Often mistaken as a sign of poor maintenance habits, bedbugs are every hotel's worst nightmare, especially in a high-class tourism market like Charleston.
The problem turned into a crisis for the Comfort Inn & Suites downtown at 144 Bee St. over the Labor Day holiday weekend, when a local TV news report broadcast that one of the hotel's guests had rented a room that was infested with bedbugs - tiny insects that often live undetected in mattresses and upholstery fibers.
"It affects our business, and anytime this happens it's a grave concern," said Vicky Ritchie, assistant manager of the hotel. "But we've contacted the visitor's bureau to let them know that we're being proactive and we will get all the documentation to prove our rooms are clean."
The hotel was still working to make sure they had gotten rid of all the bugs Wednesday when they brought in a local bedbug detection service, Bed Bugs & Drugs, that uses a specially-trained canine, Laina, to sniff out the hard-to-find pests.
But perhaps the more tedious task for hotels that get bedbugs is overcoming the widespread misconceptions surrounding the problem.
Ed Gruetzner, the owner of Bed Bugs & Drugs who inspected each room at the Comfort Inn Wednesday morning, said he's frequently hired by local hotels.
"Bedbugs, they don't discriminate. ... It doesn't matter if it's a budget hotel or a five-star hotel. They're equal-opportunity feeders," he said.
Unlike cockroaches that become more rampant in an unclean environment, bedbugs can thrive in the most pristine conditions because their only food source is blood, according to the Pest Control Technology Media Group, a trade organization that provides information to professional pest control services. Plus, they can live, and therefore keep multiplying, for up to a year without food or water, the group said.
"The thing people don't understand is, it's the guests bringing them in. It's not like the hotels grow them on their own," Gruetzner said.
Bed bugs are most often transported in by luggage, clothing, furniture, people or even pets that have been exposed to bedbugs, according to the pest control group. While any public facility with furniture runs the risk of getting infested with bedbugs, hotels are more susceptible to the problem because they have a high turnover of guests.
"We have more than 150,000 guests a year that come into our hotel. Some of them travel quite a lot and could be coming from another hotel, we really don't know where they're coming from," said Jay Gandhi, director of operations of the local Comfort Inn.
He said the hotel had another bedbug problem in 2012. In both scenarios, Gandhi said the hotel underwent standard procedures of blocking off adjacent rooms and hiring a professional pest control service to chemically treat them. They also offered guests staying in the affected rooms full reimbursements and any costs associated with treating their belongings.
"We have a professional pest service come in every month. ... But as a hotelier, we do not know whether a room might have bedbugs because we don't sleep in our rooms. We only know when a guest comes down and tells us," Gandhi said.
Not only "hitchhikers," as Gruetzner called them, bedbugs are extremely good at hiding in small crevices, and they only come out at night when it's very dark - making it very difficult to detect or kill all the bugs, according to the pest control group.
Gruetzner's service has proven necessary to many hotels in town because Laina has a keen ability to sense otherwise undetectable infestations.
"Unless you have this dog to sniff everything and everyone that comes through your doors, there's really no way to prevent (bedbugs)," Gruetzner said.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail