A New Approach to Guest Room Noise

I do a lot of business travel, so I’m not surprised to see that noise regularly tops the list of guest complaints according to the J.D. Power North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study. Not even luxury properties are resistant to this problem. The 2011 study delved even deeper, finding that only 43 percent of guests made their dissatisfaction known to staff and, of those, just 35 percent said the issue was fixed. That left 85 percent of noise problems unreported or unresolved.

And the financial impact of noise is substantial. Hotels offer guests rebates and other discounts as conciliatory measures. Properties suffer from reduced return business and can quickly acquire a poor reputation through word-of-mouth and online reviews.

But trying to remedy noise issues has proven challenging for many properties, likely due to a misunderstanding of the mechanics of acoustics.

Being in the acoustics field, I have a very good idea of what’s at the root of the majority of hotel noise problems. To better illustrate it to hoteliers, I started travelling with a sound level meter. What this tool allows me to demonstrate is that the ambient level in the majority of guest rooms is simply too low (28 to 35 decibels). In this ‘pin drop’ environment, guests are easily disturbed by even low volume noises because they perceive them as loud in comparison to the otherwise almost silent conditions.

Many commercial offices suffer from the same issue, but the difference is that, in hotels, the problem continues to affect people during the night. Even while we’re sleeping (or trying to), we’re not immune to intermittent noises that cause large changes in volume. Again, it’s not the volume of these noises, but rather the change from baseline to peak levels that’s disruptive – what we call ‘dynamic range.’ That’s why many people can fall asleep on an airplane (a loud, but consistent sound), but are kept tossing and turning by a dripping faucet.

Traditional approaches to addressing hotel noise haven’t been successful because they seek to make guest rooms even quieter. While lowering the amount of noise produced (e.g. quiet floors) and increasing the acoustical isolation provided by walls, windows and doors decrease peak volumes, these strategies also reduce the overall ambient level, making any remaining (unavoidable) noises even more noticeable.

A new approach is needed – one that helps to replenish and control the background sound level. Sound masking achieves this goal by using a loudspeaker to introduce a comfortable, engineered sound into the room. Guests can adjust the masking’s volume according to preference, covering or reducing the noise from adjoining rooms, corridors, elevators, mechanical systems, ice machines, traffic and bars. Feedback from guests staying at properties featuring this technology has been overwhelmingly positive. Most compare the sound to softly blowing air and perceive it as a great amenity.

In the end, having 85 percent of noise complaints go unreported or unresolved seems unacceptable in a service industry. And, as with any problem, understanding its root cause is key to implementing the right solution.

I’ll be presenting an HFTP webinar on hotel noise on November 29. I hope you’ll join us to learn more about the sources of noise and solutions you can implement in your hotel. If you’d like more information on acoustics and sound masking in the meantime, check out my blog: www.soundmaskingblog.com

Niklas Moeller is vice president of K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd. He is an acoustical expert who has worked on thousands of sound masking solutions including hotels such as the Tribeca Grand Hotel (NYC), the Ritz Carlton (Charlotte), and the Springhill Suites (Sacramento).

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