The bed bugs are coming! The bed bugs are coming!

By | August 20, 2007

Prevention and response to outbreaks can save a hotel’s reputation while warding off litigation

In the past half dozen years, reports and statistics about a global resurgence of bed bugs have alarmed hoteliers and their guests. The resurgence has been particularly noticeable in parts of North America, Europe and Australia. These outbreaks have forced the hospitality industry to take steps to prevent infestations and develop appropriate response plans to curtail litigation and save reputations.

According to one nationwide pest control consultant, bed bug infestations increased 300 percent between 2000-2001, 70 percent between 2001-2002, and 70 percent between 2002-2003.

A 2007 study revealed that serious infestations had been reported in 27 of 50 states. One pest control firm reported infestations in 33 states in 2004, while another reported infestations in 46 states during 2005-2006. By April 2007, about 70 percent of all calls to pest management services were seeking help with bed bugs.

Experts point to several possible reasons why the hospitality industry has seen a dramatic increase in infestations nationwide.

The increase in leisure and international travel during the past 50 years may be one reason because travelers transport the highly mobile bed bugs in clothes and luggage.

Also, the reduction in routine use of DDT and other residual pesticides may be a contributing factor, as well as changes in pest control methods, including targeting specific pests as they appear, rather than carrying out regular preventive and treatment procedures with broad-spectrum fumigants and other applications.

In addition, the growing market for secondhand furniture and furnishings, which can harbor infestations may contribute to the rise (online auctions have influenced this trend).

What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs are small, reddish-brown wingless insects with flat oval bodies. They are usually about a quarter-inch long and an eighth-inch wide. Bed bugs remain hidden in dark concealed places until they emerge to feed, typically at night or in darkened rooms during daytime hours. Bed bugs cannot fly, but they are highly mobile, and can cling to fibrous material such as drapes, upholstery, bedding, clothing and soft luggage. Bed bug eggs, nymphs, and adults cling to guests’ clothing, shoes, luggage, golf bags, and other items. Though bed bugs are not known to transmit any infectious diseases, their presence makes most people uncomfortable, both physically and psychologically.

Bed bugs may be found in residences of all kinds, wherever people sleep and rest, including hotels and motels, but also homes, apartments and condominiums, extended-stay properties, cruise ships, shelters, dormitories, hostels, resorts, hospitals, nursing homes, furniture rental companies, even theaters and aircraft.

Though bed bugs may be found in any residential property, they are a particular problem in hotels and motels, which experience a high turnover of guests. A single infested room can result in customer complaints, lost business, increased legal costs, and damaged reputation. While bed bugs cannot be eliminated, they can be controlled with a sound management plan, prompt action, and continued vigilance.

Steps to prevent an infestation
Because almost every hotel or motel will experience bed bugs at some time, it’s essential to have a plan in place to recognize, prevent and respond to outbreaks. A timely, appropriate response will often be sufficient to satisfy affected guests, preserve the hotel’s reputation, and head off litigation, and will thus be more cost-efficient in the long run.

Inspection and Monitoring. Early detection and eradication is essential to preventing or limiting infestations. Schedule regular inspections that will cover all guest rooms and common areas on a rotating basis. Focus inspections on dark, hidden, protected areas, with special attention to fabrics, wood, and paper surfaces preferred by bed bugs.

Housekeeping. Good housekeeping will help control bed bugs. Train housekeepers to look for signs and report bed bugs. Target vacuuming to areas typically favored by bedbugs, especially dark and concealed areas near and around beds.

Maintenance. To limit areas where bed bugs can hide, and to prevent the spread of bed bugs, keep property in good repair. Use caulk, foam, paint, or other sealants to close cracks, crevices, and other openings in walls, ceilings, and floors and between rooms. Re-glue loose wallpaper, and patch cracked or peeling paint or blemishes in walls or ceilings. Effective planning requires the involvement of hotel management, employees, and a reliable, competent pest control professional.

An effective plan will cover:

  • Awareness and Training. Ensure that all staff can identify bed bugs and the signs of an infestation. Offer refresher training annually or as needed. Maintain training records. Local pest control professionals may provide the training.
  • Appropriate Furnishings.Choose new furnishings that are least likely to harbor bed bugs. Avoid built-in furniture, as this is extremely difficult to remove, dismantle, and clean should an infestation occur. Use leather or vinyl upholstery; choose metal, glass, or laminate furniture over wood; and install hard floors (wood, tile, linoleum, etc.) instead of carpets or rugs. Purchase only new mattresses, and cover them with vinyl or anti-allergy covers. Avoid bedspreads, bed skirts, or drapes which touch the floor. Keep bed frames, bedside tables, and headboards away from walls and drapes.

Responding to an outbreak
Close suspect rooms and those immediately adjoining, above and below. Inspect the rooms to determine that bed bugs are, in fact, present. If bed bugs are present, remove the guests to clean and treat the rooms.

Clean the affected rooms, and have a licensed pest control professional carry out treatment. Do not allow affected rooms to be used until the pest control professional indicates that treatment is complete, the bugs are gone, and the rooms are clean.

After several days, conduct a follow-up inspection, and treat the rooms again if any sign of living insects is found. It may be necessary to apply two or more treatments to achieve full eradication.

Inspection, cleaning, treatment and follow-up may take several weeks. While there certainly will be lost income during this period, it will be more cost-effective in the long run to eradicate the infestation for good rather than deal with continued complaints from guests, negative publicity, and perhaps even a lawsuit from an affected guest.

Responding to guests’ concerns
Hotel management and staff must be ready to address guests’ concerns. Acknowledge guests’ concerns and offer information and assistance. Inspect the rooms to verify the presence of bed bugs; offer a clean room or a refund. If a guest has been bitten, offer assistance in obtaining medical attention. Offer to launder clothing and clean affected luggage. Provide information on how to avoid transfer of bedbugs to their homes. Document all actions.

For detailed information on preparing a bed bug response plan, request the Sequoia Risk Management Guide “Understanding and Responding to Bed Bugs: Issues and Guidance for the Hospitality Industry.”

S. Carl Morello, PE, ALCM, is assistant vice president for Loss Control at Sequoia Insurance Company in Monterey, Calif. Contact:

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