Hotels & hospitality

Safe as hotels

Hotels can sometimes be an uncomfortable environment for solo female guests. How should operators ensure they recognise women’s security concerns and discreetly create safer spaces for women travelling alone? Abi Millar talks to Maiden Voyage founder Carolyn Pearson and Dukes Hotel managing director Debrah Dhugga.

Solo female guests are a growing demographic for hotels. Once comprising barely a sliver of the overall occupancy rates (a 1970 survey found that just 1% of business travellers were female), women travelling alone are now almost as plentiful as their male counterparts.

Even in parts of the world where male travellers dominate, it seems likely this won’t be the case forever. According to a 2013 Amadeus report, the number of international business trips by women from the APAC region is set to quadruple by 2030. The opportunities for hoteliers are obvious.

That said, the industry has not adapted as much as might be expected. Leaving aside discussions about amenities – a conversation that can too easily devolve into sexist stereotypes – there has been a relative lack of interest in women’s specific needs.

In good hands

As Carolyn Pearson, founder of the women’s travel network Maiden Voyage, sees it, what female travellers want above all else is to feel safe and comfortable throughout their stay. She believes that, even as the gender split approaches 50-50, hotels can be less than relaxing environments for female guests.

“Whilst Virgin Hotels and Hyatt have implemented initiatives at group level, we’re seeing surprisingly little cognisance of an opportunity that is right under the industry’s nose,” she says. “With over 80% of travel purchasing decisions made by women, the potential to access this spend is enormous.”

Last year, Maiden Voyage released its Women in Business Travel Report 2016, which quizzed over 200 respondents including female company managers and CEOs. A significant majority (70%) said that travel providers should try harder to meet their gender needs, while nearly a third (31.4%) said they had encountered sexual harassment while travelling.

“One in four women have suffered a negative incident when travelling on business and 51% of women have said that they have at some point felt vulnerable when staying in a hotel,” says Pearson. “We regularly hear of women placing a chair, suitcase, ironing board and even a chest of drawers behind the door because they didn’t feel safe in a hotel.”

It is easy to see why a lone woman might approach her stay with caution. Over the years, there have been various well-publicised incidents sparked by a hotel’s security failures. These have included sexual assault in hotel bedrooms, spying and surveillance equipment found in air vents, and more than one woman waking up to find a stranger watching them in their bed. While such occurrences are mercifully rare, it doesn’t take an incident of this gravity to spoil a guest’s stay.

“The number one pet-hate of guests – male and female – is having their room numbers yelled out at check-in,” says Pearson. “The other is the surprising and concerning frequency with which guests seem to be double-allocated the same room. We have examples of where each of these have led to serious sexual assaults, as well as more embarrassing incidents such as the time a woman was relaxing in her bath until one of her male colleagues came in having been allocated the same room – mortifying for both of them.”

Of course, it would be wrong to treat safety as a gendered issue. Crime affects men and women in equal measure, and there is no reason why male travellers would be any less concerned about security. However, women are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, and some women can feel unsafe purely through virtue of being outnumbered. In certain business hotels, a boys’ club feel persists even to this day.

According to Debrah Dhugga, managing director of Dukes Hotel Group, the hotel industry has work to do to improve female guests’ comfort levels.

“Hoteliers have to wake up and pay attention and think about what they could do for women travelling alone,” she says. “Women in general do feel a bit more vulnerable. But it has to be done in a way that ensures they don’t stick out from the crowd.”

For the last few years, Dukes Hotel London has offered women-only Duchess Rooms, complete with glossy magazines, fluffy towels and fresh flowers. And Dukes Hotel Dubai, which welcomed its first guests in February, incorporates an entire Duchess Floor.

Some commentators have bristled at the idea that women might like special treatment. A 2013 Conde Nast article asked whether female-oriented hotel rooms were ‘insulting or ingenious’, querying ‘How offended should women travelers be?’. But as Dhugga explains, it’s important to ensure that guests feel they have a choice. The Duchess rooms are based on market research coupled with her own experiences as a business traveller.

“I’ve travelled around the world a lot and I get frustrated at the things that might not be in the room for a female traveller,” she says. “When I introduced the Duchess Rooms to Dukes London, our female business grew phenomenally – it was unbelievable. So we went a step further in Dubai, and worked in partnership with Liberty London to fit out the Duchess floor. I’m in hotels a lot of my life, and very few people do it.”

Safety in action

In terms of what women want from safety, she says the room placement is important – it’s all about ease of escape. The Duchess Rooms are also tended exclusively by female staff (it would be a woman showing you to your door or providing room service), and guests can take advantage of a quiet corner table in the dining area, to avoid attracting attention when dining alone. Dukes Dubai goes one better with a women-only breakfast room.

Dukes is not the only hotel group to have designated female spaces or services. In 2011, Hyatt launched ‘Hyatt for Her’ at select European hotels, a discreet service for female travellers based upon an 18-month research programme. Lady’s First Design Hotel in Zurich permits male travellers, but makes no bones about its priorities, and the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh in Saudi Arabia has a female-only floor out of respect to cultural mores.

Then there’s Richard Branson’s boutique Virgin Hotels chain, unveiled in 2015 and marketed as ‘female friendly’. Quite aside from the addition of leg-shaving benches and ‘Lover’s Intimacy Kits’, it boasts improved safety features, such as better lighting in the corridors and peepholes in the doors.

In creating spaces targeted at women, operators walk a fine line between sensitivity and silliness. While it would be hard to criticise the intention, some hotels risk veering into the gimmicky. Take Ellis Hotel in Atlanta, which situates its women only floor alongside a ‘pet friendly floor’ and a ‘fresh air floor’ – do women travellers really want to feel like a novelty? Ultimately, though, the test of such initiatives will be the occupancy rates and the reviews.

For Maiden Voyage, a hotel’s female-friendliness, or lack thereof, depends upon a few key features. The company has created a special brand standard for hotels that make the grade.

“Our standard covers two categories: safety and comfort,” says Pearson. “Safety includes double-locking doors, staff never announcing room numbers out loud, the location of the hotel, the standard of lighting around the entrance and where women are placed within the hotel. Surprisingly, lots of women don’t know what to ask for when it comes to safety and that’s often where we come in. ”

Maiden Voyage also offers networking opportunities for female travellers, eliminating much of the boredom or discomfort that comes with travelling alone. This, perhaps, is a neglected frontier in female-friendliness: what can hotels do to ensure women feel comfortable in public spaces, perhaps socialising with fellow guests rather than staying in their rooms?

As Pearson sees it, solo female travellers are a group the industry ignores at its peril. Many hotels, she says, are placing ‘duty of care’ at the top of their agenda – and they’re seeing more and more Requests for Proposal asking them what they do for female travellers.

This doesn’t have to mean perpetuating gender stereotypes, or creating a culture of victimisation. Nor does it mean taking something away from male guests. Rather, acknowledging women’s needs benefits everyone in the hotel.

Business sense

“The Cornell School of Hospitality ran a piece of research into the impact of creating value for the female traveller on a hotel’s bottom line,” says Pearson. “The results were compelling – this isn’t about fluffy marketing or ‘shrinking it and pinking it’, it makes absolute business sense. The worst thing you can do is patronise anybody or discriminate against other traveller groups, so whilst the risk of sexual assault is higher for women travellers, the safety features we promote help everybody.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2017 edition of Hotel Management International

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