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What do hotel guests steal?

Hotel theft is an epidemic. Maybe you pocket a pencil, even slip away the soap. But would you kidnap a lobster? A survey of light-fingered travellers.

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by Philippa Young

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What do guests steal from hotel rooms?

Illustration: Patricia Leidl

WHAT DO lobsters, hotel televisions, hairdryers, miniature Scotch bottles, and David Copperfield have in common? Well, they all tend to disappear, with the audience and the hotel management watching, astounded. Strange bedfellows you'd think but all these, barring Mr Copperfield, are precisely the sort of party props most likely to be found in departing hotel guest suitcases as they are hauled out surreptitiously at 5am. This is why hairdryers at a "certain class of hotels" are routinely affixed to the floor, wonderful for blow-drying your toes, but a challenge for six-foot Swedes. Better hotels too, often resort to this practice to ensure their inventory stays with them and does not wind up unloved in some abandoned sub-prime mortgage home. Yet, a brave few hoteliers, still do the unthinkable, serving up hairdryers, cosseted in velvet pouches with silken drawstrings. Surely embattled hotels have learned their lesson and hired black-suited mobsters to guard their dwindling assets? No. The Dickensian carnage continues as travellers pick far more than just a pocket or two.

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A hotel room is the ultimate transformer. It turns the mind to mush and makes strange creatures of its inhabitants, no matter the lineage or weighty honorific. This is a twilight zone where guests exist in white-linen limbo, separated from reality by whooshing lifts and hushed lobbies. Call it unreality, a separate reality, or fantasy. Unsurprisingly, bizarre hotel tales are as standard as over-priced minibars. Morals, routines, and boarding school discipline are suspended, shredded like Peking duck, when the most respectable of guests unscrews the light fittings and packs them in his suitcase. The lampshade may be the epitome of crass, but you will want it.

In cookie-cutter hotel rooms, the rules are out. What you do, revelling in your supreme anonymity, doesn’t count – just as the dieter’s cream cake doesn’t count if free, and a drunken Japanese bar brawl doesn’t count on Monday morning.

Online forums vigorously debate the moral (and hygiene) values of towel thievery. Some ballyhoo their success at pilfering hotel towels and bathrobes, while others raise eyebrows in disgust at how many bodies that much-used cotton has clung to. Do those paper slippers or bar of soap add real value to your hotel experience or are generations of kleptomaniacs trading principle for miniature shampoo? The jury, it seems, is still out.

At the swish Bulgari Resort Bali where the price tag is a stratospheric US$1,200 a night, guests draped in the latest from Paris still cast a discerning eye for choice finds to add to their branded "collection". Says former general manager Robert Lagerwey with a twinkle in his eye, "The funniest thing is guests who arrive with two suitcases, one of them empty. They always manage to leave with both full to the brim." He adds, "The TV is too big to fit into any suitcase but the goodies from branded beach hat to board games are meant to go back with the guest. We designed them to be stolen." That's quite an investment, but it can pay off splendidly. So there you have it. If you're paying top dollar, you can raid your room. If you pay through your nose, the hotel will practically throw stuff at you. For the grand opening at the Bulgari, the resort gave away BVLGARI watches. Now that's a steal.

{Many a bellboy's hernia will have popped transporting weighty suitcases bursting with a lot more than just journalistic license...

At the Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong, a celebrity-packed venue that has won countless awards for excellence, some imaginative guests have reportedly organised a mini gem heist, plucking in-room crystal chandeliers clean or, at any rate, spiriting off a goodly number of glittering pendants. Said a hotel spokesperson, "The cut-glass pendants may have been passed off as diamonds to decorate clothes or for use as costume jewellery." Brides to be, listen up. And there's oodles of legitimate shopping right next door at the Pacific Place Mall.

Statistics claim that on average a third more British women steal than men – towels and light bulbs are the most commonly appropriated – and North Americans have huge stockpiles of Gideon Bibles in their garages. The shampoo may be useful, but twenty Gideon Bibles? Free insulation and instant damnation.

Toiletries and stationery are small beer long since omitted from ranking statistics. And if you’re not a Winona Ryder wannabe then pens, shampoo, and perhaps the odd towel will be the only things seeing the inside of your eager suitcase.

More commonly spirited out of the hotels and resorts we surveyed are: towels, bathrobes, leather items (blotter, telephone pad), alarm clock, hair dryer, bath pillows, show pillows, cushions, drinking glasses and feather duvets. Perusing this litany of light-fingered lust, I feel positively virtuous, but still find something irresistible about ‘stealing’ the complimentary tea bags and coffee sachets. It is doubtful that I will be stopped at reception or discreetly charged for three packs of breakfast tea and a tiny pot of UHT milk but it’s refreshingly wicked. You may not even like Oolong tea but it makes a wonderful companion for your silk underwear and, perhaps, that hotel hair dryer and weighing scale. Blow-dried tea? The best.

