Bed, breakfast, and anything not screwed down
From toiletries to towels and a stuffed fox, the list of items that people steal from hotels is endless. Darragh McManus wonders why we let our moral compass slip when on holiday
Stealing from hotels: most of us have probably done it, even if we don't admit it for reasons of legal circumspection or social embarrassment. We wouldn't even describe it as stealing; that word sounds so harsh, so suggestive of a crime being committed. And bagging a few teeny bottles of shampoo is hardly a crime, is it?
Nobody really takes it seriously, pinching things from hotels. We put out a call on Twitter for people's thieving tales and the responses were either jokey or dismissive – eg, "Does it count if it's my heart he stole from that damned hotel room?"; "Stole an ashtray from a hotel in Lourdes and that is as bold as I get"; "I decided recently to tip all tea, coffee and sugar into my suitcase as I've actually paid for it"; "Do you mean above and beyond towels?"; "I always take the pens and toiletries – everything else seems very securely attached to a wall".
Super Furry Animals even named an album, 'Hotel Shampoo', in honour of the singer's love of those miniature bottles – no shame in it, clearly.
In a recent poll, 37pc admitted taking something from their room, and we can probably double that in actuality. So why does most people's normal moral code get 'switched off' when staying in hotels?
Michael Vaughan is owner of Vaughan Lodge Hotel in Lahinch, Co Clare, and president of the Irish Hotels Federation. He says: "People might use the excuse, 'Oh they budget for this' or, 'Hotels like when you take something with their logo – I'm giving them free advertising'. It's a funny phenomenon.
"I think people feel they're staying somewhere anonymous that nobody really 'owns', or else they're renting something and haven't got full value from it.
"In fairness, part of it is sentimentality, too. Someone may be on their honeymoon, or the trip of a lifetime, and want something to remember it – that's something we can all understand."
Another reason given for this benign kleptomania is that we've paid for the room, so feel entitled to some of the contents. Some people even blame our primeval hunter-gatherer instinct.
Dr Damian Davy is a psychologist based in The Phoenix Centre in Cabra, Dublin. He says that everyone's moral code "depends on their upbringing, their beliefs – one person's is different to someone else's".
"We really don't need most of these things taken from hotels, so I'm not sure why we take them," he says. "Perhaps at the time, people might think it will be of use to them. And it's possible that your mentality changes when away from home, in a hotel, especially if it's for a holiday: you expect to feel more relaxed. They might be thinking in a more carefree way.
"Of course, there's also a deeper situation with some people – an obsessive-compulsive thing. There's something in their psyche driving this behaviour, making them do things that are inexplicable and bizarre to others."
Bizarre is the word. The things people steal from hotels can go far beyond worthless, into the realms of utterly pointless. According to a recent survey, the top 10 pinched items (not including toiletries) are bibles, other books, kettles, curtains, artwork, picture frames, cutlery, food/drink, batteries/ bulbs and towels.
One of our Twitter respondents admitted: "I once stole a stuffed fox from a hotel bar in Cork. I woke up the following morning to find it staring at me from the corner of my hotel room. I returned it.
"I used to take the bible out of hotels and dump them. I unscrewed '237' from at least one hotel door – it's the number of the hotel room in 'The Shining'. Fifty-plus shortbreads lifted from one of those carts used to restock hotel rooms."
They added: "Don't judge me!"
Michael Vaughan says: "There's nothing that would surprise me about what might disappear from hotels, and over the years I've had all kinds of strange things purloined. Toilet seats, gargoyles, a set of Victorian stuffed birds ... A hotel I worked in in Cork had 10 televisions stolen.
"We had a run on toilet seats going missing from the public facilities. It turned out to be a person doing up a summer house locally. A friend of mine had a hotel where guests rolled up a carpet and disappeared out the back into a van with it.
"Back in the early years of TV remote controls, when spares were hard to get, they were always being taken; hotels took to fastening them to the headboard with wire. Lamps – shades and bulbs, especially the newer energy-saving ones. Anything that's monogrammed has always been seen as fair game: bathrobes, slippers, glassware, ashtrays back when you could smoke in hotels. You could never hold on to teaspoons in the restaurant, or nice coffee mugs."
He adds: "Sometimes it can be something so worthless, the mind boggles. But I suppose you don't know what's of value to someone else."
Interestingly, theft is seen to a large extent as part and parcel of the hotel game; people take a philosophical view.
Vaughan explains: "It would never really be seen as a criminal enterprise or anything, in that sense. Especially because sometimes it might be accidental or inadvertent, maybe a child sticking something in the bag. We'd often get things sent back with a note of apology. I had that with a hairdryer a while back – the lady thought it was her own one, which was the same brand.
"The bigger hotels would usually factor in theft to their budgets; they expect to lose a certain amount every year. You just take it on the chin. And these days, you'd be very reticent about stopping someone at the door to check bags. You'd try to avoid embarrassment like that, and give guests the benefit of the doubt.
"Some hotels have put, say, markers on towels that bleep at the front door. But one friend discovered that it had a huge nuisance value, creating the wrong impression. There's also the problem of possible false arrest and slander. It'd be very difficult and unsociable to do that."
He continues: "Hotels don't keep records of theft. It's a negative thing to do, and we've found that if you start a culture where you're counting everything, it spills over and the generosity of service is damaged. If you start getting upset with things, the next guest will get the brunt of it without deserving it; the whole atmosphere changes. You want to keep everybody positive.
"At the end of the day, we're in the business of hospitality, and the core of that is generosity."
To Vaughan's knowledge, after 30 years in the industry, nobody has ever been charged with stealing from a hotel while staying there. One legendary venue, though, took a legal route of sorts in offering an 'amnesty' for people to return stolen goods, to mark its centenary. New York's Waldorf Astoria was inundated with items through the post, some dating back 100 years.
So it's not a modern thing, this need to thieve. It must be part of the DNA code. We like to check in, and can't help checking out more than we're supposed to.