Women-only floors in hotels are palatable once again — after a roughly 25-year drought.
But the floors are a variation on the originals — which were intended to provide a safe haven for women traveling alone on business but ended up being considered "a kind of sexist thing," as one hotel analyst put it.
Instead, the new Crowne Plaza Milwaukee-Wauwatosa says it has set up a "female-friendly" enclave. Anyone booking a room on the Women's Executive Level — the seventh floor — has access to a variety of amenities like a Victoria's Secret robe, a blow dryer and vanity mirrors. But, and here is the difference, male guests can book a room on the floor, too.
The strategy is sort of the same on the King Executive Level one floor above, what most hotels refer to as the concierge or club floor. Guests receive perks including free cocktails and concierge services, like making reservations at restaurants. But while those services have traditionally been aimed at men, women can book a room on that floor and relax in the lounge.
What many traveling women want — privacy — does not mean isolation, Crowne Plaza executives say. So they have created a hybrid that avoids fencing off a floor for female travelers.
"That Women's Level isn't really an exclusive woman's floor," said Bill DeForrest, president of Lane Hospitality, which manages three Crowne Plazas. "It's simply designed to cater to the needs of women travelers, who are growing faster in numbers than male travelers. One of the things we've changed is to keep our fitness facilities open 24/7. So much of what we do, by the way, is applicable to both men and women."
The Crowne Plaza Milwaukee is not alone in playing to niche preferences. The Millennium chain's Premier Hotel in Times Square has a "Woman Travelers Floor" that includes yoga mats, wash mitts, bath salts and a spa-style room-service menu.
In Albany, the downtown Hampton Inn just introduced a floor for female guests that offers cookies, flavored coffees, skin moisturizers and extra-soft socks, plus a half-hour session in the hotel's massage chair. The Albany program does permit men on the women's floor on weekends.
So far, the Crowne Plaza brand is the standout among a handful of chains in the United States reviving special women's floors. It has done well with its Hamilton Crowne Plaza in Washington and a new streamlined Crowne Plaza in Bloomington, Minnesota, close to the Twin Cities airport. It opened a Crowne Plaza in Toledo, Ohio, last month, but has not yet decided whether to have a women's level.
"It's up to the hotels," said Gina LaBarre, Crowne Plaza vice president for brand management. "All we want is to go the extra mile to make women feel welcome."
It is often the employers rather than the travelers that ask hotels to put women in adjoining rooms. And it makes some practical sense. If a company has many women traveling the same route — Mary Kay, for instance — and wants to strike a deal with a hotel, it may make sense to put the women near one another to socialize and talk about business.
But, said Cary Broussard, a former vice president of Wyndham Hotels, "Women don't aspire to be isolated after working years to be assimilated."
Many older female travelers with long memories have few kind words for those well-meaning floors of the past. Both Gloria Allred, a feminist lawyer, and the blogger Gina Hughes see them as a form of special treatment and, therefore, a form of discrimination.
Lalia Rach, a divisional dean and hotel specialist at New York University's Tisch Center, described the concept of women's floors as "19th-century thinking." Back then, she said, "women couldn't stay in a hotel unless their fathers or husbands checked them in." Later, the Palmer House in Chicago had what were called "Lady Hilton" rooms.
After World War II, most women entering the work force were business-travel neophytes, and safety on the road was their first priority. Out of this concern grew prohibitions to protect women, like not assigning guest rooms for women along dark hallways and not barking out names and room numbers at check-in counters.
And New York's all-woman Barbizon Plaza became an emblem of female independence.
"By the mid-'80s, separate floors in hotels offended many women who were traveling on business," said Bjorn Hanson, hotel analyst and faculty member at the Tisch Center. "They were trying to be CEO's but were looked on as the weaker sex. Women's floors became a kind of sexist thing instead of a polite offer."
On the practical side, hotels had problems with separate floors for women. "Management couldn't sell any empty women's rooms to male travelers, even when they were full up elsewhere in the hotel," Hanson said. "And if a hotel made, say, the second floor for women only, there were complaints about not having a better view on a higher floor."
Women also cared as much about amenities as they did about dark hallways. The hotel industry listened. The wish list included more tasteful décor, better shower curtains, full-length mirrors, in-room coffee makers and nutritional room-service choices.
It turned out that male business travelers also liked some of these amenities, a Hilton spokeswoman, Kendra Walker, said. Men, for instance, use the vanity mirrors for shaving and dressing.
But women's floors remain a delicate topic among business travelers. In a survey of women's attitudes before opening last September, the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids, Michigan, found "some 90 percent favored the women's floor concept," said Chad LeRoux, corporate director of marketing. "But the 10 percent who panned the idea led us to back off."
As an alternative, the hotel offers women a luxurious room on one of the four concierge floors for an extra $40.
It has found plenty of takers.