Finally, someone in the business arena sees the light about bed bugs and the bottom line: and it’s not the flashing dollar signs of the over-the-counter bed bug spray industry, either. Kerry Miller published an article entitled “The Cost of Bed Bugs” yesterday in Business Week, about how business owners are suffering financial losses due to bed bugs in their rental properties, hotels, and other establishments.
While many with bed bugs in their homes might say, “So what, how does that help me?” I feel this is really good news–because if big business declares bed bugs a problem for their bottom line, we might see some more action in terms of halting their spread. And that helps all of us. But judging from this article, we’re not quite there yet.
Miller begins with the story of Rosemary Salinas, a manager for five buildings in San Francisco, who in 2004 dealt with an infested apartment in one of those properties, where the bed bugs spread to four other units, the hallways, and walls of the building. Eliminating it cost $40K plus a $9 payout to a tenant who threatened to sue.
Salinas now issues regular notices in every building she supervises reminding tenants to call management immediately if they suspect a bedbug infestation. Still, the property owners she has talked to haven’t been eager to do the same. “They don’t want anybody to suspect that they have them, or to think that they could have them,” she says.
Rental property owners aren’t the only ones with that attitude. In a statement on its Web site, the American Hotel & Lodging Assn.—an industry group that co-hosted an international bedbug symposium last fall—says the resurgence of bedbugs in the U.S. has “had a minimal impact on the vast majority of hotels, which maintain state-of-the-art sanitation and adhere to strict standards of cleanliness,” adding, for good measure: “Bedbugs are brought into hotels by guests; it is not a hotel sanitation issue.”
Where bed bug denial and the bed bug blame game meet, it’s not a pretty sight. Bed bugs are certainly brought into hotels by guests (or workers, or management, or in shipments). But they leave with other paying guests. And that is definitely the hotel’s problem. (We’ve talked about the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s head-in-the-sand attitudes about bed bugs before.)
One PCO had actual statistics on hotels they had worked on:
A study by the Steritech Group, a commercial and institutional pest management company, found that nearly 25% of the 700 hotels it tracked over a three-and-a-half year period between November, 2002, and April, 2006, required treatment for bedbugs, though of the 76,000 hotel rooms in the study, fewer than 1% were found to be infested. But the public stigma that bedbugs carry makes the line between discretion and transparency a delicate one to tread.
And, it appears that bed bugs have spread a lot since the 2002-2006 period Steritech studied.
The article goes on to describe how mattress encasements designed to protect against bed bugs have to be marketed as “allergen-proof” not bed bug-proof, in order to sell to hotels, and how bed bug dog services have to pretend they’re sniffing for mold when they visit nursing homes. I don’t mind not making clients panic, but lots of us actually do want to know hotels are trying to protect us from bed bugs.
A loss-control agent at an insurance company mentions he first started seeing bedbug-related claims from property owners two years ago.
Then there are other costs: the negative publicity, erosion in brand value, and drop in business that can result from a poorly handled infestation. Damage control (BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/07) is tricky since unhappy bedbug victims can easily spread word of infestations online via blogs or user-submitted travel review sites such as TripAdvisor (EXPE). “How many people hear about a hotel that had bedbugs and don’t stay there because of it? You just don’t know,” Morello says. Last year an Australian study estimated that bedbugs cost the Australian tourism industry $75 million annually. (No such estimates are available for the U.S.)
Therein lies part of the problem: we haven’t studied it yet in the US. We should learn from Australia–how much does their tourism industry take in per year? What sort of comparison can be made on the impact in the US if the rates of bed bugs are comparable?
Other interesting tidbits here:
Most property owners prefer to settle bed bug claims out of court.
To treat infested units in her San Francisco building, Salinas hired a company to empty each apartment and freeze the contents for 48 hours. (Extreme temperatures are one of the few reliable ways to kill bedbugs.) The cost: about $2,000 per unit.
It must have been very, very sub-zero freezing. And something must have been done to the rooms themselves. But I would love to know more about companies willing to remove and freeze your stuff. It would be wonderful for people trying to move (many of whom hire someone to gas their belongings with vikane to avoid moving bed bugs). Both methods are exhorbitant, but surely when they become commonplace, the prices must come down?
There’s so much more here, I can’t respond to it all, but let me leave you with the ominous (and stupid) ideas with which the article closed:
[Lawyer Christian] Hardigree has fielded phone calls from property owners interested in putting an addendum to lease agreements holding tenants responsible for bedbug infestations. Others are interested in tweaking the language of contracts with pest-control companies so they can sue if the bedbugs return. (Her response to both: “You can put that language in, but I can’t tell you it would be upheld by a court.”) In any case, bedbugs aren’t a problem that can be solved by the wave of a gavel.
These ideas are based on a misunderstanding of how bed bugs work, from a scientific standpoint. You cannot blame the person who discovers and complains of bed bugs, for bringing them in. There really is no way of knowing when and how bed bugs were introduced into a unit. There’s no way of proving how long they were there, since people do not necessarily react to bites, or see bugs. And even if they do react, it may take them a long time to do so.
As for the second idea, many good PCOs who know bed bugs will only offer a brief warranty (60 days is considered pretty good right now). My understanding is that this is because (a) the property owner may be refusing to properly inspect and treat the whole building, and so resurgence may be inevitable in some cases, (b) people can bring in bed bugs repeatedly even they do not realize the source, and (c) bed bugs can be very stealthy–it would be hard to prove the bed bugs were not hiding out in a sealed bag, for example, that was unpacked. (This happens.)
On the other hand, many infestations take 3, 4, or more treatments by traditional methods. If PCOs re-treat aggressively at proper intervals throughout a 60 day period, then customers have a good shot at waving bed bugs goodbye. However, some PCOs are not up to date on the latest methods, or the stealthy habits of bed bugs. And in those cases, unfortunate customers often end up having to seek another treatment provider after the sixty days. It’s bad for the business reputation of the original guys, but some people are just out to make a fast buck. In the long run, let’s hope the best PCOs thrive and expand without compromising on quality.
I would hope that we can press for tenants, owners, and PCOs to be accountable and to use best practices, cooperatively, to fight bed bugs. There are people busy figuring out what those best practices might be. Give up the denial and the bed bug blame game: it’s pointless. Let’s fight the real enemy.