Indiana county cleans dirty hotel image
18 DECEMBER 2013 7:38 AM
After noticing a rise in guest complaints, a county in Indiana passed an ordinance requiring hotels meet minimum standards of cleanliness.
FORT WAYNE, Indiana—Hoteliers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, don’t want their properties to show up on TripAdvisor’s next “dirtiest hotels” list, and commissioners of Allen County are taking steps to ensure they won’t.
On 1 November, the Allen County Board of Commissioners passed a new Lodging Establishment Ordinance requiring area hotels and motels to meet minimum standards of cleanliness and sanitary conditions. The ordinance goes into effect 1 January.
The ordinance is the first of its kind in the state of Indiana, according a news release, and it was put into motion after the local convention and visitors bureau, Visit Fort Wayne, saw an increase in complaints regarding the cleanliness of Fort Wayne hotel rooms from travelers on social media and review sites such as TripAdvisor.
“We have seen a deterioration in properties over the last five years, and we want to ensure that our reputation as a great place for meetings and conventions continues by having properties just pass minimum tests in cleanliness and sanitation,” said Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne.
“This ordinance is intended to provide a general set of achievable standards aimed at providing a safe and sanitary stay for residents,” Mindy Waldron, deputy director of Fort Wayne/Allen County Health Department, wrote in an email. “Having a consistent set of rules for establishments was needed in Fort Wayne and Allen County and will allow for a proactive look versus a reactive look at these types of establishments, with the hope of heading off problems before they come to fruition.”
O’Connell said 95% of hotels in Allen County and Fort Wayne already meet and exceed the ordinance guidelines, but the other 5% was potentially bringing down the area’s reputation.
“It was speculated that there’s a certain amount of business that could be garnered or gained if some properties were taken off the market,” he said, although he stressed the motivation for the ordinance stemmed mainly from having pride in the community.
“This was in response to meeting planners saying, ‘We’ve got a problem with your hotel inventory.’ It wasn’t just big government saying, ‘Let’s find another way to get in their business.’ It was the hotel community saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a little bit of a problem. What can we do about it?’” O’Connell said.
How it works
O’Connell said the committee drew inspiration from other states and cities with similar ordinances, including Oregon and Dayton, Ohio. He said Indiana had such an ordinance long ago.
Staff from the health department will conduct inspections of the hotel rooms. O’Connell said owners will be notified a few days in advance of inspections, and 10 rooms will be inspected at random.
He said there is some give and take with the inspection dates. For example, a hotelier might not want to schedule an inspection on a busy Friday. The health department will work with the hotelier to schedule an inspection on a more convenient day.
Inspection criteria range from ventilation being in good repair, to unstained sheets, to the absence of rodents and insects. Each item on the list is weighted. For example, ventilation in disrepair will receive a 0.5-point penalty. An unkempt garbage area will knock off three points. Fines also vary. If a hotel’s lobby, halls and stairs aren’t up to par, a $25 fee is assessed. But if rodent and insect control standards aren’t met, hoteliers are looking at fines of up to $200.
After the inspection, the hotel will receive a cleanliness grade from A to F, similar to the restaurant industry’s grading system. The grade will then be displayed at the hotel’s front desk to inform visitors of cleanliness standards before they occupy their rooms.
Incentives are available for hotels with an A rating, including lower remediation fees to fix problems and the inspection period can be extended by six months, O’Connell said.
If a hotel doesn’t meet minimum standards, the owner is given the chance to fix problems before being fined. If the problems still aren’t fixed during the subsequent inspection, the owner is then fined.
Hotels that pass the inspections are issued a permit from the Health Commissioner that must be renewed annually. A hotel without a permit can’t operate in Allen County.
How will it affect hotels?
“The hotel industry has all sorts of variety of clients. We have a significant number of those independent properties who really have taken in long-term clients—months and months on end. And they’re really mini apartment complexes. … This is where people are staying and they’re paying $29 a night or $200 a week,” O’Connell said.
He said the city will then sell out for events, and these same hotels will take in guests from the events and put the two populations together.
“It just doesn’t mix. So what we’re kind of forcing the issue is: Are you going to be an apartment or are you going to be a hotel? If you’re going to have certain accommodations for sale to the public and you’re going to act like a hotel or motel, then behave like it, too, and have your sheets and towels cleaned and your trash emptied daily,” he said.
“It could end up shutting down other establishments, which might increase our demand a little bit, but I don’t think that’s really the important part,” said Lindsay Morgan, GM of the Homewood Suites by Hilton Fort Wayne. “I think the important part is having general cleanliness standards.”
She said her hotel twice a year receives quality assurance reviews from Hilton Worldwide Holdings, so the ordinance isn’t a new concept to her. She also doesn’t think it will have a negative effect on her hotel.
“I just think it will give us another perspective. Just another thing that people may be looking for that maybe Hilton or we didn’t even think about,” she said.
What’s the cost?
The permits must be renewed annually at a cost of $150. According to the ordinance, if an owner fails to obtain a permit prior to opening a hotel for business or if an owner fails to renew the permit annually, “then said annual fee shall be 125% of the annual fee set forth herein for that particular” property.
“The enforcement of this ordinance, and the costs associated with it—staffing, equipment, supplies, etc.—will be funded in part by the yearly fees assessed to the lodging establishments,” Waldron said. “We have not asked for additional funds to cover any shortfalls in the enforcement of this ordinance, nor have we added any new staff to conduct the inspections.”
She said fines will assist in covering costs of administrative hearings and additional compliance inspections for the hotels whose owners violate the rules on a continuous basis.
“In other words, the costs associated with working toward compliance for those establishments that are in need of repair or cleaning is to be borne by those establishments, not the lodging industry as a whole and not the taxpayers,” she said.
Morgan isn’t worried about added cost to her hotel beyond the permit fee. “The only time you get a fee is if they tell you to fix something and you don’t fix it, which I think is only fair.”
She said her staff already strives for high cleanliness standards, and she doesn’t anticipate having any problems during inspections.