There's an itch hoteliers dare not scratch - bedbugs. But with less than 100 days before the start of London 2012 and the expected tourism surge it will bring, some predict the parasites could form an unwelcome part of the Olympic legacy. Siobhan O'Neill explains
Lurking deep within the hotel industry there's a bug that dare not speak its name. We all know it exists. Some may have experienced it first-hand. It's far more widespread than is generally recognised, but very few will talk about it or even acknowledge it.
It's the fearsome bedbug. And with London 2012 less than 100 days away, it could be that many hotels will soon be scratching their heads - or other body parts - as they struggle to deal with an invasion, not just of international guests, but the unwanted visitors they sometimes bring with them.
There is undeniably a global epidemic of bedbugs. It has been widely reported that one of the key triggers for this current upsurge in infestations was the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. However, concrete evidence of a link between the two is harder to come by. Clive Boase, principal consultant at the Pest Management Consultancy, thinks it might have been just bad timing following a wider bedbug resistance to some chemical treatments. "Numbers increased, not just in Australia but in the USA, Europe and other countries," he says. "Someone was going to have an Olympics around the same time, it just happened to be Sydney."
Nevertheless, Australia did see a sudden and dramatic increase in its bedbug populations at around that time. One scientific report noted that "the Department of Medical Entomology pathology service at Westmead Hospital [in Sydney] had received an increase in the number of bedbug samples of almost 250%. This was from the beginning of January 2001 to January 2004, compared with the previous four years." In a relatively short time almost every hotel and lodging in Sydney had affected rooms, and the infestation soon spread to other parts of the world.
Bedbugs, like head lice, are opportunistic parasites. They hide out in soft furnishings and skirting boards, emerging at night to feed on unwitting bed occupants. Sometimes they secrete themselves in clothes or take up residence in a dark suitcase, and then they happily travel onwards to emerge in the next place that suitcase lands. They're really not fussed if the place they arrive in is spotlessly clean.
They travel light and can be an expensive problem for hoteliers. Particularly if, by failing to deal with them promptly, guests end up bitten and complaining - a situation the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London encountered when in 2007 a US lawyer filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against it following a stay when he and his wife were badly bitten.
Some experts are convinced that the coming Olympics could also spell trouble for UK hotels. David Cain, managing director of specialist pest control company Bed Bugs, says: "It's going to be huge. Within any Olympic hosting city you have a year's worth of tourism in an eight-week period. You are going to receive a year's worth of bedbugs in that time frame. We've got a big influx of people coming into London. We're going to get hit. There's nothing we can do about it."
Boase, who was instrumental in setting up the London Bedbug Control Strategy with the British Pest Control Association (BPCA) in 2009 to combat a big increase in bedbugs prior to the Olympics, is less convinced.
However, both men agree the pests can prove costly for hotels - taking multiple rooms out of commission, sometimes for weeks at a time - and pretending the problem doesn't exist or will go away on its own is the least effective strategy. Better to be proactive in your awareness and monitoring to spot any potential issues before they lead to complaints and reputations ruined overnight following poor online reviews.
A first step in early detection is raising awareness among staff. The British Hospitality Association is working with the BPCA to release leaflets to its members. Spokesman Miles Quest says: "Bedbugs shouldn't be a problem, but housekeeping staff need to understand how easily they can be imported into bedrooms and how rooms and beds must be carefully and thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis. If there is a problem, the hotel's pest control company should be brought in immediately. Bedbugs won't go away of their own volition."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Caterer and Hotelkeeper was unable to find any hoteliers who would go on the record to discuss the issue or their detection strategies, even though all hotels, no matter the calibre, will experience them at some point. "The only hotel that won't get bedbugs is the one that's not yet open to the public," says Cain.
Bedbug experts say the stigma attached to the parasites is so great it can cause hoteliers to bury their heads in the sand, rather than face up to the issue. Cain equates having early-detection systems in the rooms with having a fire alarm fitted. "No one says, ‘We've never had a fire here so we won't bother with a fire alarm,'" he points out.
Trust K9 managing director Mark Astley has worked with the UK Housekeepers Association on raising awareness and agrees it's a growing problem. "Hotels should realise that if it's not dealt with or detected quickly, they will very soon have a much bigger issue and it will impact the business," he says.
Treatments today are flexible and effective and can be extremely fast, minimising the cost to a hotel that's operating at peak occupancy. Chemical treatments do work but can miss eggs, and for that reason multiple treatments may be required. Heat or superheated steam treatments will destroy all stages of the life cycle and can treat and release a room within one day.
Bedbugs are a reality of hotel life, and there is a chance that populations could boom following the Olympics, so now is the time to grasp the issue and get prepared with heightened awareness, good monitoring and high-quality elimination strategies. Ignoring the problem could raise the potential for a repeat of the Sydney 2000 situation with a reported 98% of hotels being affected.
"Being proactive offers a chance for the hospitality industry to control their own destiny with bedbugs, rather than face additional costs and legislation down the line," says Cain.
10 ways to control bedbugS
1 Ensure you have a bedbug strategy in place with protocols for monitoring, detection, treatment and dealing with customer complaints.
2 Educate housekeeping staff on the different stages of the bedbug life cycle, what to look for and where to look. Instances should be reported immediately.
3 You can install subtle monitoring devices that aid detection.
4 If bedbugs are spotted in one room, you should check all rooms for further signs as soon as possible.
5 Bedbugs are said to be the traveller's biggest fear, so you can include a statement within the hotel's environmental policy which shows you take the issue seriously.
6 If a customer complains, don't panic. Not everything that bites is a bedbug.
7 Give the customer a copy of your policy, which shows you're taking the issue seriously. Offer them further information about what they should do. Try not to move them, as this adds the potential for infecting further rooms.
8 If bedbugs are confirmed, treat the room immediately. Heat-based treatments can take less than a day.
9 Check back regularly to ensure the bedbugs have been eradicated.
10 Don't ignore the problem. Bedbugs will not disappear on their own but can quickly spread and become more costly