LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bed bugs. Those two words evoke strong reactions of fear and loathing in a majority of travelers. But for all the horror, many people cannot identify these creatures from a lineup of insects. That is one reason the bed bug problem continues.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed U.S. travelers about their knowledge and opinions of bed bugs and other potential hotel issues. They found that most people would not recognize a bed bug if it bit them, yet felt much more disgust about bed bugs than about dirty towels and linens or evidence of smoking.
“Considering all the media attention paid to bed bugs in recent years, the fact that most travelers still have a poor understanding of them is troubling,” says Michael Potter of the university, who co-authored the study, in a release from the Entomological Society of America.
Travelers were asked what would prompt them to move to a different hotel. Just over 25% would switch because of smoking or dirty towels and linens in the room, while 60% would change hotels if they thought there were bed bugs.
Despite their strong reactions to the concept of bed bugs, 56% of surveyed people said they do not really give the critters much thought when they travel. It might cross their mind — but is not a major concern.
The problem begins with the fact that many people do not know what a bed bug looks like. Just 28% of leisure travelers and 35% of business travelers were able to give the correct answer when shown images of several similar insects.
This combination of extreme fear and ignorance puts the hospitality industry in an awkward situation. It all comes down to online reviews. More than half of the surveyed responders said that just one online review mentioning bed bugs would send them packing — to a different hotel destination.
“From a hotel industry perspective, it’s worrisome that a single online report of bed bugs would cause the majority of travelers to book different accommodations, irrespective of whether the report is accurate,” says lead author Jerrod Penn. Plus, the situation may have been in just one or a few of the rooms and already resolved, he added.
People have a hard time thinking about bed bugs. Among those surveyed, 46% would like to know that a hotel is taking action to prevent an infestation. On the other hand, 24% said they would just prefer the hotel to “do it, but don’t tell me.”
Despite their squeamishness, though, 80% of those surveyed want hotels to be required to tell of previous bed bug problems. Some want to know of problems as far back as a year or more. Of those who want the historical perspective, 51% of personal travelers and 38% of business travelers would like a long-term reveal.
Researchers say that everyone has to take an active role in this. Travelers need to know what to look for so they do not inadvertently keep the cycle going. The hospitality industry has to take care of the problem while calming travelers’ intense, yet misinformed, understanding of bed bugs.
It is up to the hospitality industry to have a plan in place and quickly take action if there is any report or mention of bed bugs, says senior study author Wuyang Hu of the university. “Hotels should also train their housekeeping and engineering staffs to recognize and report bed bugs in the earliest possible stages, when infestations are more manageable,” he adds. “Similarly important is training front desk and customer service employees to respond promptly and empathetically when incidents arise within the hotel.”
The study’s findings were published in the journal American Entomologist.