by Lisa Grimaldi | February 01, 2006

Smoking is now verboten at all 77 Westin Hotels & Resorts in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, thanks to a measure that took effect in January. The hotel made its decision to go smoke-free based on the fact that 92 percent of its guests request nonsmoking rooms.
    The ban prohibits smoking in all guest rooms and public spaces, though the policy allows smoking in designated outdoor areas or in “areas not owned or operated by Westin Hotels & Resorts,” which could include franchised restaurants. Violators will be charged a “cleaning fee” the exact amount has yet to be determined, according to a spokesperson for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Westin’s parent brand.
    The 2,400 guest rooms at 69 affected properties (eight already were smoke-free) were, at press time, being thoroughly cleaned and outfitted with new soft goods.
    And one property in the chain is offering a further incentive to customers who are trying to kick their nicotine habits: Through April 30, the Westin Chicago River North will reward any guests who turn in a pack of cigarettes at check-in with a one-day pass to the hotel gym or a free WestinWorkout T-shirt. 

In other Starwood news, the company has inked a deal with Internet provider Yahoo! and its Sheraton brand. In what is being billed as an industry first, the online media company and Sheraton Hotels have teamed up to create Yahoo Link@Sheraton, a branded web portal, and specially designed Internet lounges in its hotels featuring comfortable seating, refreshments and plasma TVs, as well as complimentary wireless and broadband Internet-enabled installations. The first lounge opened last month at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. A full rollout will continue across the brand throughout this year.

Tired of long lines and harried front-desk clerks? Hilton Hotels Corp. has launched eCheck-in service at more than 2,300 properties. The feature is available to Gold and Diamond VIP members of the chain’s HHonors guest reward program. 
    The initiative allows guests to check in via the web up to 36 hours prior to arrival by allowing them to access their reservation (made previously by phone or electronically) online and select a specific room. Hotel guests need only pick up their keys and welcome packets from the front desk or a lobby key kiosk upon arrival.

High-flying British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson might soon be jetting passengers from one point to another within the United States.  A new domestic air carrier, to be called Virgin America (in which Branson’s London-based Virgin Group is a minority investor) has secured $177 million in financing and is now applying for certification from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration. The start-up airline, which will begin service with 33 Airbus 320s this year, is majority-owned by American investors and will be based at San Francisco International Airport.

Who says your rental car has to be a stodgy sedan? Hertz is now offering what it calls the “fun collection” including coupes, SUVs, convertibles and roadsters at 18 U.S. airport locations.
    The vehicles can be reserved by make and model and will be equipped with Sirius satellite radios. The collection is available at six airport locations in Florida, seven in California and two in Hawaii (Honolulu and Maui), as well as in Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Convertibles include the Ford Mustang, Mazda Miata and others; coupes/roadsters include the PT Cruiser, Chevy HHR and Nissan 350Z; SUVs include the Jeep Wrangler, Ford Escape XLT Sport and Hummer H3.