Interview with TSA CEO David Stevens.
Nothing matches the clean, pressed and fresh smelling sheets of a hotel room. Often the most unappreciated part of the guest experience, hotel bed linen, robes and towels are ignored until they’re not what we expect. The question is, who maintains the standards of these items, who is there to make sure that we have that peaceful, restorative sleep that all hotel chains promise? Who can we thank? In an exclusive interview, we spoke with David Stevens, CEO of the Textile Services Association, the people protecting our sleep. You’re welcome.
Largely invisible until something is noticed, the laundry services industry nonetheless wraps up all of hospitality. A fantastic location, beautiful design, top tier customer service and gourmet chefs may go unmentioned in customer reviews, but unclean or badly laundered sheets and towels will always headline.
The Textile Services Association guides and promotes the standards of the laundry industry, ranging across commercial, industrial and medical laundry of fabrics and linen products. The Lost Executive spoke with David Stevens, CEO of the TSA who, thanks to a career spanning forty years, has seen the best and worst of it, saying, “Guests take our industry for granted and ignorance is bliss. One of our fundamental functions is to make sure guests, on all levels of hospitality, can safely presume that their bedsheets will be cleaner than what they have at home.”
David sold the family laundry business in 2015, and after twenty-five years as a board member with the TSA, finally agreed to be their CEO. A position that has required him to travel extensively, he offers insight and advice, building relationships, upholding standards and keeping on the development edge of this varied industry.
He reveals, that as CEO he is no longer on the front lines and acts more as a politician than a CEO. A large part of his role is bridge building and navigating the egos within the laundry industry. Like any in-demand sector, textile services have its cliques and tribes and various approaches to reaching the same goal. One of the things he admires about the industry is that, despite this, the focus is very much on the work instead of blatant commercialism.
“I used to be selling laundry,” he says, “Now I just want the industry to do the best job for the end user.”
Fifty million items a week are processed under the TSA with around 24000 people working in it. Directly comparing the Middle East and the UK, one of the biggest differences is that in areas like Dubai, 70% of the bed linen is owned in house by the hotel chains, while in Britain and EU this is 90% outsourced. This includes products like bedclothes, towels and linen. While David says it is debatable on which is the best solution, rental or ownership, they both have advantages and disadvantages. Ownership, such as seen in the Middle East is more complex because the items must be batched, meaning that each hotel in a chain oversees their own laundry and manage any delays, breakdowns or faults. Whereas, the rental solution has a pool-stock, which means that product distribution can be based on quality checks by a third party and distributed to the required hotels.
HIGHEST STANDARDS. CORNER TO CORNER
In the UK, where TSA have their primary focus, outsourcing comes with its own challenges. Not all laundry service providers are equal, with members supplying exclusively to the large hotel chains and distributing stock across the country while others are smaller and supply services to as many local businesses and facilities. It’s the TSA’s strives to make sure that all members are working to the highest possible standards however, the benefit of their work extends through the entire industry.
This includes lobby work to the government and discussions on sustainability when the laundry industry came under the spotlight about climate change. Additionally, the guidance provided during periods like the Covid lockdown proved essential to the recovery post 2020.
“It was a double-edged sword,” David explains, “Hospitality suffered with a 90% drop in volumes, but the laundry industry was able to support the healthcare sector during these challenging times. One of the silver linings of Covid was that it raised the importance of hygiene and the industry has seen some real momentum with the raising of healthcare standards in the social care sectors.
During the pandemic, baskets of hotel bedsheets were replaced with medical staff uniforms, and it fell to the TSA to spearhead the research into exactly what was needed by their industry to combat the virus and ensure that any decisions made were done so on data. In a very tangible way, they played their part in ensuring the front-line armour of those combatting the virus was kept strong.
They dove into research, defining independently what could kill Covid, dispelling mythology and creating a strategic focus to tackle the epidemic which had come to their doorstep. It was a relief to discover that Covid, from a laundry perspective, wasn’t a problem. Washing at 40 degrees Celsius is enough to completely eradicate the virus, and the standard temperature for washing in the laundry industry is much higher. As fortunate as this may be, it was not by accident. Previously the TSA have had to conduct research and act on other viruses. Remember when bird and swine flu were the pathogens of the day? Exactly. And remember how there was that constant fear that bed sheets and fresh laundry could pass on the viruses and infect you in your sleep? No? Exactly. Like an association of ninjas with a grudge, these nasties are taken out with the highest degree of prejudice.
“We were glad to play our part,” David says, “And as an association we’re in a good position to do more in the future.”
One of the future initiatives being implemented, is Infinite Textiles. This is an industry wide change in procedure for when stock can no longer be commercially used. On a day-to-day basis the biggest issues for hotel members are linen abuse and misuse.
As it stands, fabrics are not aggressively washed as it would only take 30-50 washes for an item to be unusable. Such a life cycle is neither environmentally nor commercially sustainable. Instead, if an item is completely damaged it is binned but other items are washed to remove light soiling, which covers an ever-evolving range of challenges. Cigarette burns are a bygone issue. But hospitality continues to offer other sorts of damage: make-up, lipsticks, shoe polish, grease and oil from luggage wheels, natural soiling and vape burns are just some of the reasons why bed sheets and towels are now condemned.
According to David, up to a third of items are condemned through misuse. The industry purchases seven thousand tonnes of cotton a year and three thousand of that is abused, while two thousand is lost. Not all of this is down to guests however, and the TSA are addressing this with destinations to improve linen sustainability by raising the value placed on it. For example, often the advice he offers to hotels on how to keep their bedsheets, towels, robes and pillowcases lasting longer is to store them inside the building instead of stashing them outside in the parking lot!
Up until 2022, condemned items would be sold to the ragman, shredded and resold as rags for one more use. The ‘last hurrah’ for textiles and the destiny for all sheets and towels, was to be ruthlessly ripped apart and spend their last days as applicators for a range of chemical products, window cleaners, shoe polishers, car washers, builders, industrial workers, artists and collectors.
Granted, sentimentality had little to do with the creation of Infinite Textiles, which is far more focussed on industry-wide sustainability and efficiency. All the TSA members have signed up and are working with the Salvation Army as an aggregator for all end-of-life hospitality textiles either to reuse, upscale or recycle (fibre to fibre).
“Helping hotels extend the life cycle of these products is one of the best things that the Textile Services Association can offer the industry,” David explains, “As is so often the case in these matters, sometimes you just have to give a sheet.”