IN FEBRUARY, I went to Charleston, S.C., to explore its happening food scene and frozen-in-amber 19th-century architecture, but I couldn’t tell you much about either: I barely got out of bed. The billowy mattress, silky-smooth sheets, puffy down comforter and mountain of pillows at the Vendue, an inn in the city’s historic district, were positively narcotic. My husband had to pry me out.
The bed even made up for the hotel’s spotty service. On the first day of our two-night vacation, the housekeeper didn’t get to our room until well after lunch, when I crawled back into the bed for a not particularly deserved rest. I asked her to come back later, but she never did. By checkout the next day, our room was littered with used glasses, rumpled bath towels and wrappers from the little soaps. (An apologetic spokesperson for the Vendue called my experience “an anomaly.”) Had the bed not been so sublime, I probably wouldn’t stay at that hotel again. But back home, I lie awake in my suddenly substandard four-poster, fantasizing about returning to Charleston to nap.
We spend roughly a third of our life in bed. In hotel time, however, it’s more like half of our lives, making the bed arguably the most important element in the room. While luxury hotels flog services and amenities, from turbo Wi-Fi to butlers who will unpack for you, it’s really the bed that most travelers are focused on. According to a 2014 Gallup survey, more than half of guests who stay in the highest-priced properties said they would pay more for an improved bed. Among all respondents, a comfortable bed was most often named as the most important feature of a hotel room, more than any other amenity, including Internet access and helpful employees.
“The best hotel bed feels more like home than your home,” said musician and environmental activist will.i.am, who’s worked with W Hotels to bring newly tweaked cotton-blend sheets to its beds. The eco-friendlier linens, which incorporate recycled polyester, were developed for the chain’s U.S. properties; they’re coming soon—at $207 and up for a set—to W Hotels’ online store, which already peddles W mattresses and other bedding.
These days, there’s no such thing as a no-name hotel bed. With hospitality research indicating that travelers are willing to pay more for a good night’s sleep, properties are rekindling a years-old battle over whose beds are the most super-extra-special. The Corinthia Hotel London last year began playing up its soporific amenities, including mattresses apparently fit for a queen: Their manufacturer, Hypnos, markets itself as the bed-maker to the British royal family. There are even hotels built entirely around the bed, such as the Best Western Hotel Duxiana in Helsingborg, Sweden. The property is a collaboration with Dux, a Swedish maker of mattresses whose prices can approach $15,000. Presumably, they’re stuffed with unicorn hair.
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has just introduced a proprietary Simmons mattress with a heat-absorbing core to keep sleepers cool and interchangeable toppers in three choices of firmness. At Manhattan’s Four Seasons hotel, where I spent a night last month, the bed’s seduction begins even before you pull back the sheets.Christopher W. Norton, president of global products and operations for the Four Seasons, and the man responsible for signing off on the new bed, wanted it to look “fat and sexy,” he told me. And it did: The king-size bed in my 33rd-floor room resembled a cumulonimbus hovering over Midtown. It was practically convex, with a foot-thick mattress garnished by 2 inches of padding—I had requested the softest, “Signature Plush” topper—and another couple of inches of duvet.
The bed even impressed the two housekeepers who arrived for turndown. “Oh!” they said. “You got the new bed!” (The beds are standard at newer Four Seasons. There are currently five at the New York hotel, so getting one isn’t a given.)
The Four Seasons’ bed upgrade was driven by a 2013 survey of U.S. and foreign travelers the company commissioned. More than 90% of respondents reported having a preference in mattress firmness, with half wanting “medium,” about a third choosing “firm” and the minority opting for “soft.” People under 35, the famously entitled millennials, were most likely to gripe about hotel beds—and they do it publicly, on social media and travel-review sites. “There’s more competition in the luxury space than ever before,” said Mr. Norton, and millennials are the fastest-growing travel demographic. The bed is part of Four Seasons’ attempt to differentiate itself by tailoring its services to each guest’s specific tastes.
Pulling Back the Covers on the New Four Seasons Bed
This entry in the slumber showdown is a multilayered extravaganza with zip-off, interchangeable mattress toppers intended to allow the company to satisfy all sleepers. Four Seasons began to phase in the bed in 2014 and expects it to be fully available at most of its properties by 2017.
The beginnings of hotel-bed hysteria can be traced to 1999. That year, in what hospitality insiders regard as a brilliant marketing move, Westin Hotels & Resorts introduced its Heavenly Bed. With 10 layers’ worth of linens, pillows and padding and a then-iconoclastic all-white design, the bed spawned a retail side-business of Heavenly products, from scented candles and dog beds to duvets and mattresses. Westin says it has sold $135 million worth of Heavenly Bed-related goods to date, including 100,000 mattresses and 175,000 pillows.
