Soon after Erma M. Avon checked into her seafoam-and-mauve-colored room, luxuriously appointed with polished wood and plush upholstery, she was offered a gourmet meal of Senate bean soup, filet mignon with truffle sauce, artichoke vinaigrette, la terrine de fois gras and fresh assorted sherbets with strawberries and kiwi fruit all served on china with silver and crystal.

Avon, a 66-year-old Chevy Chase woman, had not just checked in to an elegant hotel.

She was a patient about to have a hip operation at Suburban Hospital, settling into the hospital's $255-a-night room in its new luxury ward, One South.

"It made me feel as if I was home, not in a hospital," said Avon. "The extra cost is absolutely worth it. I hope I don't need to go back, but if I ever need any more surgery, that's where I would go."

"Hospital hospitality" is part of a larger trend by hospitals nationwide to diversify services in the face of increased competition. With rising health care costs, hospital occupancy rates are falling, and administrators are seaching for ways to fill the estimated 300,000 empty hospital beds nationwide.

"The luxury hospital units are gaining in popularity," said Mary Babich, spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association.

Although hospital occupancy rates in the Washington area are falling, Suburban's luxury unit has been filled to capacity and has had a long waiting list since it opened last fall. Its patients include members of Congress, diplomats, business executives and any others who will pay the $75 to $150 a day more than the hospital's standard semi-private room rate.

"Patients are demanding more and more for their money," said Beth Veihmeyer, Suburban Hospital's spokeswomen. "They would rather be in an atmosphere that is conducive to speedy recovery."

A deluxe private room in Suburban's 13-bed luxury ward costs $255 a night, $75 more than its no-frills semi-private room. The larger deluxe private rooms at Suburban go for $275.

Suburban also offers a two-room luxury suite for the patient or his family, which comes complete with kitchenette and desk for $330. Gourmet meals, sometimes served with wine, are catered by Dominique Restaurant. And all patients wake up to breakfast -- and a pink rose -- served on a silver tray.

At a patient's request and for an additional cost, limousine transportation, guest meals and "full grooming services" that include haircuts, manicures and facials are available in Suburban's luxury ward where patients spend an average of one to two weeks.

"We don't have any statistics that prove that patients get better faster here," Veihmeyer said. "But they certainly seem to be in a better frame of mind to recover."

The Washington Hospital Center also offers luxury rooms with gourmet meals, champagne or wine, private nurses, kitchenettes, balconies and bathrooms. The 12 rooms in the hospital's elegant 6D unit all rent for the higher cost of $525, or $127 more than a semiprivate room. Facilities for business meetings and adjoining rooms for family or friends also are offered.

Washington Hospital's luxury unit, which opened in 1968, offers elective surgery and treatment for a wide range of illnesses, from facelifts to general surgery. Intensive-care or organ-transplant patients are treated elsewhere, however, according to the ward's head nurse, Ruth B. Mullan. "Most of our emphasis is on special care and a lot of tender loving care," she said.

Howard University Hospital has operated a seven-bed luxury unit for three years with rooms that range from $546 to $611, compared with the regular semiprivate room rate of $385. The two highest-priced rooms offer luxuries that include VCRs, stereos, refrigerators and dining areas. Georgetown University plans to open a luxury unit in the future. Hospital officials say they depend on doctors to advertise their luxury rooms. Patients in Suburban's luxury ward say that privacy and quiet -- protection from blaring intercoms -- are two attractions to the rooms. "I definitely think it's worth the extra cost," said Mary Ann Clendenin, whose husband Gary is recovering there from gall bladder sugery. "It's much quieter here."

Suburban's marketing studies and questionnaries given to patients when they were discharged showed a demand for the luxury rooms in Montgomery County, one of the nation's most affluent areas, Veihmeyer said, adding that many people have traveled out of the area in the past to medical facilities that offer more luxurious accommodations.

Insurance policies usually cover the cost of a hospital's semiprivate room, but patients have to bear the additional costs of $100 a day in area hospitals, hospital administrators say. Blue Cross & Blue Shield will reimburse the patient only for the cost of the hospital's "most prevalent semiprivate room," according to Barry Wilson, a spokesman for Blue Cross & Blue Shield, which insures 1.2 million people in metropolitan Washington.