The Secret Life of Hotel Towels

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, guests at Holiday Inns had a thing for the hotel chain’s towels, often making off with them and proudly hanging them in guest bathrooms back home. Nowadays, such an act would definitely draw some raised eyebrows. Can you imagine displaying towels in your home that you had clearly stolen from a hotel? We might not be bold about keeping them on the rack, but a survey indicates that people are still big fans of hotel towels and continue to steal them in large numbers. 


The booking service released a survey in spring 2016 revealing that 31 percent of respondents had stolen pool towels from hotels, with room towels running a close second at 27 percent. The survey had responses from 2,623 British travellers. Although the Holiday Inn chain has not used the logo on its towels for more than a decade, it still reports that it loses more than 500,000 towels each year worldwide. This is a cost that almost every hotel builds into its budget, but that isn’t to say the problem isn’t burdensome.

In 2003, Holiday Inn gave the guilty not only absolution but also the opportunity to tell their stories, with an ad campaign in the United States asking for stories of “borrowed” towels. Perhaps inspired by the chance to be relieved of their burden, guests poured their hearts out. The company received thousands of stories, many of which were collected into a book called “About the Towels, We Forgive You: Absorbing Tales of Borrowed Towels.”

A school play, a trip to the vet, a honeymoon in Mexico: It turned out many of the towels had played roles in important life events and really were part of absorbing stories. Years – in some cases, decades – later, people could remember exactly how they had come by their Holiday Inn towels and most still had them. For every story, the company donated $1 to Give Kids the World, a cost-free holiday village for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. One of the stories came from the mother of a family who had stayed at the resort and were on their way home when her daughter had a medical emergency, prompting an overnight stay at a Holiday Inn; she grabbed one of the towels to use as a pillow for her daughter on the way to the hospital.

We suspect, however, that most guests don’t have such absorbing stories and the loss for hotels worldwide really adds up. Also, decent hotels do go to some trouble to select linens for their rooms. So, if you’re going to steal a hotel towel, try to make sure it’s for a really good reason.