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False online reports of bed bug infestations can be a real problem for hotels

CNBC logo CNBC 6/13/2017 Robert Ferris

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People are disgusted by bed bugs, but less than half of travelers even know what one looks like, according to a new report.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky and Miami University of Ohio surveyed travelers and found that fears of bedbug infestations outpace knowledge of the insects by a wide margin. This could be a problem for a wide swath of businesses, especially hotels, say the team, since false claims about bedbug infestations can do real damage to a business.

They published their research Tuesday in the journal American Entomologist.

The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is a tiny blood-sucking insect, so named because they can sometimes found living in or around bedding or furniture. There has been a resurgence in bed bugs in the United States in recent years, which researchers commonly attribute to increased levels of travel.

More than half of the people the team surveyed (60 percent) said they would be very unlikely to choose a hotel with a single online report of bed bugs. That is a higher number than those who would change hotels over signs of smoking, a dirty bathroom or towels, spots on mattresses or linens, or the presence of "foreign material" such as blood in a hotel room.

About 80 percent the survey participants said hotels have to inform guests if their room has had a prior problem with bed bugs, and a full third of survey respondents wanted to be told if a hotel had ever had an infestation. But only 46 percent would stay at a hotel if it told customers about bed bug prevention measures. About one quarter said they want hotels to take preventative measures, but don't want to be told about them.

But only 35 percent of business travelers and only 28 percent of leisure travelers surveyed could properly identify the insect in a lineup.

This disparity has already had parallels in the real world.

In once case they cite, pictures of an alleged "bed bug infestation" surfaced on social media, gaining news coverage and enough traction online to be addressed by the fact-checking website Snopes.com. It turned out the picture in question featured a dead spider, not a bed bug.

"From a hotel industry perspective, it's worrisome that a single online report of bed bugs would cause the majority of travelers to book different accommodations, irrespective of whether the report is accurate," said the study's lead author Jerrod M. Penn, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, in a news release. "Furthermore, the incident could have involved only one or a few rooms, which the hotel previously eradicated."

The researchers said hotels are caught between a "rock and a hard place," since infestations are inevitable from time to time, just as they are elsewhere. Among other things, they recommend hotels develop plans for managing their reputations, seeking reports online and evaluating their veracity, as well as training staff to identify to bed bugs and catch infestations early.

"Fifteen years into their resurgence, bed bugs remain a serious pest issue," the team said in their report. "Sub-optimal treatment tools, less tolerant consumers, and ubiquitous reporting of incidents via social media have made bed bugs especially challenging for hotels.
The pests are a reminder to those in this country that it is not a birthright to live free of parasitic vermin."

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