"That's where we all ended up," admits John M. Jorgensen, vice president of development for Silver Spring, Maryland-based Choice Hotels International. "Everyone vacated the budget business and watched it disappear."
Choice Hotels International, one of the world's largest hotel franchisors, selling such brands as Comfort Inns and Quality Suites, wanted to return to the days of no-frills rooms at bargain prices.
The company, which has 2,600 hotels in the U.S. and in 19 countries, also needed to figure out a way to contend with an even bigger obstacle — the expected labor shortages and declining employee productivity in the service industry.
The solution, company executives decided, was to design a new hotel that was "labor lean," yet offered the customer a comfortable, attractive room at a competitive price. Thus was born Sleep Inn.
For its efforts, Sleep Inn has been recognized as one of Personnel Journal's 1991 Optimas Award winners. The award is given annually to companies that display excellence in human resources management in one of 10 categories, which range from managing change to global outlook. Sleep Inn was the winner in the Competitive Advantage category.
Jim Crawford has been in the lodging industry for 20 years. As president of the Hickory, North Carolina-based Hospitality Management Group, he recently built two Sleep Inns and is planning a third. "Sleep Inns," he maintains, "are less expensive to operate and require fewer employees."
Crawford says he can run a Sleep Inn with half as many employees as needed in a comparable budget hotel. His 100-room Sleep Inn uses 14 full-time workers. A similarly priced budget hotel would need 25 to 30 employees, he says.
So why so few workers? For one, the rooms are smaller and designed for cleaning efficiency, enabling the housekeepers to breeze through them in two-thirds the time it takes to clean the average room. "My housekeepers can each clean five more rooms a day at a Sleep Inn," Crawford points out.
Indeed, Sleep Inns were designed with human resources in mind. Not only can they be scrubbed in 20 minutes — about ten minutes less than average — but employees have to do less lifting, squatting and moving. This comes in handy for Crawford, who says housekeeping is becoming less attractive to younger workers (who don't want to work on the weekends) and is forcing him to evaluate senior citizens for employment.
Wes Balmer, a Phoenix-based architect who has worked for the management of Ramada Inns and Embassy Suites, drew the plans for the Sleep Inn rooms and lobby. Among the many questions he asked was, "Do people really take baths when they stay in hotels?" The answer is no. Only 5% of lodgers will soak in a tub. So the tub was replaced with a shower, cutting down on square footage. The rooms are 70% the size of the average budget hotel.
Balmer, however, had a hidden agenda. Cleansing the pesky corners and slots of a tub is labor-intensive. Now maids can step inside a rounded shower stall and wipe it down effortlessly. Likewise, the wash basin is molded into the vanity, so there are no seams where dirt and grime can be concealed.
That isn't all. The architects studied where maids spend most of their time in a room. It turned out they stayed around the bed for too long, trying to get the bedspread to fit just right. Now bedspreads at Sleep Inns have corners sewed into them so the maids can position them more evenly.
Not having to move furniture back and forth, maids can vacuum a Sleep Inn room with ease. The closet unit, desk, nightstand and headboard are built into the wall and don't touch the floor. The bed itself is on a platform that doesn't have to be lifted.
Perhaps the most-ingenious labor-saving design at Sleep Inns is the laundry room, which is located near the front desk. This permits the night clerk to help fold towels and launder sheets when he or she isn't busy with guests, eliminating the need to hire another employee to oversee this function.
"Because of these labor-saving devices, we have made a more successful lodging operation," says Jorgenson. "Our profit margins are 10 points better than the average budget hotel, and labor is the biggest cost in a hotel operation."
Jeff Whittington, who owns a Sleep Inn in Salisbury, North Carolina, agrees. "I like the layout of the rooms and the labor- saving tricks. It's a good, modern design that works," says Whittington, who hired just 14 full-timers for his 92-room lodge. When Crawford opened his Sleep Inn, his occupancy rate jumped two points above the national average, and his share of the Hickory, North Carolina hotel market climbed a full percent.
Choice Hotels International's own study — conducted by an outside research firm — shows that 97% of Sleep Inn guests rated their stay either "excellent" or "good," while 99% indicated the rooms had high value for the price paid.
Perhaps most unique to the budget sector is Sleep Inn's computerized security system, which enables the owner to track the housekeeper's time to the minute. To enter a room, the employee inserts a card that tells the computer where he or she is at and how long it takes to clean that room. If a maid enters a room and doesn't emerge for 45 minutes, there's a problem.
The same system eliminates the need to handle keys at the front desk. Guests use their own credit cards to unlock their doors. The system has other advantages: it prevents a guest from entering the room after check-out time and it automatically turns on the heating or air conditioning units when a guest enters, and turns it off when he or she exits. In other words, one person can manage energy usage from a single location.
"We love the security system," says Norm Andersen of Roanoke, Virginia, a 19-year veteran of the lodging business, who owns seven hotels, including a Sleep Inn. "The customers say it makes them feel safe."
Andersen predicts the card system soon will lead to a remote kiosk located in the lobby of the Sleep Inn. This station will allow guests to use their credit cards to check in, program their door locks, select which rooms they prefer and eventually check out.
The concept "looks very inviting," says Andersen, because it will allow similar owners to service more guests with fewer employees.
Personnel Journal, August 1991, Vol. 70, No. 8, pp. 71 - 73.