Hotel Confidential

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Merry Alpern, #2 windows series, 1994 / Courtesy of Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York

Dominique Strauss-Kahn won't go down in history as the next president of France, but he may well be remembered as the man who made the "hospitality industry" a lot less hospitable.

More than a few business travelers think of sex as a hotel amenity, like free shampoo or chocolates on the pillow, and before Strauss-Kahn's perp walk on charges that he sexually assaulted a cleaning woman, most hotels looked the other way. Not anymore. After an Egyptian businessman was carted out of New York's swanky Pierre hotel by the NYPD late last month for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid, the hotel said it will arm all its room attendants with panic buttons. The Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South is considering doing the same; already, general manager Scott Geraghty reports that at daily meetings management is "providing specific safety guidelines to all our housekeeping staff and reiterating the importance of remaining vigilant and reporting anything that may raise suspicions while on the job." Meanwhile, the biggest union in the hospitality industry, UNITE, is calling for hotels to provide sexual-harassment training to all employees.

All of which has left business travelers a bit skittish as they try to figure out what constitutes acceptable behavior. Is it OK to let a room-service attendant set your breakfast table while the door is shut? Does booking an in-room massage raise suspicions from the concierge that you might be looking for something more? Is it even OK to chat up the attendant in the elevator? Maybe not, to hear a Regency Hotel employee in New York, who says male guests sometimes mistake her friendliness and smiles—which are job requirements—as flirtation.

If the questions are knotty, it's because men have a tendency to be naughty when they travel. A new NEWSWEEK/Daily Beast Poll of 400 married men found that 21 percent admit to wanting to cheat on their spouse while traveling on business—and 8 percent have actually done so (the majority of them repeatedly). Six percent of the respondents admitted to having paid for sex while traveling on business. Still others acknowledged that they've hit on the help: 3 percent of the men in NEWSWEEK's poll said they'd made a pass at a hotel worker (more than half were rebuffed), and 2 percent had sex with them. Even if they're not having sex, many businessmen let it all hang out when they travel—to judge from the 12 percent of married men who indicated they're not always fully dressed when they let staffers into their rooms. And about that massage? Eleven percent of the married men who've had one say that sexual contact was involved—though not a single respondent would cop to having initiated it.

Andria Babbington, who worked for 17 years as a hotel housekeeper and is now a union representative in Toronto, says she still remembers the first time it happened to her. At 18 years old and just 95 pounds, she was sent to a room to deliver a blanket, and arrived to find the guest completely naked, lying on top of the bed. "He asked me to touch his genital area, offered me money for it. I said, 'No, my job doesn't go that far.' He spent a couple minutes trying to get me to come closer and tuck him in ... Eventually I just dropped the blanket on the edge of the bed and ran out." Yet when Babbington informed her supervisors, she found little support. "They laughed," she recalls. "Everyone thought it was funny, and the reason they thought it was funny was because this wasn't the first time they'd heard it. It was a 'welcome to the club'–type thing."

Certainly, powerful men behaving badly at hotels is hardly a novelty. NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colo., in 2003 (the case was settled out of court). In 2006 former vice president Al Gore was accused of groping and kissing a massage therapist at a hotel in Portland, Ore. And it was at a Ritz-Carlton that sports announcer Marv Albert attacked his mistress and forced her to have oral sex after she refused to have a three-way (he pleaded guilty).

The official word from hotel operators is that they don't condone inappropriate behavior on their premises. But many business travelers know they can get almost any extracurricular activity they want without ever leaving the hotel. It starts with the helpful bellman who's ready with strip-club recommendations, extends upstairs to the pay-per-view porn, and back down to the lobby where semipros work the bars with a wink and nod to management. Kristin Davis, the former madam of choice for Eliot Spitzer and the recently deceased composer Joseph Brooks, says that when she was fully operational she had staffers inside Manhattan's Ritz-Carlton and Gansevoort working as middlemen for her (the Ritz-Carlton denied knowledge of the matter; the Gansevoort declined to comment). In Atlanta, one doorman who's worked for nearly 25 years at a chic hotel says he's developed a profitable side business charging $200 a pop to give hookers and female "groupies" the room numbers of NBA and NFL stars staying there (the players never seem to complain). "That's the hotel business in a nutshell," says the doorman, Anthony, who requested that his last name not be used. "They ignore a lot of things happening to their guests and to the workers."

It's easy to understand why. In an industry where the customer is always right, hotels can't afford to be puritanical about their guests' peccadilloes—especially those of the rich and powerful men who drop thousands of dollars a night on the presidential suite. And in an age when any guest with a grievance, legitimate or not, can broadcast a beef to millions of potential customers on websites like TripAdvisor and Travelocity, hotel managers bend over backward to keep the clients happy.

And so the customers' desires can trump almost anything else—including safety and basic decency. One housekeeper who has spent a decade working at a Beverly Hills hotel where rooms cost up to $2,200 per night says her attempts to report repeated incidents of harassment have received little, if any, response. After a client grabbed her breasts, her supervisor told her to return to the room and finish cleaning. "I did as I was told," she says. Yasmin Vasquez, a single mother who has worked in various hotels across the country, recalls how a colleague at a California hotel was sexually assaulted and reported the incident to management, only to be told she was lying. She's pretty certain why the incident wasn't taken seriously. "My friend had no papers, and the hotel knew she was illegal," Vasquez says.

A longtime security supervisor for a major Las Vegas resort describes management's approach to dealing with sexual harassment this way: "We are not police. We are not looking to call something a crime. Unless someone wants to press charges, we try not to call Metro." That's certainly the experience of Jack Tuckner, a Manhattan-based lawyer on the speed dial of several local women's-rights organizations. "I know former law-enforcement people who work for the hotels who try to keep it in the family," he says.

But now that the dirty laundry is getting aired, hotel managers and their customers are being forced to clean up their acts—at least for a while. Bo Dietl, TV personality and security consultant for the rich and famous, says he's now advising clients to avoid any situation while traveling that might seem sexually inappropriate. "In this day and age, you gotta just watch everybody," he says. If not for the media swarm following the alleged Strauss-Kahn attack, he says, "you think this Egyptian guy [at the Pierre] would've taken a hit like that? Not a shot in hell."

With Mike Giglio and Allison Samuels

Hotel Confidential | Culture