The meteoric resurgence of bed bugs has been well-documented in this country and throughout the world. While many reports document their public health effects, far less is known about the impact of bed bugs on commerce, specifically in the especially susceptible travel and hospitality industry. Earlier this year, we conducted a nationwide survey of business and leisure travelers and their attitudes toward bed bugs. In particular, we wanted to understand consumer preferences when choosing a hotel, and how the risk of bed bugs influences their decision. The findings, reported here, have important implications for the public, hoteliers and pest managers who service these accounts.
An online survey of the traveling public was administered, covering topics ranging from bed bug awareness to how travelers would respond to finding one in their hotel room. Participants initially were told only that they would be asked about attitudes involving hotels. No explicit mention of bed bugs was made until midway through the survey to attract a broad pool of participants and reduce bias. The survey was conducted in May 2015 via online market research firm Qualtrics. Respondents included 2,088 people representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia — 1,298 who travel mainly for leisure and 790 business travelers, meaning those who stayed in hotels for work-related reasons at least seven nights in the past year. The survey’s design and execution implemented measures to reduce bias and ensure high levels of attentiveness among respondents. Using these criteria, 2,088 surveys were completed, largely following characteristics of the total U.S. population and hotel users.
Familiarity with Bed Bugs.
One series of questions evaluated traveler familiarity with bed bugs. Respondents viewed a lineup of enlarged, black silhouettes of (in order) an ant, termite, louse, bed bug and tick. They were asked to identify which of the five was the bed bug, but could also reply with “I don’t know.” About 28 percent of leisure travelers and 35 percent of business travelers identified the pest correctly (Figure 1).
While perhaps not surprising, it’s concerning that the majority of the traveling public could not distinguish a bed bug from other household insects. The prospect of misreporting is a concern not just for hotels, but in hospitals, schools, libraries, movie theaters and other public spaces. The consequence of a false report can be explicitly costly to the proprietor who often has to respond to the alleged report with a professional pest control response or in-kind benefit to the complainant. Moreover, the reputation of the brand or organization is at the mercy of the guest’s decision to post an online review even if it is later confirmed that what they found was not a bed bug.
Travelers were further asked about their knowledge and experience with bed bugs. Fifty-six percent of leisure travelers and 44 percent of business travelers stated: “I’ve seen bed bugs in the news, but don’t know anyone who has had them” (Figure 2). More than a third of respondents traveling for business mentioned that they or someone they knew had a moderately or extremely bad experience with bed bugs. Roughly one in five respondents confessed they “haven’t really seen or heard much” about bed bugs, suggesting a continued need for public education.
When respondents (both business and leisure travelers included) were asked if they thought about the possibility of getting bed bugs while staying at hotels, 43 percent said “yes” — 29 percent mentioning they briefly worry about them and 14 percent saying they often worry about getting them (Figure 3). Slightly more than a third of the respondents (35 percent) said they think about getting bed bugs when traveling but are not worried, while 21 percent never consider the possibility of getting bed bugs when staying in hotels. Similar levels of concern were expressed by those traveling for business and leisure.
Reaction to Finding Bed Bugs.
Other questions investigated traveler reactions to finding bed bugs in a hotel room. In one scenario, respondents considered how they would react to facing various problematic issues upon checking into their room. For each hypothetical issue, they were asked to choose their most likely response from the following four options: do nothing; report it to the front desk; request a new room; or switch hotels entirely with a full refund.
Finding signs of bed bugs clearly elicited the most extreme reaction, with 60 percent of business and leisure respondents saying they would switch hotels entirely and request a refund (Figure 4). Apart from finding bed bugs, traveler responses to other room deficiencies were relatively restrained. They overwhelmingly responded, for example, that they would not choose the option to switch hotels for arriving in a room with signs of smoking, or that had spots on the mattress or linens.
Surprisingly, business respondents showed slightly more leniency to the idea of bed bugs in hotels; only 55 percent indicated they would switch hotels entirely rather than simply switch rooms compared to 63 percent of leisure travelers. Business travelers’ greater familiarity and cognizance of bed bugs while traveling may help to explain this greater degree of tolerance. Leisure and business travelers’ reactions to other hotel room issues tended to be more similar.
