Air Quality Considerations, with Stephen Barth

Hospitality lawyer and author Stephen Barth chats with The Innovative Hotelier Podcast Host Robin Trimingham about the complex interrelationship between air quality within any public facility and the people accessing that space.

Barth explains how the recent pandemic has raised the importance of not just sanitizing the air but taking steps to minimize the transference of particulate matter generated by everything from smoking, to pets, cleaning products, cooking fuel, and carbon monoxide.



Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Stephen: If they let people smoke outside, right outside the front doors, it goes right into the lobby and people have to breathe it in. But more importantly, if their housekeeper smokes, if their maintenance person smokes, they’re just taking that third-hand smoke into those guest rooms. Or if they have to come into your room because something’s wrong, you’re going to breathe that in. So, smoke-free is really a concept that needs to be thought through carefully before it’s used in promotions.

Robin: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by HOTELS Magazine, with weekly thought-provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.

I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is hospitality lawyer and author, Stephen Barth. Today we’re chatting about air quality considerations for the hospitality industry.

This podcast is presented to you by Franke Coffee Systems. At Franke, we think coffee is about more than beans and machines. It’s all about the moment when you create an amazing coffee experience for your customers.

Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you, Robin. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Robin: Well, I’m really intrigued regarding this conversation because I think I’m going to learn quite a few things while we chat today. When you think about hotel operations, air quality isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind if you’re not the hotel engineer. So, how did this become a key operational consideration?

Stephen: Well, and I’m not sure it has become a household word yet in the hotel business. I, along with many others, are hopeful that it will because we think there’s an enormous trend around wellness. And I think a lot of hotels have picked up that mantle, and they’re doing their best to establish what that means and to attract people with those concepts. And then, of course, COVID, as we might touch on a little later, certainly had an impact in raising people’s awareness about air quality in hotels. Robin, there’s…I think the last count was…and this is gonna be an estimate, about 120,000 hotels in the USA alone, averaging about 75 rooms each, which gives us about 9 million hotel rooms in the U.S. You being a hotelier, if you figure let’s just say 50% occupancy, that means there’s 4.5 million hotel rooms occupied in the U.S. every evening. So, it’s a critical mass of people, and we really need to be thinking about wellness and/or the negative impact that what hotels are doing can have on the guests that stay there.

Robin: You mentioned COVID. It’s an awful lot easier to try to list the things that situation hasn’t affected. In your opinion, what are some of the ways that air quality impacts the hospitality industry?

Stephen: Well, let’s see. Let me take that from two different perspectives, if I may. One is, let’s take it from the hotel’s perspective. So, we know that business travelers are really focused on wellness. And if you talk to business travel managers, and they all gathered not too long ago in San Diego at the GBTA Convention, the Global Business Travel Association Convention, one of the key topics was wellness, and air quality was also there. And so when you look at their surveys, a very high number of that business travel folks were saying that they definitely take into consideration air quality when they are making deals for their travelers to stay in hotels. So, it’s really important for hotels to recognize that that’s a trend on the business travel side. And then if you think about it from the customer side or the employee side, hotel air quality can really have an impact on both the guests and the employees.

And when we look at air quality, we’re not just talking about tobacco or vapor, which is a problem as well today, but, you know, more and more hotels are accepting pets. Hotels are really working hard to clean and sanitize their rooms due to COVID. So, there could be some harsher chemicals than we are used to. Any time a hotel burns any type of fossil fuel with a fireplace or a cooking stove, that can create unwanted particulates in the air.

And then, of course, Robin, we have the issue of very few hotels today allow you to open the windows, so you have a very difficult challenge of getting fresh air into the room. And then some people will say, though, “Wait, really is the air outside fresh?” Depending on where you are and the pollution level. So, that all comes into play as well.

And then last but not least on this topic, CO is the challenge, carbon monoxide. As you’ve seen in the news lately, there have been some challenges with some very nice hotels. There have been some serious tragic circumstances due to a lack of CO monitoring, which, of course, is a very specific air quality issue but one that really needs our attention.

Robin: You talk about hotels and windows. You’re absolutely right. I tend to personally stay at a lot of iconic properties that were built when windows did open. And you’re right, the fresh air feature, it really does add something. So, what are the health effects of pollutants that are coming from these lodging properties?

Stephen: Well, it’s going to happen to our guests, to our employees, but it’s also going to impact the environment. So, let me retreat just for a second. When we talked about the business travel community, which is all-important for most of the hotel industry, they are not just focused on wellness of their people, they’re also focusing on wellness of the planet. And so sustainability issues, carbon footprints are becoming very important to them when they send out their RFPs when they’re booking their contracts with the major brands. So, I think it’s important that we note that.

And just to close that loop for the audience is, look, if you’re going to take the time to not use harsh chemicals in your cleaning products, right? Things that are good for the environment, if you’re going to be tobacco-free, smoke-free, etc., if you’re going to have sustainability programs, CO monitors, you have to promote those things to your audience because they are significant ways to distinguish your property from others out there.

And back to the employees and the guests and the negative impact it can have on them, if your guests have allergies, sometimes the ozone machines that are used can be very harsh and they can impact a pretty good swatch of people in a negative way. The chemicals certainly can impact people harshly. And then you’ve got the tobacco issue as well. There’s pets. But also, I think you can’t have this conversation today, Robin, without bringing in vapor and vaping and people using devices in hotel rooms because they think they can get away with it. And for the most part, they can, right? They hardly leave evidence. And most of the people anecdotally that I’m familiar with that vape, they don’t think vapor is harmful to themselves or others. But the science is very clear that those chemicals are horrible.

And tobacco smoke vapor, it will seep through walls, it will go through the electrical outlets. We remember our eighth-grade physics, right? Gases penetrate solids. And so, it will seep in and it’ll negatively impact your guests as well as your employees, especially if they’re using cannabis inside your rooms. That can really contaminate the air quality, and as you might imagine, create some real havoc with some people.

Robin: Franke’s fully automatic, easy-to-use machines help you create unforgettable coffee moments your customers craved for because whatever business you are in, we know it’s about more than coffee. Check out how we can help you to make every coffee moment wonderful on The more that we chat, the more it becomes clear. This is a very complex issue and there’s a lot of considerations on the table here. How has the advent of COVID changed how we think about all of these things?

Stephen: Well, I think COVID really raised the awareness of the importance of air quality. And to be fair, Robin, not just in hotels, all lodging, cruise ships, office buildings, apartments, homes, certainly anything that has a common wall or a common air circulation system, it’s raised the awareness. And as usual, the business travel community, it kind of leads the way in establishing what’s important, just like they did with masking and vaccines during COVID, this air quality discussion has continued on.

And I think one of the things we have to recognize and take responsibility for in the hotel community, you know, it was in 2006 when Weston said, “No more smoking in our rooms.” That’s really not that long ago. And once that happened, then there was a domino effect of other brands saying that somehow quicker than others. It’s rare today that you’ll find smoking ability inside a room, but it happens outside. And so, the challenge we have is that people go outside and smoke, and a lot of people are familiar with first and second-hand smoke, which is the smoke comes from the burning cigarette or the exhalation from the vapor, or it’s exhaled by the smoker.

But what a lot of people don’t understand is third-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke is when it gets on the smokers’ clothes, their hair, their skin, their breath, and they go immediately and get into the elevator and they contaminate the air in the elevator. Then they immediately go into their guestrooms, right? And it gets into the upholstery, the carpet, the draperies, and it will last anywhere from 6 to 12 months, and it contaminates the air and you cannot get it out. The science is pretty clear. It’s there, and people are breathing that in, so your housekeepers, your maintenance people, and, of course, your guests.

And that’s something we have to take responsibility for because, in my opinion, myself included, we did not think this through very carefully because when we had smoking rooms, which was horrible, think back to when we used to let people smoke on an airplane, right? I mean, nobody would get on an airplane today and smoke, right? But when we stopped the smoking room concept in hotels, which we needed to do because the smoke… If you’ve ever stayed at a casino hotel that allows smoking, there’s no smoking in the hotel rooms, but they still smell like smoke.

Robin: It’s really everywhere, isn’t it?

Stephen: Yeah. It’s everywhere. It’s absolutely ubiquitous. But the challenge now is that we don’t isolate people to one particular section of the hotel or one particular room. So, they go downstairs, they smoke, they immediately turn around, they contaminate the elevator, then they immediately contaminate almost every room in the hotel. And then you add that the vaping. It’s a real challenge for us.

Robin: I think one of the problems here is that people don’t generally appreciate that the smoke is in the air, but so are the particles. And the particles stick and bond with fabrics, with wallpapers, with carpets, with whatever the case may be, and that’s why they hang around so long. Smokers really tend to live in a bubble in which they believe their habits only affect themselves, and they don’t really realize the extent to which we all impact each other’s environment.

