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It's the end of hotel room service as we know it, and I feel fine

Wednesday - 7/17/2013, 4:51pm  ET

When a New York hotel announced this spring that it would soon bag room service for a "grab and go" market in its lobby, the national media rose en masse and churned out thousands of words and pictures about how the change represented a fundamental shift in the national culture. Me, I just pulled out my copy of Weekend at the Waldorf.

The 1945 melodrama, an Americanized version of Grand Hotel, stars Lana Turner as a tough-cookie stenographer working at the even-then iconic Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Some of the action takes place in the hotel's Starlight Roof, one of the Waldorf's dinner-and-dancing spots. The hotel band, led by Xavier Cugat, gets more than a few minutes of screen time. Cugat even gets sheet music delivered by a room-service waiter.

The Waldorf doesn't have a steno pool for guests anymore. The stenographer's office has been turned into a sundries shop. The Starlight Roof long ago became function space. The Waldorf's house band is gone, too, and the flamboyant Cugat has been in bandleader heaven since 1990.

My point? Hotels eventually get rid of stuff that travelers stop valuing. And they constantly change things like bathrooms and front desks and lobbies to keep up with the times. So why should a business traveler be shocked or the media egged into action when a singular hotel swaps out room service for a 24-hour lobby market?

The plain fact of the matter is that the concept of food delivered to your guestroom has been changing for years. The idea of room service isn't written in hotel stone. It's no more eternal than Xavier Cugat or pitchers of fresh water delivered to your room, a practice that disappeared when hotels began installing en-suite bathrooms.

More to the point, the announcement that the New York Hilton Midtown, a bland convention hotel with nearly 2,000 rooms, is dumping room service is hardly man-bites-dog news. According to STR Global, a hotel-research firm, there are now 2.7 million rooms in so-called limited-service hotels, properties that don't have an on-site restaurant and aren't likely to offer room service. Nationwide, there are just 2.2 million rooms in "full-service" hotels, properties that have traditionally considered room service part of the mix.

"Even though guests gripe all of the time about the cost of room service, it never has and probably never can make money for a hotel," explains Michael Matthews, whose long lodging career has included stops at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Rosewood and Regent chains. Matthews' observation is universally endorsed by every hotel executive I've ever interviewed and buttressed by the New York Hilton Midtown's claim that it will be able to lay off or redeploy 55 employees when its room service disappears.

And despite the media's obsession with pie-in-the-sky stories about room service, fewer and fewer travelers even care. According to PKF Hospitality Research, room service accounts for only about 1 percent of the revenue at hotels that still offer the amenity. And room-service revenue is plunging. It fell to an average of $866 per room in 2012 compared to more than $1,150 in 2007. For a bit of perspective, do the math. That works out to just $2.37 in room-service charges per room each day.

So why all the fuss about a product that has less financial impact than the cost of a cup of joe to go? Tradition, mostly. Full-service and luxury hotels have always offered room service so some travelers expect it, even if they don't use it. Convenience, of course. In a business-travel world where airlines no longer offer meals in coach and our on-the-road schedules often obviate dining during regular hours, it's nice to know hotels are ready to provide sustenance when we're able to consume it. There's even what we might as well call the Sybarite's Delight. Even when the fare is iffy and the prices outrageous, it's sometimes fun to take breakfast in bed or order a candlelit supper with a special someone in the privacy of our own room.

For those reasons and more, food delivered to our rooms won't be going out of style anytime soon. But like the Waldorf retired the steno pool and put a sundries shop in its place, how we get room service is already changing dramatically. Some of the most notable trends:

+ Shorter delivery hours Although super-deluxe hotels and resorts may feel compelled to keep 24/7 room service, many other properties are reducing hours as a way to cut costs. Brian Williams, managing director of Swire Hotels, says his fast-growing chain called East dispenses with a separate room service kitchen and staff. "We do room service directly from the [on-premise] restaurant when it is open and that's manageable."

+ Simpler presentationsMore and more hotels realize that some of the most costly components of room service fancy trays, heavy cutlery, china under silvery domes, trollies to deliver and retrieve service items aren't valued by guests. So they've gone to a "brown bag" approach. Their room service is delivered in disposable containers similar to the packaging used by restaurants that offer take-out and delivery. "Guests are okay with that," one hotel general manager told me. "They understand the brown bag approach because that's what they expect at home when they order take-out."

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