In a related question, travelers considered a scenario in which, during their stay, they find a live bed bug in their room. They responded by ranking their three most likely and three least likely responses from a list of options ranging from switching rooms with compensation to taking legal action against the hotel.
Figure 5 shows the percentage of all travelers who listed a particular response in either their three most or least likely actions. Respondents most often chose to “switch rooms with compensation,” closely followed by leaving that particular hotel. Posting the incident on social media more frequently appeared as a likely strategy (47 percent) versus an unlikely strategy (32 percent). While travelers who found bed bugs appear willing to leave that particular hotel, they are relatively unlikely to leave that entire brand of hotel and avoid booking that brand in the future. The implication is that guests will hold a single case of bed bugs against the particular hotel and not the brand itself. While not verifiable, this likely becomes less true as the number of incidents across different hotels of the same brand grows; travelers’ suspicions may shift towards the brand itself with repeated bed bug incidences.
“Staying (in the same room) but check carefully” and taking “legal action” against the hotel were most often placed in the three least likely responses. Hoteliers may gain some comfort from the fact that a majority of travelers are unlikely to go to court over bed bugs.
An interesting question that remains is whether the people who are willing to switch rooms with compensation are also likely to report the incident on social media. Further analysis in the future will indicate whether efforts by hotels to console guests who are prone to using social media are relatively effective or futile.
Impact of Online Reviews.
The majority of today’s travelers book accommodations online. Additionally some studies have found that more than three fourths of them typically read at least 6-12 reviews before choosing a hotel. Given the importance of readily accessible consumer feedback, we wanted to examine how online reports of bed bugs influenced consumer choice of hotels. We investigated by using a similar scenario and ranked response-type question as previously mentioned. Travelers reacted to: “You’re about to make a reservation for a certain hotel, but you read an online review posted in the last month that says they found bed bugs in their hotel room.” Given this scenario, 60 percent of leisure and 51 percent of business travelers said they would be very unlikely to choose that particular hotel. Only 5 and 12 percent, respectively, indicated they still would be likely to make the reservation despite the online report of bed bugs.
Of those business and leisure travelers surveyed, 50 percent and 27 percent, respectively, said they had posted reviews on an online booking site such as TripAdvisor, Priceline or Travelocity. In a related question, 12.5 percent of business and 2.1 percent of leisure travelers specifically reported finding bed bugs in a publicly posted hotel review or on social media. The higher probability of a business traveler reporting they found bed bugs combined with their increased willingness to post a review underscores the need for hotels to be especially vigilant with these clients.
Avoidance and Prevention.
Opinions were mixed when travelers were asked, “What do you think is the best way to avoid bed bugs?” (Figure 6). The most common response (27 percent of all travelers), was to “check previous guests’ online reviews” — reinforcing the influence of customer reviews. Perhaps naively, 23 percent indicated they do not try to avoid bed bugs because they “expect all hotels to be bed bug free.” Another 21 percent of respondents believed the best means of avoidance was to “stay in hotels with bed bug protective services” (see subsequent section on Proactive Protection). Only 15 percent of travelers chose “inspect the room closely” (upon check in), while 13 percent felt the best way to avoid bed bugs was to “stay in a nicer/more expensive hotel.” Business travelers predictably chose this latter, premium hotel option more than leisure travelers (17 percent versus 11 percent) since they also tend to stay in higher-priced hotels.
Another way of measuring bed bug “vigilance” is to understand what factors travelers think about when checking their room before settling in. About a tenth of respondents (11 percent) said they didn’t check anything when they arrived at their hotel room. The remaining respondents said they checked their room for one or multiple issues. Four-fifths of those surveyed checked the bathroom’s cleanliness and a slightly smaller amount were cognizant of the room’s odor. Conversely, only about a third (34 percent) of travelers thought to look for signs of bed bugs (Figure 7). Checking one’s room in boarding houses and hotels used to be a common practice; travelers today would do well to learn this lesson.
We also surveyed people’s reaction to measures a hotel might take to prevent bed bugs. Travelers were asked how they would react to seeing the following sign posted at the front desk of a hotel they would typically frequent:
“We strive to provide a good night’s rest to our guests with a hygienic sleep environment. We take proactive steps to assure your wellness with weekly room inspections, use of bed bug proof mattress encasements, canine inspections twice per year, and professional pest control inspections twice per year.”
