Accident in your room? The hotel may let you off the hook.

February 20

Late one night in an Austrian hotel, Ed Perkins was returning to bed after answering nature’s knock when he tripped and cut his head on a piece of furniture. He placed a T-shirt on the pillow to soak up any blood, but the next morning, he awakened to a B-movie horror scene. The pillowcase was a gory mess.

The American traveler worried that the Innsbruck hotel would charge him for the stained linens. Quite the opposite. The housekeeper replaced the pillowcase and also cleaned his shirt for no extra fee.

“She wouldn’t even accept a tip,” said Perkins, a contributing editor at the online travel site Smarter Travel.

In our daily lives, we might be as graceful as swans. But once we step inside the hotel arena, we suddenly transform into bulls drunk on sangria, knocking over vases, dripping wine on carpets, splintering furniture with our heavy loads and shattering mirrors with champagne cork missiles.

“People are normal until they check into a hotel room,” said Stephen Barth, professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston and founder of HospitalityLawyer.com. “If you stayed at your friend’s house, typically you wouldn’t walk off with the towels, or jump up and down on the bed, or answer the door naked.”


(Nathan Daniels for The Washington Post)

In recent conversations with friends and family members, I’ve heard about a red nail-polish spill in a bathroom sink at a West Virginia hotel and a candle-scorched pillowcase at a Maine inn. I was also an eyewitness to my nephew barreling into a TV console at a Washington chain hotel and dislodging the door from its hinges. And in my own bumbling history, I dribbled beet juice onto the milk-white carpeting at a contemporary museum-hotel in Bentonville, Ark. In the above cases, management covered the repair or cleaning fees for all but one incident — the fiery pillow cover.

“We all realize that accidents happen,” said Greg Miller, regional vice president of Destination Hotels & Resorts, a group of 41 properties nationwide. “Unless there was malicious intent or the guest was very irresponsible, we’re generally very lenient.”

With more than 25 years of experience in the hotel biz, Jurgen Schafers, regional vice president for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, has seen plenty of stains, breaks, burns and cracks. He approaches each accident with the discerning eye of a Miss Marple and the negotiating skills of a Henry Kissinger.

“Every incident has circumstances behind it, and you need to investigate,” said Schafers, who also manages the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek. “We’re not law enforcement. We take more of an ambassadorship approach.”

Most of the time, staff members don’t even become aware of the damage until after the guest has long zoomed off. Then they have to weigh their options: confront the customer or let it slide, push forward or retreat. Ultimately, no property wants to be tagged as a fortress of inhospitableness. Nor does it want to lose future guests, even clumsy ones.

“A $50 lamp is not worth losing a customer who can bring thousands of dollars,” Schafers said of the ultimate prize: the repeat guest.

A gray area

What does the law say about these sorts of incidents? Not much. Properties are generally responsible for fixing any normal wear and tear. But there’s no national legislation that a hotel can slip under the perps’ door informing them that, say, their pomegranate juice stain broke the law. A few states do offer a dim guiding light. In Texas, for example, a hotel can charge parents for damage inflicted by their mini-monsters. But all said, assigning responsibility is very arbitrary.

“It’s a very challenging area,” said Larry Mogelonsky, a former manager who runs a hotel consulting firm. “It’s not one where you’ll find a specific code.”

The exception: things that go woof or smell like the Marlboro man.

Hotels are unfailingly upfront about regulations on pets and smoking, both of which hold prominent places in the Hall of Shame on You. Information on a hotel’s Web site and/or the booking confirmation will typically outline the restrictions (size of pet, cleanup regs, approved smoking zones) as well as the fines you’ll incur if you violate the rules. And my, my, my, how people do defy.

Lorry Mulhern, general manager of the Green Park Inn, said that the historic North Carolina property displays signs informing guests of where they can puff (on the porches) and where they can’t (in the rooms). In one incident, the staff became aware of a couple smoking in their room and politely directed them to the veranda. Later, housekeeping noticed burn marks on the sheets and discovered cigarette butts in their quarters. The hotel charged the couple a smoking penalty, plus the cost of replacing the linens.

As for pets, a black Lab staying at the inn missed the line about being a good dog. The visiting pooch ripped a hole in a quilt, costing his owner a $100 damage deposit and the price of the comforter.

In cases that are less clear-cut, the staff will focus on intent, the elephant that can tip the scale for or against the guest. The individual who caused an innocent accident nearly always avoids the charge; the rogue behind a malicious attack ponies up.

“If it’s an honest mistake, you’ll probably walk,” said Mogelonsky. “If a room gets trashed, you’ll pay.”

Just fess up

The bad-behavior tales aren’t amusing to the business’s bottom line, but you can’t help chuckling at the sheer audacity of some of these stunts. For instance, there was the inebriated naked man who couldn’t find his room at the Green Park Inn and, needing a place to sleep, broke down the door to a meeting room. And the guest who mysteriously pinged a hole in a stained-glass window at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix. And the visitor who drove his motorcycle inside his Toronto quarters, ruining the paint job on the walls. And finally, the guy who played Gretzky-style offense in his Montreal room. The fact that hockey is one of Canada’s national sports is no excuse.

“Firing hockey pucks against the door goes above and beyond the oops,” said Mogelonsky. “If it’s malicious, you charge for everything.”

Besides motivation, other factors also influence the final call. Paul Mansi, chief operating officer of the Edwardian Group London, a collection of 14 properties, considers “cost, causes, impact, client relationships and commercial concerns.” The guest’s attitude can also change the game. Hotel staffs appreciate honesty, frankness and contriteness. Also in your favor: immediately informing the front desk or housekeeping about the damage. Remember, hotels are not your mothers: You won’t be scolded for your butterfingers.

Schafers, for instance, said that he’s more generous with folks who “step forward and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

In most instances involving silly blunders, the property will soak up the cost. Mulhern, for one, said that the 88-room grand hotel spends thousands of dollars a year on guest-inflicted damages. For example, the inn recently replaced a bathroom window curtain after a woman used it as a makeup remover. Mogelonsky said the Boston hotel he was managing footed the bill for a $700 mirror that was on the receiving end of an airborne champagne cork. The Tempe Mission Palms in Arizona paid for a new marble top to a coffee table that smashed when a guest tried to move the piece to a different spot in the lobby.

The record isn’t permanently sealed on any decision, however. On rare occasions, a manager may reopen the case and reconsider the charges.

Last fall, for instance, the Green Park Inn hosted a soldier and his wife for a weekend. After a few too many cocktails one night, the guest returned to his room and scrawled graffiti on the wall and scratched it with a penknife. Mulhern charged the couple for the damage but questioned her verdict. A few days before the winter holidays, she reversed the fees as a thank-you to the soldier for his service.

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