'Will a blanket smoking ban leave our profits suffering withdrawal pangs?'

A hotel group wants to go smoke-free before the law changes. But it fears customers might be alienated
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The Independent Online

Next time you think about lighting up in a hotel, you might want to make sure you're not in one run by Marston. The independently owned chain recently opened the £22m Nottingham Belfry, with smoking banned in all of its bedrooms, bars, restaurants and leisure facilities, and other public areas. The group is considering doing the same in its other locations.

The problem for managing director Chris Scragg is that he would like to go further still, operating a blanket ban throughout the hotel. But in the current climate, he concluded it wasn't economically sensible, and so has agreed to smoking being permitted in a central courtyard and in function rooms if a client specially requests it. He would like advice on how to balance his ethical wishes with commercial reality.

"We talked to a lot of our customers - corporate, leisure and conference ones - to get a feel for what they wanted, and the majority were clear that they wanted a total ban," says Mr Scragg. "But functions such as business meetings, parties and wedding receptions account for a significant percentage of our revenue. No business can afford to ignore the fact that if Uncle George wants a cigar at the wedding breakfast, the bride and groom may choose the venue down the road rather than risk a family row."

His quandary will be solved when the smoking ban, recently voted in by MPs, comes into force next year. "It will make the situation absolutely clear and will create a level playing field for all parts of the hospitality industry," says Mr Scragg.

"But in the meantime, our dilemma is whether we should give in to the customers who insist they want smoking to be permitted at their event, or say no to smoking for everybody and risk losing customers."

Marston certainly isn't the first UK hotel group to phase out smoking in its facilities. Many forbid it in bedrooms and restaurants, for example. But, says Mr Scragg, few have extended this ban to some of the other public areas. "We felt this was important because, in most hotels, you have to walk through the bar to get to the restaurant. What's more, customers are often invited to have their coffee or other after-dinner drinks in the bar. So the non-smoking ethos winds up being a bit of a farce as people are forced to go into a possibly smoky area at other times of the evening."

He also feels strongly that employees should not be forced to work in an unhealthy atmos- phere. "A lot of staff don't like smoke, but in many hotels they don't have a choice."

A recent visit to southern Ireland, where a smoking ban in hotels is well established, has made Mr Scragg even more keen to be stringent on no smoking.

"It was so interesting talking to people because they've completely accepted the ban and consider it normal and the 'right' thing to have done."

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

*** "The vote for a ban will clearly help Mr Scragg. He can introduce no smoking across hotels without worrying about losing revenue as customers go down the road to competitors; all operators will be swept up under the same new law. Consumers will also adapt as no smoking becomes the norm. An added positive is that the law will make bars in hotels more family friendly and bring in additional revenue.

"Predicting how a ban, inside and out, might affect his income is difficult. But if it does look like costing him money then he could still, within the law, have a number of 'smoking' rooms, as these are viewed as 'home from home' facilities. Outside areas such as courtyards could also be smoking areas, so Uncle George could still have his cigar."

*** "Luckily for Mr Scragg and Marston Hotels, MPs have done exactly what he wanted and voted for a complete ban on smoking in all public places. This is great news for the industry as all businesses will be operating on a level playing field, and more importantly it's great news for workers, who will no longer be exposed to other people's smoke.

"However, Mr Scragg still has the question of what to do in the meantime. I am sure it is very tempting to let smoking continue in some areas until the ban comes in, but that stance seems morally weak. There is only one answer and I think Mr Scragg's staff would back him up in banning smoking completely straight away.

"Why not get a name for being a non-smoking hotel group before the ban comes into force?"

*** "In December, Westin Hotels & Resorts proudly became the first major hotel brand to go 100 per cent smoke-free in North America, so I understand Mr Scragg's concerns.

"Research showed that 92 per cent of Westin guests requested a non-smoking room when travelling, and didn't smoke in any part of the hotel.

"To ensure a smoke-free policy is right for Marston Hotels, I suggest it carefully reviews its research, analyses industry and government trends, and organises a dedicated project team with members from every discipline in the company, to help make the final decision.

"The initial response we have received from the public - and the fact that several hotel companies have announced similar policies - reinforces our decision and gives us confidence that going smoke-free was a smart business move for Westin."

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