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The ever-changing scene of hotel room amenities

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My hands were as dry as parchment when I checked into Washington’s Donovan House hotel on a bitterly cold day last winter. Eager for some moisturizer, I went straight to the bathroom, where I discovered that — egad! — there was no moisturizer to be found. Nor was there any shower gel for bathing, just plain old skin-drying soap. I was perplexed. Where were my favorite toiletries?

For a while there, you could count on your average hotel room to be almost as well-stocked as a Wal-Mart. Walk into the bathroom and you’d find shampoo, conditioner, lotion, mouthwash, a shower cap and not one but two bars of soap, in case you didn’t want to lather your body with the same suds that oozed over your hands. Lost a button on your blouse? Mending kit right this way. Want to buff your shoes? Grab the shoe mitt.

But the recession put the brakes on such bountiful in-room accouterments. Suddenly, shampoo was in, conditioner was out — kind of like a restaurant placing a salt shaker on a table without its pepper twin. The Frankenstein of bathroom toiletries — the bath gel and shampoo combo — appeared in many showers. And forget about needle and thread and shoe mitts. If you needed a shoeshine, you had to pay for one.

Now, though, the hotel business is reviving as people start to travel again. But the never-ending competition for guests is fiercer than ever, because travelers are being pickier than ever.

The upshot? The latest war of the amenities.

By offering new and varied extras in their rooms, hotels “think they will have differentiation,” said Glenn Haussman, editor-in-chief of industry magazine Hotel Interactive. “But other brands pick up on them, and the leads gained are lost quickly.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: In any economy, luxury hotels offer more amenities, budget hotels fewer. But some things are universal.

“I remember in 1967, we had a major decision to make in the Sheraton: Should we make it mandatory for all our hotels to have color TVs?” recalled Joseph A. McInerney, president and chief executive officer of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. “It shows you how far we’ve come.”

McInerney can offer a ticktock of the milestones: After color TV came the TV-plus-remote, then the clock radio. In the 1960s, shampoo became a must. Lotions, mouthwash and more followed. The 1970s saw the introduction of sewing kits, shoe mitts and shoe horns. In the early 1990s, coffeemakers appeared in the room. At the end of the century, irons and ironing boards became de rigueur.

McInerney can’t remember who came up with which idea (why a sewing kit and not earplugs?), but they had their reasons. “Hotels don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘Gee, I’m going to do this because the consumer wants it.’ The hotel industry does research,” he said. “We’re always looking to get an edge on our competitors.”

Here’s a look at the latest stage in the evolution of hotel rooms and the treats they dangle before us.

Getting fancy, and frugal

Hotel guests are like celebrities: They love their swag. And not just any swag, but brand-name swag.

Which is why the Marriotts and Hyatts of the world have stopped tagging their toiletries with their own names in favor of L’Occitane, Molton Brown and other spa lines. Even midrange and boutique hotels have gotten into the act. Guests can get blissful with Bliss products at Starwood’s Aloft hotels and others. Bath and Body Works work their magic at the newly renovated Holiday Inns. Morgans Hotel Group boasts Apothia products.

“People have more trust in a product that they may be somewhat familiar with,” said Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hospitality, which owns several hotels. “When you put your logo on the bottle, they don’t know what the product is.”

Not that there’s always an unlimited supply of these aromatic delights.

“In the early ’90s, the bathroom was full of stuff,” said Lara Weiss, global director for sales for K Hotels, a marketing company representing independently owned hotels worldwide. “You almost had too much of it. Travelers just put it in their purse. It was an expense.”

Some boutique hotels, such as the Affinia Liaison Capitol Hill, now put their shampoo and conditioner in dispensers attached to the shower wall. “It clearly presents cost savings in a hotel and also leads to a reduction in the amount of waste,” said Jeff Gurtman, vice president of strategy for Dana Communications in Hopewell, N.J., a marketing agency for several global hotel chains.

Also, don’t always expect a bathtub. The powers-that-be have ruled that travelers, especially business travelers, don’t have time for a soak in the bubbles. At the Tryp by Wyndham brand’s first hotel in New York, set to open this summer, three-quarters of the rooms will have only showers with European-style hand-held shower heads.

While fancier bath products have made their way into the hotel room, shower caps, sewing kits, mouthwash, shoe mitts, shoehorns and other “nonessential” items are making an inglorious exit (a nod to you klepto guests). But here’s a secret: They haven’t left the building. If you call the front desk or housekeeping and ask nicely, someone will probably make a special delivery to your room.

Usually, you can get what you need for free, but some hotels charge for certain products. Kimpton Hotels, for instance, has a “Forgot it? We’ve Got It” program. Many items, such as toothpaste, a sewing kit, a hairdryer, a curling iron and a humidifier (even fashion tape?!) are free. Others, inexplicably, are not. Mouthwash, a nail file, nail clippers and dental floss will set you back $2. Deodorant and hair spray will cost you $3.

Beyond the bathroom, in-room coffeemakers are coming under intense scrutiny. Large pots are being replaced with single-serving machines — or none at all. If you want a free cup of coffee, you’ll have to get dressed and go down to the lobby.

Same goes for newspapers. You might be able to find a copy near the elevator or in the lobby. But the paperboy has taken early retirement.

And don’t necessarily expect turndown service. Or new towels or linens each day, unless you ask for them. Better for the environment. Or so the hotels say.