If you listen to any hotel public relations manager, journalists are the worst perpetrators. They pocket everything that is not bolted to the floor. They may have wangled a free night’s stay to write that eat-your-heart-out story for a glossy, yet they walk out laden with not just research, but the entire portable contents of their room. Many a bellboy’s hernia will have popped transporting groaning suitcases bursting with journalistic license. But we are not alone – that is unless 560,000 journalists staying at Holiday Inn in 2008 stole as many towels. This mammoth discovery prompted a Towel Amnesty Day. Holiday Inn offered to pay US$1 to the charity “Give Kids the World” for every towel-thieving story posted online. Big men have a bigger vision. Asian politicians often travel with a retinue of hangers-on who swarm locust-like through the hotels, grabbing choice items at will.

Hotel guests steal everything from TVs to towels, bathrobes and slippers

Illustration: Patricia Leidl

In the dawn of pre-history, at the old Parkroyal Kuala Lumpur near Bintang Walk, there was one spectacular heist according to former staffers. A guest called the business centre asking for a sturdy cardboard box for a DHL consignment. In this he allegedly packed the small box television and garnished this with the entire contents of the mini-bar and whatever else caught his fancy. He then called the bellboy to take this down and arrange for a courier pick-up. Moments later as the DHL man arrived, the guest retrieved his box and asked the courier to wait. He had forgotten to pack some items. From there it was out through a side door into a taxi and away. Those were the days of small cash deposits when a man was taken at his word. "And you're Abraham Lincoln?" "Yes". Back then, a US$100 down payment at the front desk was enough to furnish a small home if a guest had the moxie and the means.

Luxury hotels blush at the mention of thievery. “Our guests would never do something like that,” they tut-tut. But they do. Bernie Madoff made-off with millions. Pilfering is in our DNA and has nothing to do with income or breeding. Every household has a hotel theft story unashamedly on view, like the shag carpet draped over your mother-in-law’s upper lip. One hotelier from a fashionable chain fumes, "iPods and vases constantly disappear. Guests take them ALL the time."

I will fess up, I have a growing shampoo collection. Miniature bottles are gathering dust in my bathroom cupboard. This is small beer surely. And not really “stealing”. One might perhaps call it “value-added”. Hotels don’t agree and are quick to charge for any inadvertent “borrowing”. As one frequent hotel-goer revealed to me, “I’m afraid the most extravagant thing I’ve ever stolen was a laundry bag – which they caught me doing and charged me. So I guess I didn’t steal it. I just bought it. Never used it since.” Many get away scot-free. One perfectly respectable couple didn't buy soap, shampoo or toilet rolls for seven years as they travelled to Amsterdam on business each week.

My mother, who is quite happy to be named, worked as a trolly dolly, ahem, stewardess, for long-forgotten budget airline Dan Air. “My suitcase was full of all those things,” she says, “vastly embarrassing, when it came to being rummaged at Customs.” Loo rolls would bounce out and the stolen towels stamped “Hilton” would be held up for all to see. Kleptomania is hereditary – at least in my family. My great grandmother, despite being wealthy enough to travel extensively throughout the world, had a superb collection of salt-and-pepper shakers from just about every hotel on the planet.

Guests, in short, are known to take anything that isn’t nailed down, and a few things that are. One particularly exclusive Hong Kong hotel found out the hard way. A casually brazen call from the executive suite requested help in chiselling a stubborn statue off its rightful spot.

Sometimes it’s not the stealing that shocks hotel managers. One Malaysian luxury beach resort reports a truly bizarre occurrence. A guest called reception to complain about a broken microwave oven and the diligent manager, aware that no rooms contained such an appliance, went up to enquire. He discovered a confused and hungry guest trying to cook instant noodles in the in-room safe. Another guest made a frantic phone call claiming a crocodile was in his room. When staff rushed to his rescue they found a small, equally petrified, lizard.

One popular Shanghai boutique hotel admits to overlooking generous amounts of pilfered paraphernalia, such as slippers, laundry bags and umbrellas. However, one enterprising guest managed to get away with the duvet, pillows and sheets, they still don't know how. They also assured us that, like Bibles, another popular item is the free Yellow Pages. And on the subject of pages, let’s hope the gentleman who commits the classic faux pas of locking himself out, in the nude, while fetching the morning newspaper, knows how to put that paper to good use.

{New hotel designs featuring Zen minimalism make it tougher for the would-be borrower... Still, if you've got it, bolt it down or lock it

In Asia, hotels have reported that duvets have been spirited out by enterprising guests using a simple technique. The guests arrive with their old duvets packed in their bag and simply exchange these with the inner stuffing of the hotel quilt. They leave behind the old inner and walk out with the new. Forget about hotel guests stealing TVs, no matter how bulky, one Penang city hotel discovered a guest had stolen the ceiling fan. That takes some doing. Paintings and tacky art are popular. Call it the nouveau riche traveller phenomenon. It’s time to bolt the hotels to the floor. Else, bit by bit it’s gone.

