, senior vice president of brand management for Holiday Inn, is the first to admit that Towel Amnesty Day is a thinly veiled marketing campaign. "It's about celebrating the brand," he says.
Stories have been coming in since the campaign was announced Aug. 18. "They are priceless," says Snyder, who is considering posting some of them on the hotel chain's Web site. "They are everything from very funny to very touching."
"I believe my towel comes from the 50s. In fact, so long ago I don't remember how I got it, but I suppose it did follow me home," wrote Marcelle Roise, of Alamo, Calif. "It is my dog's towel, and she is the 3rd generation of dogs to use it."
"My son appeared in a school play as The Little Drummer Boy," wrote Eileen Richmond, of Chicago, Ill. "Each performer wore a sheet or towel as part of their costume. My mom ... noticed something odd about my son's towel. As I looked at the towel I had hurriedly grabbed from the closet - the towel he had worn in front of his friends, teachers and the whole school - I saw it had a nice wide green stripe in the center that said, 'Holiday Inn.' "
The vintage towel with the green stripe and "Holiday Inn" down the middle, which is no longer in hotel rooms, is the one that many admit to having taken.
Snyder says that hotels, including Holiday Inn, have largely stopped using towels with logos. Instead, they use plain towels to make the bathrooms more "residential." In his opinion, this has cut towel theft. "Most hotel towels were more interesting 20 or 30 years ago when they had the name of the hotel on them."
Hilton's management agrees. "About four or five years ago, the Hilton brand eliminated the logo from the towels, and we've seen a significant decline [in towel theft] since then," says Jeanne Datz, spokeswoman for Hilton. "It's definitely more cachet with the logo."
But logos clearly aren't the only attraction for towel-snatchers. The American Hotel and Lodging Association estimates that theft in hotel rooms - from towels to televisions - costs the lodging industry $100 million annually.
"This is not including things we expect you to take - the shampoos and soaps," says Tia Gordon, a spokesperson for the association. But it does include pillows, robes and showerheads.
Glen Gerke, regional director of hotel performance and support for Hampton Inn, says his brand uses the woven logo on towels and doesn't have much of a problem with towel theft. "Times have changed," says Gerke. "There's just not the great thrill of throwing the bath towel in the bag and taking it home."
"We haven't done any formal research, but we would certainly set the estimate [of towels stolen] at about 560,000 a year," says Snyder.
Some hotel officials joked that Towel Amnesty Day may cause a spike in towel theft, but Holiday Inn isn't fretting about encouraging people to tell their stories. "I think initially you could look at that and say, gee, it may be a concern," Snyder says. But he doubts thefts will rise and says the chain isn't overly worried about purloined towels.
Snyder sees the vintage towels that made their way home as "icons" for the friendly service or good memories the hotel provided. And it didn't hurt Holiday Inn when towels with the hotel's name traveled.
The stories that have come in tend to back him up.
"I took my first and only (I swear) Holiday Inn towel from the suite at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Monterrey Mexico where I spent my first honeymoon night," wrote Raul Malacara, Monterrey, Texas. "I took it as a memento ... along the way I have lost the girl, but I still have the towel! Good things do last ... !"
Over the weekend, Holiday Inn will be giving away towels at six beaches and at most of its hotels across the country, including Dewey Beach, Del., at both Chicago Street and Belview Street this Saturday.
While some may be picking up their first green-striped towel, others may already have a good supply at home.
"Some years back, I shared a room with my family members at a Holiday Inn. My cousin Amy's father was a TV news producer who traveled extensively," wrote D.B. Appleton from Oregon, Wis. "When we checked in to our room, Amy walked in to the bathroom and exclaimed, 'Look, Mom, they've got our towels!' "