Quiet! Hotels strive to keep the noise level down

ByKitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY

— -- Pity Andrea Spears. The traveler from Eden Prairie, Minn., had an early-a.m. business meeting, leaped out of her hotel bed when the alarm blared, jumped in the shower and started drying her hair, only to realize it was 3:15 a.m. — three hours before her planned wake-up. The buzzer she had responded to was actually in the room next door.

Or Nicole Snyder of Roseburg, Ore., who was jerked awake by a voice from a hotel corridor screaming "Open that exit! Open that exit!" Only after she had gathered her belongings to flee did she realize the clamor came from a class of flight attendants who were practicing emergency drills in the hall.

These two tales are among the more than 600 submitted to YourNoisyNeighbor.com, a website contest run by AmericInn, a lodging chain that touts its soundproofing. Anyone can cast a vote through Sunday, and the grand-prize winner (who gets a $5,000 gift certificate) will be announced Oct. 29.

But it doesn't take a contest for travelers to sound off about noisy hotel stays or for lodgings to put more effort into turning rooms into cocoons for today's demanding guests.

Thin walls, loud neighbors, partiers and construction banging have ticked off almost anyone who has stayed in a hotel. Noise was the top complaint (ahead of room cleanliness) in the annual North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Survey of 47,634 travelers recently released by J.D. Power and Associates.

A TripAdvisor online survey of 1,323 travelers, conducted last weekend for USA TODAY, found that 31% often have a problem with noise during a hotel stay, which was second only to dirty rooms as the biggest hotel annoyance. Disturbance by other guests or their TVs is the No. 1 source of noise irritation: 59.3% of respondents rated that more annoying than outside noise, construction sounds or housekeeping clatter.

Manhattan-based entertainer Melissa Errico, who is on the road frequently for singing and acting engagements, was in Cleveland last month to sing with the Cleveland Orchestra. When she checked into the InterContinental Hotel on Friday, "I asked for a quiet non-smoking room, and they put me in the back of the hotel," she says. "I checked my room and the view — and I did notice a building to the left that was unfinished, but it was a weekend, so I assumed there would be no construction."

In the wee hours, she was awakened by revelers who had seen the New York Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians. Then at 9 a.m. Saturday, din at the construction site began. Luckily she journeys with "extra-strong red-and-white earplugs" and a white-noise machine, she says. "And I put a hotel pillow over my head and turned on the fan."

Loud fellow guests have always been irksome. But construction and party noise are growing complaints as a record number of hotels build or renovate and more attract the nightlife set with trendy, music-blasting watering holes.

Not being told of possible jackhammering before check-in is a common gripe. The booking site Travelocity does notify customers about hotel construction, but it's the rare lodging that warns guests ahead of time — though that's changing.

During its $40 million upgrading, the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in the Caribbean is informing guests of the renovation timeline in a special area on its website. It even created a "construction concierge" to handle guest concerns.

The full-time staffer, who works from a desk in the lobby, "was put in place to answer questions for guests prior to their arrival or, if necessary and possible, help a guest switch rooms if they are having any problems," says hotel spokeswoman Kara Rosner. The goal is "making sure guests are aware of what is happening at the resort and there are no surprises."

Marriott's Camelback Inn in the Scottsdale, Ariz., resort area has a stand-alone website, thelegendgrows.com, that chronicles the progress of its $40 million renovation. It has "before" and "during construction" photos that tell prospective guests what to expect.

Another modern-day hotel challenge is the success of hip hotel bars that get louder as the martinis and mojitos flow.

The Shore Club in Florida's South Beach party mecca is infamous for the din from its popular Skybar that keeps non-partiers from sleeping and for its concrete hallways that amplify every footstep.

The Tribeca Grand Hotel's Church Lounge atrium bar in Manhattan — also a celeb magnet — was so successful that wannabe-sleepers had difficulty drifting off. So the hotel carpeted the wood floor and had decorative but sound-absorbing panels put up, says Tony Fant, president of Grand Hospitality, Tribeca's parent company.

Rooms also come with a sound-masking system, similar to a white-noise machine on a grand scale, that guests can adjust to create a haven, Fant says. "We like to create an exciting environment … but when you step into your guestroom, you don't want to be part of the party experience."

Shephard's Beach Resort in Clearwater Beach, Fla., logged complaints from those in lower-floor rooms near its popular two-level nightclub until it redid soundproofing in 2006 using rolls of heavy, rubbery Acoustiblok. It "transforms the energy (of sound waves) into inaudible friction," says Acoustiblok president Lahnie Johnson, who says the company's product is in dozens of hotels, including the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan and the soon-to-open Trump International hotels in Chicago and Las Vegas.

Often when a hotel is built, "as the budget gets tighter, they'll cut soundproofing," he says. "But now hotel people are realizing that noise is the biggest cause of complaint, and it does cost hotels money in the long run."

Paying to muffle noise "was an excellent investment," says Shephard's Beach general manager Paul Andrews. "Because once you lose customers (who can't sleep), you don't get them back."

The AmericInn chain, with 213 properties in 22 states and two dozen more under construction, uses serenity as a selling point. It markets itself as "built quiet from the ground up" using a "SoundGuard" process. A spokesman says AmericInns are constructed with concrete blocks that have foam inside their holes to further deaden sound. Floors also are concrete (covered by carpet), the drywall is thicker than standard, and doors are more solid and have a "door sweep" on the bottom to seal off corridor noise.

It's more expensive to build a quiet hotel, says Minneapolis-based acoustical consultant David Braslau, who has advised AmericInn and other lodgings. "Economics plays a big part in design. But in general, hotels probably are getting quieter because people complain and there is more awareness in the industry (of noise problems)."

Luxury hotels, such as Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons, tend to be quieter because they spend money on extra insulation, thicker windows and cushier carpeting.

The soundproofing at the new luxe Thompson Beverly Hills, which plans to start checking in guests next month, includes padded leather walls and TVs that can't be turned up past a certain volume (a feature of all Thompson Hotels, including 60 Thompson in New York and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, says a chain spokeswoman).

Braslau says that thin walls still are a problem at many lodgings but that replacing them and other sources of noise tends to be expensive "and generally is not a thing that older hotels do."

His checklist of potential hotel-room noise sources includes:

• Windows that aren't thick or soundproofed and let in sounds of pool frolicking, street noise and planes landing or taking off.

• Wall-mounted TVs and speakers that are ever more common — and more apt to send noise into another room unless the hotel limits TV volume.

• Doors that don't extend all the way to the floor. "You shouldn't be able to slide a hotel bill under it," he says. Corridors are a big source of noise, from yelling guests to housekeepers trundling heavy carts or vacuuming.

• Window or floor air conditioning units or loud bathroom plumbing.

But so far, no one has yet figured out how to muffle all hotel noise — such as a way to keep drunken bachelor partiers from going on a toot in the halls or teens from banging on doors at midnight for kicks. Braslau himself had to change hotels at 2 a.m. on a prom night at an otherwise comfortable Holiday Inn.

"You can be in a great place and hear noise," he says. "Or you can be in a lousy place and hear none."

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