Imitations inevitably followed, and continue to this day. The groundbreaking all-white bedding hoteliers once derided as a dirt magnet struck such a chord with guests that it has become the industry standard. Housekeeping staff at midtier chain Hampton Hotels post sticky notes on the headboard to assure arriving guests that the all-white bedding on their Clean and Fresh Hampton Bed (available for purchase for between $2,450 and $2,890) has been freshly laundered.
Hotels’ aggressive marketing—and sales—of their beds is a dream come true for the bedding industry: Simmons Bedding Company, which makes mattresses for Westin, as well as for Four Seasons and many other chains, has seen its market share triple in the past decade.
But here’s a secret that hotels (at least, the ones that also sell their beds at retail) don’t want us to know: It simply isn’t possible to clone your favorite hotel bed at home. First, hotels don’t necessarily sell every last component that made its in-room in-bed experience so sublime. They might offer the mattress, but not the sheets. The mattress available at retail may not be identical to one from the hotel. That’s true of the Heavenly Bed mattress. The one used in Westin rooms has a zip-off pillow top, but on the version guests can buy it’s permanently attached. A small difference that may not affect the feel of the bed, but a difference.
Then there’s the laundry factor. Many properties, the Four Seasons New York among them, enlist a company called Ecolab to regularly monitor the detergent balance and water temperature to ensure maximum whiteness. Hotel linens take hundreds of spins a year through the washer and dryer, leaving them perfectly broken in. At high-end hotels, the linens, often 100% cotton, also get a trip through the massive rollers of an ironing machine, leaving them crisp and wrinkle-free. (Since testing hotel beds for this story, I have overcome my snobbish and long-standing insistence on high-thread-count, natural-fiber linens. It turns out I actually prefer a 200-thread-count, 60/40 cotton/polyester blend, used by Westin and many other hotels, over the higher thread count, all-cotton linens at the Four Seasons. The cotton/synthetic blend sheets felt smoother.)
PILLOW TALK // HOTEL-BED AFICIONADOS TELL ALL
Isaac Mizrahi (fashion designer):“There are few beds anywhere that I actually can sleep in, including my bed at home. The beds at the Peninsula Hotel, in Los Angeles, are too soft for my taste, but they somehow lull me into a false sense of security and something resembling sleep.”
Wylie Dufresne (chef and owner of Alder in New York): “One of the greatest things about staying in a hotel is the bed. Not only are they so comfortable, but you don’t have to make them in the morning or wash the sheets! I’ll never forget the bed at the Four Seasons Toronto: I just disappeared into it and did not want to get out.”
Kelli O’Hara (actress): “I love hotel beds. They’re crisp, cool, clean and fluffy. I’d like to get a ‘hotel bed’ for home, but only hotel beds have the guts to wear white all year round. Mine could never pull it off.”
I paid $895 for my night at the Four Seasons New York (before taxes); room rates only go up from there. The bed was delightful. But for that price, shouldn’t it be? “In the five-star category, the assumption is that a hotel has wonderful beds,” saidRichard Bruce Turen, of the travel agency Churchill and Turen Ltd. In fact, Mr. Turen said, any hotel at that level will customize the bed for a guest if asked—an assertion backed up byAlex S. Furrer, General Manager of the Setai Miami Beach.
At the Setai, which boasts beds with Dux mattresses and 400-thread-count Frette sheets, the staff will, upon request, wash linens in hypoallergenic detergents or supply esoteric pillows. “About six months ago, a guest requested a pillow we had never heard of,” Mr. Furrer said. A staff member tracked down the S-shaped foam neck supporter and ordered it online.
Hotels claim to maintain their mattresses diligently and to replace them according to manufacturer guidelines. But a mattress that goes bad before its time may not be replaced unless A) Multiple guests complain; or B) It’s irretrievably damaged by what hoteliers and Simmons Vice President Steve Tipton euphemistically call an “Event”—that is, a particularly soggy death. Mattresses that have suffered routine abuse, like a spilled drink, get a spot cleaning. The same holds for a bed upon which a guest has died tidily.
One innovation helps make maintenance easier: The zip-off mattress pillowtop, which can be swapped, cleaned or, if necessary, discarded. Originally developed in 2006 by Simmons and Westin, the zip-off topper is now the cornerstone of the Four Seasons’ new, customizable bed. It’s also a favorite among the staffs of casino hotels. “Those rooms are Event Central,” said Mr. Tipton.
One traveler who would have appreciated a fresher mattress isAlyson Poston, a Chicago-based sales director who recalls staying on business at a motel in a speck of a North Dakota town known for its hunting. She arrived to find a sign in her room asking guests not to use the towels to dry their guns or dogs. “When you start there, you know it’s not going to be good,” she said.
As for the bed, Ms. Poston said: “It smelled like wet Lab.”