Rules, rules rules. Our lives are filled with rules, and many of them are essential to an orderly civilization. Sometimes, though, it seems that even in a hospitality industry, innkeepers can become consumed with the idea that little signs (house rules) around the house can solve their problems.

[pullquote]Rules, rules, rules! But I’m on vacation![/pullquote]Most of us have visited a B&B where there were little cards everywhere you turn. Each card has a rule on it. “Please don’t use towels to remove makeup.” “Please leave door locked.” “Please turn off the lights.” “Do not leave wet towels on the bed.” “No coffee in guest rooms.” “Private – Do not enter.”

How do all these house rules come across to the guest? Do they see these signs as informative, or as imposing a lot of rules on their freedom?

As innkeepers we know that sometimes our guests, whether through carelessness, cluelessness, or crabbiness, cause problems. They soil linens, track dirt on the carpet, mark walls by banging their luggage into them, leave makeup stains on sheets, pillowcases and towels, spill wine or coffee, leave trash in the recycling and recyclables in the garbage. It almost seems as if they’re trying to cause problems for the innkeepers. Almost.

The natural response to these inconveniences and problems is to try to prevent them from occurring again. One way is to put up a sign or create a house rule (policy, if you prefer), urging the guests not to do the thing which the innkeeper dislikes. Yet most innkeepers will agree that guests almost never read signs.

Why do we try to solve a problem with a sign, when we know that is unlikely to be effective? If one sign is ineffective, many signs are many times more likely to be ineffective. So why all the house rules?

Look at it from the guest’s perspective. Unless you cater primarily to business guests (lucky you!), most guests are likely to be on vacation – taking a short break, weekend getaway, or longer vacation. Rules are the last thing they want to see. They are looking forward to relaxation, exploration, freedom and flexibility. Why would you want to greet them with a list of house rules as long as your arm?

Try this. Take all the different little signs you have, and read them, one after another. Does it sound like a lot of rules? Remember, that your guests will encounter them one after another, and just at the end of a long day of travel, when they are tired and cranky, and only want a restroom, a good meal, and a good night’s sleep.

Some signs are really necessary, to explain how something works, to point out something essential, etc. Think carefully about each sign, to see if it is really essential. Can you really expect most people to figure it out (for example, instead of a little sign telling the guest to use the makeup cloth instead of the towels, you can buy a black makeup cloth that says “Makeup” on it), or is the sign the only way they’ll know? Could you move the information into an information booklet you make available in the room, so there is one less sign? Or is it really important that this information be on a separate sign?

Sometimes the near-obsession with signs leads to an “us vs. them” view of your guests. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of your guests as if they were all there to damage your property, and your role is to defend it. Remember, they aren’t there to hurt you – but they may be careless. Most are responsible and will apologetically tell you if they’ve caused a problem. Some even offer to pay for repair or replacement.

Most people are quite pleasant, especially when they don’t feel that you’re being defensive. Keep the rules to the minimum needed to convey important information, and give people a chance to be reasonable. After all, they’re on vacation.

Oh, yes. Don’t forget that almost every one of these guests has a smartphone, tablet or computer, and has accounts on Facebook, TripAdvisor and Twitter. If they think your place reminds them of Fawlty Towers, they aren’t shy about saying so.


  • A nice reminder. Playing up to the lesser denominator is what we will tend to do because those are the ones that stick out in our minds. One person in thirty may ruin a brand new wash cloth with makeup removal, so why would we risk putting off the majority of people with a sign when we can just buy wash clothes cheap, by the heap and suck it up in the name of customer relations and true hospitality.

    (My husband and I are ashamed to say that we remember the names of the bad guests quicker than we remember the good ones. “Sigh”…positive reinforcement of bad sign behavior, I’m afraid.)

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