The ever-changing scene of hotel room amenities

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By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 10:54 PM

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.

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