You mentioned casinos. I remember reading this study that talked about casinos pumping ozone into the casino floor because there were either so much smoking going on or so many people who were smokers in the facility, whether they were presently smoking or not. But I also read that there’s quite a downside to ozone because it can very negatively affect a lot of people and cause things like…I think it was headaches and confusion. What do you think of this? Is it a good idea for a hotel or hospitality facility to be tampering with indoor air quality in this kind of way?

Stephen: Well, first of all, I think the research you did is right on target. There are some severe challenges with ozone for many people, and my understanding is that it’s very difficult to control the levels and the types of ozone that you’re pumping in. And that’s where the challenges become. And today, probably due to COVID, you know, if there’s an upside to COVID, we’ve got more awareness in air quality, but we also have more technology that has been developed in order to clean the air. And that’s ultimately what you want to do, right?

Air fresheners tend to mask the air. Ozone brings its own negative challenges and dangers to people. I’ve even heard of people developing pretty severe nose bleeds from that anecdotally. But you do have some really good air filtering systems that do not rely upon ozone that can actually help clean the air, you know, and more restaurants, buildings, facilities, etc., are installing those types of systems in there. But listen, any facility that thinks it can clean tobacco or vapor out of the air is whistling Dixie. It is not going to be effective. And the sad part about it is those employees that have to breathe it in every single day, it is so harmful and so unfortunate to them.

Let me just give you a quick example we were talking about third-hand smoke from a legal perspective, right? Being accurate in advertising is important. And so I see many hotels saying, “We’re smoke-free,” right?

Robin: Oh, I know where you’re going with this one.

Stephen: If they let people smoke outside, right outside the front doors, it goes right into the lobby and people have to breathe it in. But more importantly, if their housekeeper smokes, if their maintenance person smokes, they’re just taking that third-hand smoke into those guest rooms. Or if they have to come into your room because something’s wrong, you’re going to breathe that in. So, smoke-free is really a concept that needs to be thought through carefully before it’s used in promotions. Is that where you thought I was going or was it something else?

Robin: Yeah, no, it’s a very interesting argument because you’re right. The moment that you advertise you’re smoke-free, well, then somebody can come around with an air quality meter and disprove you in an instant. I don’t think I would wanna be the lawyer arguing this case.

Stephen: Arguing against that. Yeah.

Robin: Yeah. So, you’ve talked about vaping, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve read studies about young people vaping, and very serious life-altering health consequences as a result of all of this. But some people feel that it’s an acceptable compromise. What does the latest data say in regard to all of this?

Stephen: I think a lot of people are torn. I think you’re exactly right. There is one side of the fence that says it’s just as dangerous as cigarettes. That’s the side I fall on. But as you can tell, I’m somewhat biased about the concept. And there’s another part of the equation, Robin, that says, “Look, tobacco is an addiction,” and it clearly is. They think that vaping is the lesser of two evils. Look, and I’m not a scientist, right? I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t do that. I will say this, I’m for anything that reduces the amount of tobacco that is used in the United States, but if we’re going to do that, I think we need to educate everyone how dangerous vaping still is, and in many instances, can be much more addictive because of the levels of the nicotine in those devices than even tobacco can be. And I would defer to all the scientists about this.

But generally speaking, and I have a program on Instagram called Tobacco Free in 33, and one of the things we are trying to do with that is in a humorous way to educate the public how dangerous vapor is and tobacco, but also to educate the smoker and the vaper that their civil rights ends where another begin. In other words, sure, you can smoke if you want to, but not when it negatively impacts somebody else. And if we all would just respect that concept, the world would be a better place.

Robin: Yeah, I guess you could say that about a lot of things.

Stephen: You could say that about a… This is not unique to this, for sure. And look, I think it’s very important that we make sure we say this on your show is that it’s a severe and serious addiction, and we must be sensitive to the people that haven’t, right? We’re not trying to be deprecating to them, things like that. We’re just suggesting be mindful of the consequences, unintended consequences of your actions.

Robin: Stephen, we’re just about out of time here. I wanna thank you so much for chatting with me today. As always, we observe the public to share information that’s a benefit to the hotel industry. You’ve been listening to the “Innovative Hotelier” podcast, brought to you by “HOTELS” magazine. Join us again soon for more up-to-the-minute insights and information, specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry.

You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by HOTELS Magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.

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