Slowly, ever so slowly, hotels are recognizing that travelers who suffer from severe asthma and allergies triggered by dust mites, mold, smoke, pollen, chemicals and animal dander might like to stay in hypoallergenic rooms -- for a price.
With as many as one in four travelers coughing, sneezing and wheezing their way through the day, or night, the thought crossed a few minds to develop hotel rooms that are free of all the nasty stuff that causes guests to feel as if their airways are clogging. Not that many didn't feel that way before checking in. But to find relief in a hotel room, what a surprise.
Whether the environmentally friendly rooms become as prevalent as nonsmoking rooms and floors in lodging establishments is another matter. Any relief from bad air and bacteria-ridden rooms is a godsend to travelers with serious asthmatic conditions.
"Allergy patients suffer a lot, whether it's sneezing, nasal congestion or a runny nose, but more severe patients could have an asthma exacerbation and that could be life-threatening," said Dr. Kris McGrath, an allergist and associate professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "So an unsuspecting guest [entering a room vacated hours before by a guest traveling with a cat] could have an asthma attack triggered by cat protein, which is very potent."
Finding a bacteria/virus-free, mite-free, pollen-free, dust-free, chemical-free, dander-free room is a challenge because the number of hotels that offer these special rooms is minuscule.
Pure Rooms, which can be found in 34 hotels nationwide with a total of 400 treated rooms, is the brand of Pure Solutions NA, a firm near Buffalo, N.Y.
"At this point, we're handling individual hotels," said Brian Brault, the firm's president, CEO and founder, who described his venture as a new industry. Among the hotels are Marriotts in Annapolis and Miami; the Peninsula in Beverly Hills, Calif.; Crowne Plaza in Pittsburgh; Four Seasons in Boston; Hampton Inn in Sarasota, Fla.; and Millennium Broadway in New York. But chains are coming on board, too.
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which has tested a full floor of Pure Rooms in its Miami Airport and Peachtree City, Ga., properties, plans to have a number of Pure Rooms installed in its 20 company-managed hotels in 2008, and then in 200 franchised hostelries in 2009.
Wyndham is the largest chain to commit to Pure Rooms.
"We received favorable comments when we test-marketed the rooms, so we decided to roll it out for all our properties, about 10 percent of the rooms as well as conference rooms," said Faith Taylor, Wyndham's vice president of product development and innovation. "Guests will pay from 7 to 10 percent more for these rooms."
NYLO, a new, mid-priced hotel group based in Atlanta, offering loft-style rooms, will have a floor of Pure Rooms in its Plano, Texas, hotel that opened last month, and in two other properties opening this year in Warwick, R.I., and Broomfield, Colo. The group said it has committed to having 50 properties with Pure Rooms in expanding markets in North America by 2010.
As NYLO did its market research, allergy-free rooms came up as one of the amenities the hotels should have, said John Russell, the firm's CEO. "Pure Rooms can command a higher rate because people are willing to pay a little more to have that amenity -- a $10 premium. It does cost more to maintain these rooms."
It takes time to educate hoteliers and their managers about the new Pure technology, the energy savings they derive and the need to become more environmentally friendly as they figure out cost/benefits factors, Brault said.
Those cost factors, Brault said, include the air-handling system, all hard and soft surfaces, and water supply. Mattresses and pillows get hypoallergenic encasements. The room is shocked with a very high concentration of ozone that kills any remaining living organisms. The room is then misted with Pure Shield, a substance that bonds with everything in the room and leaves a static barrier that prevents bacteria and viruses from adhering to anything. An FDA-approved purifier cleanses the air.
Using a more traditional room-purifying approach in a pilot project, Environmental Technology Solutions of Glen Ellyn, Ill., created two "environmentally friendly rooms for guests with allergy-related sensitivities" in the Hilton O'Hare Airport. The Enviro-Rooms proved to be so popular that Hilton added 11 more to its O'Hare inventory.
"We call the rooms green-compliant," said Nicholas Nardella, president and CEO of the firm, which specializes in mold remediation and indoor air quality. "What we did was analyze everything in the room, and instead of trying to encapsulate it, or put a purifier in to correct the problems, we just eliminated them. We have no carpets in our rooms, no drapes. By getting rid of the carpets and the drapes, we were actually able to reduce the bacterial colony count in the room as much as 92 percent."
The room was then rebuilt using special wood flooring, wall coverings, fabrics, furniture, paints, adhesives and cleaning products. Window treatments are made of wood. Also added to the room, Nardella said, was an air purification system developed by NASA to scrub the air in space shuttles and an air monitoring system.
Allergist McGrath noted that ridding hotel rooms of carpeting, curtains and drapes -- havens for dust mites and other nasty stuff such as microscopic cat dander -- can help people with severe allergy problems.
Other hotel companies -- Kimpton, a San Francisco-based boutique group, for example -- welcome guests with pets. But, said a Kimpton spokeswoman, they are assigned to designated rooms on designated floors. And, after the guest and pet check out, the room is "deep-cleaned."
Travelers concerned about air quality can start by checking freshstay.com, which bills itself as "the world's leading directory of 100 percent smoke-free hotels." One of the site's sponsors is Pure Rooms.
Alfred Borcover wrote this story for the Chicago Tribune.