There appear to be several identifiable categories of bargain-seeking guest. The HARMLESS, “sometimes I write something naughty on the second page of the memo and leave it there”; the ENTERPRISING, such as guests in a Macau casino-hotel, who stockpile bottles of complimentary mineral water and sell them over the border in China; the fairly ECCENTRIC, like those select few who choose to cut the carpet out from underneath the bed; and the downright BIZARRE, like the lobster-thief who pinched (no pun intended) a lobster from the Chinese restaurant’s live seafood tank. Our lobster thief then treated the sea creature to a gambol in the swimming pool before taking it back to his room. The lobster was never seen again. Now why would someone steal a lobster? Because they’re lonely? Because they need to explore the difference between selfish and shellfish?

Flower decorations, pictures and show pillows are among the more sedate items to frequently go disappear. New hotel design trends favouring Zen minimalism make it tougher for the would-be borrower. Yet The Opposite House, a Beijing boutique hotel that is quintessentially Zen, with wide open spaces and cool timbered floors, is still able to quote an ever-lengthening list of pilfered items – from soap dispensers to hand towels.

At the old Crowne Plaza Bangkok (now the Holiday Inn Silom) guests were said to routinely unscrew showerheads while air crew cut out and made off with sections of carpet from under their beds. Didn't their wives remark at the growing pile of rugs from Madrid to Mumbai, all remarkable for their utter lack of taste?

English broadsheet, The Independent, reported last year on another extraordinary case of hotel thievery at its most enterprising. The now infamous Arnold Chrysler, tailor-made wardrobes that could accommodate hotel-style hangers. Why? He (somewhat) explains in this court transcript excerpt.

Counsel: Now, Mr Chrysler … you are accused of purloining in excess of 40,000 hotel coat hangers.
Chrysler: I am.
Counsel: Can you explain how this came about?
Chrysler: Yes. I had 40,000 coats which I needed to hang up.
Counsel: Is that true?
Chrysler: No.

Hotel guests steal paintings, one even borrowed a lobster

Illustration: Patricia Leidl

The smart-talking defendant was charged with stealing forty thousand hotel hangers from English hotels in order to furnish his specialist wardrobes, thus facilitating the circle of theft, as such hangers could only be found in hotel rooms. He argued that many businessmen prefer the hotel lifestyle and aim to replicate it in their own homes with bedroom mini-bars, wall-mounted televisions with adult-only channels, and the luxurious, wooden, hook-less hangers. Like the lobster, the whereabouts of Arnold Chrysler also remains unknown. The hilarious unexpurgated transcript of the Chrysler case can be read in The Independent.

Hotels are not about to take this lying down. Missing items are discretely billed to your credit card. Room compendiums have become a fashionable addition, listing every conceivable removable item, and even a few that aren’t. One decadent, neoclassic inspired Macau hotel awash with boutique delights vulnerable to sticky fingers discovered its art deco alarm clocks were irresistible. The clock has now been added to the room compendium for your clear-conscience purchase.

At The Four Seasons, one of the more popular purchase items from the hotel store is the bed – let’s hope nobody tried to get one of those surreptitiously in the lift – which retails (frame, mattress, duvet and sheets) at just under HK$50,000.

Not listed on any room compendium is the US$300,000 Andy Warhol picture being exhibited at the irrepressibly hip W Hotel, Hong Kong. An unidentified guest removed it and marched straight out of the hotel with such bald-faced confidence that no one thought to stop him. That is until a timely phone-call from the fast-thinking concierge raised the alarm. Still, the mystery thief got away. Seeing the game was up, he calmly left the picture propped against a lamppost, stepped into a taxi, and sped away.

Travel guru Peter Greenberg reports that one US Holiday Inn was asked by a couple for a room close to the parking lot. The next day the maid reported the entire contents of the room had gone missing. Another enterprising traveller reportedly made off with the entire marble fireplace from the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire. Not as staggering as the thieves who STOLE the entire escalator from a Shenzhen underground train station, but remarkable nonetheless.

{Wily marketing crew are ever on hand to dream up charming towel labels that say, "Stolen with the compliments of the hotel"...

New initiatives to prevent thievery include electronic minibars that know when an item is removed from the tray and automatically bill your credit card – no more downing the whiskey and filling up the bottle with weak tea then. Others have put their wily marketing crew on the job, creating amenities with clever labelling – “I didn’t steal my towel from The Hotel”, and “Stolen with the compliments of The Hotel” (the latter for popular ashtrays).

As hotels get more technologically advanced their wiring becomes all the more vulnerable. That iPod dock or universal adaptor becomes prey to the digital hunter. DVD players are another distraction for your ever-ready elephants-can-jump-on-it Samsonite. And there’s that steady disappearance of hotel laptops that have been “borrowed” indefinitely from the business centre or club lounge.

A few less tech-savvy guests are always on the scene to inexplicably steal something utterly useless. Many have been known to pocket the phone from the fax machine or the remote control from the television. “This remote has so many channels lah. Let’s take it home.” One can only assume that they are taking them for the batteries or spare parts as the chances of them working outside the hotel are slim. You will not get the Disney channel or any (wink wink) others on your television at home if you steal the hotel remote control – I promise.

The anonymity of the clean hotel room may encourage you to slip away that third bar of soap. But the irony is that hotels know more about you than your neighbour does. Think before you heft that 42-inch plasma TV on your back and stagger out doing your hunchback impersonation. So what came first, the towel or the towel thief?

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