By Joe Ricci, President & CEO, TRSA

Of all the challenges facing hotel management teams, linen loss may sound minor. Yet wasted linen is a tangible problem that affects a hotel’s bottom line. Left unchecked, it can waste hotel resources and create crises that leave guests dissatisfied and staff frustrated. If controlled, it can generate savings, both of money and staff time.

When we talk about linen loss in hotels, we’re talking about the approximately 15 to 20 percent of linen products that are lost or discarded before the end of their useful life. That adds up. At approximately $250 per room for a four par of basic sheets and towels, linen purchases cost the hospitality industry $1.25 billion per year. If we factor in premium items like duvet covers, pillow shams and bath robes, that estimate goes up to $350 per room or $1.75 billion. That means the cost of replacing lost linen is between $50 and $70 per room, or between $2.5 million and $3.5 million industry-wide.

Despite their cost, convenient items like hand towels and washcloths are often thought of as disposable by guests and staff. Under these circumstances, linen loss may seem like an in-surmountable problem, but hotels can understand and measure sources of loss and take steps to better manage their linens.

Why Are Washcloths and Towels Disappearing?

According to Eric Brady of Brady Linens, a commercial laundry serving Las Vegas ho-tels, linen loss falls into two broad categories: explained loss and unexplained loss. Explained losses include stains, tears and wear out, while unexplained losses include theft.
As any hotel owner knows, misuse and theft of linens is common among guests. Guests often consider hotel towels to be disposable, and use them to remove makeup or shine shoes, or they take towels with them. What is not thrown away ends up stained and damaged. Guests, as a source of loss, are difficult to control, though locking linen closets helps halt habitual thieves.

There is also a great deal of abuse of linens among staff. Housekeeping staff use wash-cloths and other items to clean rooms, resulting in stains and chemical damage. Maintenance workers have also been known to grab a towel off a cart to wipe up grease or use sheets as painting drop clothes.

Textiles can also be prematurely worn out through improper handling. Laundry chutes can cause significant damage. Laundry chutes develop tears in their metal lining, which work as snags and abrasive surfaces for textiles. Plus, chutes can get backed up, with many floors worth of textiles piled on top of one another; the linens languishing at the bottom of a multistory pile up are subjected to enormous amounts of pressure that can damage textiles.

When laundry backs up, damp linens often end up piled on concrete floors when carts run out. Many people do not realize concrete contains oils that can permanently stain towels and sheets. Linen abuse can be combated through employee education, regular maintenance of chutes and clear rag programs.

Keeping Track of Linens

Of course, sheets and towels cannot last forever. They will all wear out. But through proper linen product measurement and tracking, you can plan appropriately for normal wear and tear and develop a better understanding of premature linen loss in your hotel. “When the linen inventory is managed directly, it creates savings across the operation of the hotel. When linen inventory is not managed correctly and there are shortages, it can create inefficiencies in the daily operations,” explains Pablo Lucchesi, managing partner of Crown Linen, serving ho-tels in the Miami area.

Whether you work with a laundry contractor or have an on-premise laundry (OPL), you should track:

  • Total pounds of clean laundry delivered or produced by the laundry
  • Percentage of work rewashed or rejected in the laundry process
  • “Ragout”-the percentage of product removed from service
  • Total replacement cost per pound of linen
  • Par levels, or how much textile you have available for circulation at any given point, based on 100 percent occupancy

Measurement helps you understand how quickly linens are wearing out, where loss is occurring and how you should budget for replacements. “You have to track the loss,” says Harry Kertenian, owner of Magic Laundry Services in Montebello, California. “If you lose 300 sheets a month, due to discard factor, you need to count and replenish-according to your budget-a minimum of that.”

In the future, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags may be able to help hotels track the flow of linens in and out of rooms. These small chips, the same as those used to track the family dog, can be sewn into linens by the manufacturer. Used in conjunction with RFID scan-ners in laundry carts and linen closets, the chips can provide hotels with a real-time linen inven-tory and better tracking of linen transit, Lucchesi explains.

Hotels are adopting RFID cautiously, but we can expect more widespread use as the price of the chips declines and their ability to withstand repeated laundering improves. Com-mercial laundries specializing in hospitality have their eyes open to the opportunity, and many are equipped with RFID readers.

Keeping Linens Up to Par

By and large, one of the most important steps hotels can take in managing linen loss is maintaining par levels adequate to compete with the rate of loss. For many hotels with OPLs, three par is sufficient. For others, maintaining four par is necessary to keep enough linens on hand at all times.
Some hotels will deliberately or inadvertently let par levels slip down as low as two par. Yet reducing par levels only means you may have no sheets on hand when you most need them, forcing you to replace them hastily, perhaps with something off-brand. Since the linens you do have will need to be laundered more often, they will wear more quickly and need to be replaced more often.

“You’ve heard the slogan ‘you can pay me now or pay me later,’” says Stephen Florence, vice president of Starr Textile Services, which works with hotels in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. “It is the same with linen. If you do not replace it periodically-and I mean every month, adding replacement linen for the loss, abuse, misuse and staining-it’s like a dog chasing its tail. You never catch up.”

Better Linen Life Through Chemistry

New technology in washing equipment and new chemical formulations promise to re-duce premature wear and tear of linens. In the laundering process, bleach, mechanical agitation and excessive drying time can weaken fibers. After improving chemistry formulations and ma-chinery maintenance, one hospitality central laundry reported 20 percent savings in textile re-placement, thanks in part to better chemistry formulations and machinery.

“For linen longevity, wash chemistry is important,” says Brady. “For the longest time, [laundries have] only used detergent, bleach and softener. But there are new developments in the chemistry that are going to help us do a better job of removing stains and extending linen life.”

This is thanks in part to greener technology and chemistry. “Discard factors are down. We’re using more green-friendly detergent, completely brand-new equipment and better dryers that don’t overdry. The newer technology is a little less aggressive on the product. This leads to a 20 to 30 percent extension of linen life,” says Kertenian.

Textiles are also contributing to longer linen life. High thread-count Egyptian cotton has long been the standard for luxurious linens in hotels, but cotton does not make a particularly resilient textile. Every time it is washed, it sheds fibers from the yarn and turns more and more yellow. Thankfully, durable synthetics are losing their chintzy stigma. Textile manufacturers have developed cotton-polyester blends that look and feel like expensive fabrics, even to sea-soned hoteliers. Skeptical hotels should explore these fabrics before writing them off.

Laundry Outsourcing as a Source of Savings

Since many hotels can point to the laundry as a loss center, more and more of them are looking to laundry outsourcing to help them reduce complexity and costs associated with laun-dering and linen management. However, they often only think of the associated cost savings in terms of OPL operations. There are other savings that have to do with commercial laundries’ expertise and economies of scale.

Because laundry is their core business, well-managed commercial laundries are more adept at using chemicals properly. In fact, consistent measurement and monitoring of chemistry and quality is the norm among commercial laundries. Commercial laundries are also more likely than OPLs to have their equipment serviced regularly and less likely to experience un-checked snags and tears in fabrics. They have protocols for monitoring and repairing machines before they have a chance to damage linens.

By working with a commercial laundry, hotels also have the option of renting linens. This way, the up-front cost of purchasing linens does not come out of your pocket. Textile ser-vice providers have rental linens available in a variety of fabrics and levels of quality.
Whether you chose to outsource or improve processes at your OPL, you cannot manage laundry by crisis. “Because even if [hotels] don’t acknowledge it,” says Florence, “they are los-ing linens every day. And it wears out constantly.” The best strategy is to be proactive in linen management, consistently tracking, measuring and replacing all textiles.