From a list of available choices offered in the survey, the largest number of respondents (46 percent) said: “I would probably stay at the hotel. Bed bugs are a risk everywhere and I feel better knowing they’re taking proactive steps against them” (Figure 8). The second largest group of respondents (24 percent) selected: “I’d prefer they were doing these things and did not tell me about it.”
The cumulative response of both groups shows that 70 percent want to stay in hotels with bed bug protective services — the key difference is whether the traveler appreciates the information. Twenty percent of respondents said they wouldn’t think much about the posting and may have a slightly positive (14 percent) or slightly negative (6 percent) opinion. Less than 10 percent of those traveling for leisure or business said they’d leave the hotel, interpreting the notice as evidence they have had bed bugs.
In another set of questions, travelers gave their thoughts on the value of the protective services mentioned in the proactive protection sign. While all of the services proved to be important to the respondents, their perceived value was quite different. “Bed bug-proof mattress encasements” were seen as the most useful of the four protective services mentioned. Twice-yearly inspections by a professional pest control company or bed bug detection dog (canine) were ranked next, with professionals viewed more highly than dogs. The least valued protection perceived by travelers was the use of weekly room inspections by housekeeping staff — an interesting finding especially to those advocating using a professional. This order of importance for the protective services held for both leisure and business travelers.
Duty to Warn.
Travelers also were interviewed on whether they thought hotels had a duty to warn guests of previous bed bug problems. When asked, “Do you think hotels should be required to tell guests if their assigned hotel room has ever had a prior problem with bed bugs?” four out of every five respondents agreed (Figure 9a). An additional question was asked of those who said “yes” to mandatory disclosure of previous bed bug issues. For this group we asked: “How far back in time would you want to know of such an occurrence?” Responses of only travelers who wanted disclosure are shown in Figure 9b. Strikingly, two-thirds of all leisure travelers wanted to know if there had been bed bugs in the room at some point in the past year, and the remaining third wanted to know of any occurrence ever. Business travelers are somewhat more lenient about how far back in time disclosure of a previous bed bug problem is warranted, although just less than half still wanted to know of occurrences extending back at least three months.
Disclosing prior bed bug issues in apartments and condominiums has become a key right-to-know issue in some cities. If legislation was passed requiring similar disclosure in hotels, the consequences could be far-reaching. Such a ruling could potentially take guest rooms out of service for prolonged periods long after the threat of bed bugs has been diminished. It also would mean that hotels would have the additional expense to maintain such records that largely leave a negative impression to guests, except in the unlikely case the records were empty.
This is the first nationwide study to investigate attitudes and opinions of travelers with respect to bed bugs. While the majority of individuals have limited understanding, the pests evoke strong negative responses by both business and leisure travelers. Compared to other problematic room issues such as signs of smoking or lack of cleanliness, evidence of bed bugs is more likely to cause guests to switch hotels and seek compensation. When booking a room online, the majority of business and leisure travelers indicated that a single report of bed bugs in the hotel would cause them to choose another accommodation. More than half of travelers surveyed want to know if their assigned room has had a bed bug issue even if it occurred a half-year ago or more. While informing guests about infestations long since resolved may seem unnecessary, there is currently no way to guarantee that a formerly infested room is now bed bug free.
When it comes to bed bugs, the hospitality industry is clearly caught between a “rock and a hard place.” With the continual turnover of guests, bed bug incidents are virtually inevitable, as they are in apartments, college dormitories, patient care facilities, etc. The immense popularity of online review sites and social media has made hotels particularly vulnerable to reports of infestation, irrespective of whether the guest’s review is accurate. Even with the business’s ability to swiftly respond to reviews on many online review sites, a misinformed review can wreak havoc by casting unnecessary fear among other would-be clients. Hotel employees also must be well trained to quickly address guest and customer fears if they bring what they think is a bed bug to the front desk or customer service representative. A majority of the traveling public — upwards of 70 percent — favor hotels with bed bug protective services at least to some degree. While some hotels are already engaged in early detection and prevention, others react only when problems arise. The current study reinforces the importance of continuous vigilance.
All photos copyrighted by the authors.
Jerrod Penn and Wuyang Hu are doctoral student and professor, respectively, in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Kentucky. Michael F. Potter is an entomology professor at the same institution. Partial funding for the study was provided by Protect-A-Bed, a global provider of protective bedding products.