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updated 6/4/2004 2:03:55 PM ET 2004-06-04T18:03:55

The right to stuff your travel kit with a swank hotel's soap and shoe buffer has always been part of the room rent. Walking out with the towels, not. But now some of the classier accommodations are encouraging guests to take some of the most expensive items with them — after paying for them, of course. A little while after checking out of her room at the Regency in Manhattan recently, Edith Bianco of Bakersfield, Calif. added the following to her tab: a $45 bath mat, four down pillows ($28 each) and a $69 Frette bathrobe. The prices are reasonable, says Bianco, 66, and if you've stayed at the hotel, you know what you're getting.

Hotel customers have been buying hotel water pitchers, beds and even bathtubs. Ritz-Carlton, Starwood, Four Seasons and Loews have started retail operations; smaller hotels are following suit. It's a tiny business so far. Bjorn Hanson, head of the hospitality group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, estimates such goodies brought in $25 million last year, with gross margins of 15 percent to 50 percent.

Don't look for price tags in your suite. Rather, you will find a printed catalog placed discreetly with, say, the room-service menu or on the hotel's Web site. Part of the game is to keep costs down (hence no ads or mailed flyers). And, too, the hotels don't want to become mere catalog merchants; instead, they're looking to turn guests into repeat customers by reminding them of their hotel stay every time they throw on a bathrobe or sink into a pillow. The demand is there, hotel managers say. "My assistant in the hotel is dealing with calls all the time, wrapping things and sending them out," says Steven Pipes, vice president of hospitality at the Jack Parker Corp., owner of New York's Le Parker Meridien, which soon will launch Web sales of shot glasses from the hotel bar ($10 a pair), feather bedding that slips between the mattress and the fitted sheet ($150) and the ever-popular, swiveling, floor-to-ceiling TV cabinet ($3,000 for cherry veneer).

It may sound novel, but it owes something to the old days when cruise ships, railroads and hotels handed out their stickers to be slapped on luggage. What's new is getting customers to pay for such branded advertising. For that, thank Starwood's 122-hotel Westin brand, which in 1999 upgraded its bedding to court business travelers. In the first week, 32 guests called to ask where they could buy the "Heavenly Bed." A light bulb went on. Westin executives put order cards with a toll-free number in every room. Then they started placing catalogs by bedsides and desks and threw up a Web site, referred to in the guest-services binder. To date Westin has sold 20,000 pillows — $75 for the king-size version — and 3,500 bed/bedding combos, at $2,965 each, enough to spread the idea throughout Starwood, with the Sheraton, St. Regis and W lines all turning into retailers. Nothing beats the W Mexico City, which opened last fall, showcasing enormous freestanding terrazzo bathtubs shaped like the mortars used to pound avocados into guacamole. Six guests have ordered the $4,000 tubs.

The mania has spawned a new business — companies that help hotels run their retail arms. Boxport, a spinoff of San Francisco-based hotel procurer Higgins Purchasing Group, operates Web sites and catalogs for a number of chains. It will manage accessory and merchandise sales for the James Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., the first in a planned chain owned by Stephen Hanson of B.R. Guest Restaurants. That includes a line of glasses etched with drink-mixing recipes and bright-orange plastic dice emblazoned with sexual suggestions.

But some things never change. Sighs Stuart Schwartz, the Regency's managing director: "People are still stealing towels."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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