“You can hide it under the green movement, but it’s also economical,” Weiss said.

Goodbye, M&Ms

If you’ve got the middle-of-the-night munchies at a hotel, you may be able just to reach into the minibar to satisfy them.

But don’t count on it.

First introduced in the ’60s, minibars have been financial underachievers for many hotels. Guests don’t want to pay $5 for a Diet Coke when they can get one for far less at the vending machine or down the street.

But for the hotel, “it’s an expensive proposition to staff someone to go around to restock minibars and do the pricing,” Gurtman said. Not only that, but hotel managers complain of guests guzzling the vodka, then refilling the bottles with water, resealing them and putting them back in the fridge.

Many hotels have gotten rid of minibars altogether. Although 83 percent of the highest-end luxury hotels still have them, according to the hotel and lodging association, the farther you go down the hotel food chain, the fewer you’ll see. Only 22 percent of upscale hotels, the next level down from luxury, and 21 percent of independent hotels have them. That’s why you now often see snack shops and kiosks in lobbies or snacks on sale at the registration desk.

Other hotels have been more innovative, letting guests choose the contents, if any, of their minibars. At the Grace, a Room Mate Hotel in New York, for instance, there’s a glass-doored refrigerator behind the reception desk from which guests can select the items they want placed in their minibars. Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel has launched a Personal Pantry program, which lets guests order snacks and drinks for their mini-fridge at check-in or through room service 24 hours a day. Affinia Hotels have rooms with kitchens and a grocery-shopping service.

“At the end of the day, what we decided was we’re going to give them refrigerators and give people what they want, when they want it, if they want it,” said Peter Kacheris, director of the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, which has a program similar to the Personal Pantry.

The Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix has done the opposite, offering a completely free minibar. Well, sort of. Guests weren’t buying items from the traditional minibar or were drinking the beverages and refilling the bottles with nonalcoholic liquids, said owner and general manager Ben Bethel. His solution: charging a mandatory $15 a day fee that covers the minibar plus parking, Internet and international phone calls.

The Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, meanwhile, has come up with a new take on the minibar concept: the Beauty Minibar. It places a selection of full-sized Fresh products, such as body scrub, facial cleanser and lotion, for sale on the bathroom sink.

Hotels that have kept the traditional minibars are restocking them with less traditional items. That means organic treats or local delicacies (bye-bye, M&Ms). The Loews Regency Hotel in New York offers Dylan’s candy bars from the boutique chocolate shop chain owned by Ralph Lauren’s daughter, Dylan. At the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, you can snack on all-natural Pop Chips (never baked or fried!) or drink vitamin-enhanced flavor waters or local craft beers. New York’s Pierre is creating a health menu that will list each item’s calories and fat grams so that you can calculate the damage not just to your wallet but also to your body.

The next wave

Most of the industry’s innovation is technological.

Alarm clocks are still around, but new iPod docking stations are getting more use. At the expense of closets, workstations (the desks of yesteryear) have grown to accommodate travelers’ gadgets. New room safes are designed with openings for cords so that you can recharge your laptop while keeping it secure.

“You either try to make sure they have what’s at home or give them a wow factor that will excite them and create an emotional attachment that will make them want to come back,” Haussman said.

How’s this for wow? At Hotel Beaux Arts in Miami, each room is equipped with an Apple iPad loaded with special apps that let you access more than 30 hotel services, including in-room dining. At the International House in New Orleans, 16 rooms have Apple TV boxes so that iPad- and iPod-dependent clients can easily stream live video.

If you walk into a room that doesn’t have at least a flat-screen TV, you might want to walk out. Some hotels, such as the Aria at the CityCenter in Las Vegas, have TVs that control the room’s temperature, lighting and curtains. Could that be the wave of the future?

“I suspect the TV will be the control center,” said Laurence Geller, president of Strategic Hotels, owner of high-end resorts and hotels. “You may electronically communicate with the concierge. The concierge may not even be in the hotel. The TV will control almost everything.”

If that sounds a bit too Orwellian, fear not. You’ll probably always have a remote control, which means that ultimately, you’ll always be in control.

We all know that everything in a hotel mini-bar costs more than you’d pay for it in a store. But how much more? We took a look at the contents of the mini-bar at the Conrad Indianapolis. Then we went out and did our own shopping. Here’s what we found.

Cake Bread Chardonnay, half bottle, $48 mini-bar | $24.99 store/online

Veuve Clicquot Champagne, half bottle, $60 mini-bar | $27.99 store/online

Heineken, 12 oz. bottle,$6 mini-bar | $1.33 store/online

Miller Lite, 12 oz. bottle, $6 mini-bar | $1.00 store/online

Grey Goose Vodka, 50 ml bottle, $10 mini-bar | $4.99 store/online

Coca-Cola, 10 oz. bottle, $4 mini-bar | $1.10 store/online

Cranberry Juice, 10 oz. bottle, $3 mini-bar | $1.66 store/online

Voss Water, 12.6 oz., $5 mini-bar | $2.33 store/online

Red Bull, 8.4 oz., $6 mini-bar | $1.67 store/online

Peanut M&Ms (2 regular size bags in a decorative can), $5 | $1.98 (no can) store/online

Pringles Potato Chips, 1.41 oz. canister, $5 | $1.15 store/online

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