They're too small to notice, multiply rapidly in warm environments, can survive for up to a year with no food and are every hotelier's worst nightmare. So how can you deal with an outbreak of bedbugs in your hotel? Rosie Birkett reports.
They might have farcical Fawlty Towers associations, but bedbugs are no laughing matter. The wingless, six-legged pests thrive in places of high occupancy, making hotels ideal breeding grounds for the bugs, which are, unsurprisingly - given the itchy bites they leave after feasting on your blood - one of the biggest turn-offs for guests.
You only have to log on to any hotel review website to see the many bedbug-related comments decrying the reputations of infested hotels.
One reads: "In the evening, I started feeling feverish and very, very itchy with bumps forming on my arms and face. When I returned to the hotel I decided to take a closer look at my bedding, pulled back the sheets and discovered several dead and live bedbugs, along with small, brown and red spots on the sheets and pillowcase.
"When I approached the front desk they informed me that they do, in fact, have problems with bedbugs. I immediately informed them that I would be checking out"
Thanks to the power of the internet, it is no longer just guests' social circles who hear about such incidents, but anyone with access to the web.
As Rentokil UK's technical director Savvas Othon explains: "Internet review sites offer customers the perfect portal to warn thousands of fellow travelers against staying in a particular hotel, leading to loss of business and damage to reputation."
In some cases, hotel infestations can even lead to litigation - as the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park, London, found out in 2007 when it was taken to court by an American couple seeking millions of pounds in compensation for bedbug bites.
ON THE INCREASE
And, according to the experts, the little critters are on the increase. "There are several possible reasons behind the increasing appearance of bedbugs," says Othon.
"First, many chemicals are being withdrawn as the costs of keeping them registered continue to rise, leaving a smaller number of very similar insecticides. Second, there are now signs that bedbugs are becoming resistant to these remaining preparations, and there is little sign of any more effective replacements."
An increase in international travel has also affected the number of infestations occurring, with guests importing the small bugs on their clothes and in their luggage - unlike other pest issues, the appearance of bedbugs is not linked to poor hygiene standards. So how can you stop bedbugs coming into your hotel? The short answer is you can't.
"There's no way of stopping these creatures coming into your hotel - just because of the nature of the business you've got people coming into your hotel from all over the world, and all different walks of life, and that's how bedbugs are getting around - so to stop them coming in is nigh-on impossible," says Othon.
"But there's certainly things that a hotel can do to limit the possibility of getting a deep-seated infestation, and there are things you can do to make an early detection. If you get it early on, it has much less of an impact on your business."
CATCHING IT EARLY
Because of their small size, and the fact they hide away in crevices in mattresses, furniture and flooring, bedbugs can, to the untrained eye, be very difficult to identify - with hotel cleaning staff often mistaking the creatures for fluff or dirt.
The most obvious sign of an infestation is the bugs' excrement - the blood smears that they leave behind on bedclothes after feeding - and complaints from customers. But, as Othon points out, these signs are only visible at around week 10 of the bedbug's life, when the infestation is already fairly advanced.
"Every day we get called to properties that have let it spiral out of control - places that just go on as normal, or dismiss the first reports of bedbugs and leave it until people are getting 30, 40, 50 bites a night. When you're looking around at this stage you don't have to look hard, and you're looking at shutting down maybe half the hotel.
"If you get it early, within the first couple of weeks, then it's only that room that's likely to be affected."
To catch a potential outbreak early, and avoid a situation which could end up having an impact on your business and reputation, Othon advises hotels to carry out regular proactive inspections to search for any early-warning signals.
Training staff in the tell-tale signs and educating them about the pests is a good place to start, informing them of the importance of not mixing used bedding with new on the laundry cart; minimising the movement of furniture between rooms; and isolating any room the moment they suspect an infestation.
"The signs will be wherever the bedbugs are living, which is most likely to be within a three-metre radius of the bed," says Othon.
"Some hotel rooms are quite small - so they could be anywhere in that room. They could be behind wallpaper, in plug sockets, behind the heads of the bed - they'll live in there and come out for their feeds. If you're a trained pest-control professional, then you'll be able to detect an infestation within two weeks; if you're a trained person - non professional - then you can spot the signs around week seven.
"But if you're not trained, you won't spot any signs of infestation for about 10 weeks, by which time they'll have a really good hold on your building."
When Rentokil or other operators - such as Ecolab Pest Control - are called to a bedbug case, they will not only remove the infestation, but also train staff in dealing with and spotting potential infestations.
But how should a hotel which has fallen victim to bedbugs act when the infestation is revealed to the guests or the wider media? Hotel consultant Bridget Baker advises hoteliers to be transparent, informed and reassuring.
"If you get bad press because of it, you need to be as honest as possible. Just look at how Heston [Blumenthal] handled the norovirus outbreak at the Fat Duck: it's widely acknowledged that he dealt with that well.
"Be prepared, and if you're unfortunate enough to get it, mitigate the damage and make sure that staff are kept up to date on this and other epidemics or outbreaks that affect our industry. They need to know that they can deal with it properly if it happens and be able to give guests confidence that it is being handled and it won't affect them.
"That's the key thing - being informed and keeping abreast of problems - be it swine flu, bedbugs or food poisoning."
TOP TIPS FOR AVOIDING A BEDBUG INFESTATION
- Have proactive inspections. Get a plan of the hotel and thoroughly inspect the rooms every 5-6 weeks, either by professionals or staff - better somebody than nobody.
- Tell your cleaning staff and porters to look out for live insects and nymphal (shed) skins, which are frequently mistaken by staff for bits of fluff.
- Biggest sign is the blood clotting, the bedbugs' faeces, which look like brown or black biro dots.
- Signs will be wherever the bedbugs are living, which is most likely to be within a three-metre radius of the bed. Look behind wallpaper, in plug sockets, behind the heads of the bed, on sheets - they'll live in there and come out to feed.
- Look at how the rooms are joined together - if you've got telephone cables that go from one room to another, or electrical cables surface-mounted, try to seal around the surface trunking or where the wire passes through.
- Conjoined rooms are more at risk. If you've got conjoined rooms, then try not to put the bed near the conjoining door if possible.
- When you first discover bedbugs in a room don't allow staff access or move any equipment out of that room - you should seal it until pest control comes in. Moving furniture or clothes out of the room could contaminate other areas.
- Taking bugs away. If a customer complains, then the hotel should tell the guest to check on clothing and luggage so that they're not taking it away with them. Any suspect items can be washed at 60°C.
- A downloadable PDF with bedbug tips especially for hotels is available from Rentokil.
Tips provided by Savvas Othon from Rentokil
Ecolab runs a bedbug-awareness course aimed at the hospitality industry, covering the biology, detection and treatment of bedbugs. Call 029 2085 4283 or visit www.ecolab.co.uk/pest-elimination/services/training-courses