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.”
+ Breakfast on the houseThe busiest time for room service at most hotels is breakfast. One way to eliminate the morning crush is to give away the first meal of the day in the hotel restaurant or in a special area reserved for a buffet. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 79 percent of U.S. lodgings offered some form of complimentary breakfast in 2012, up from just 55 percent in 2010.
+ 24/7 on-site markets Another way to mitigate customer complaints about room service and drive up food-and-beverage revenue is the 24/7 “grab and go” market being introduced by the New York Hilton Midtown. But Hilton is a follower, not a leader. Entire chains— think Hyatt Place in the United States and CitizenM in Europe— are being built with around-the-clock food markets in their lobbies. And the concept is growing because travelers are already comfortable with the idea of buying prepared food in their everyday lives. “The grab and go concept is really growing,” says Williams of Swire.
+ Linking with off-premise restaurantsWe’ve all been in hotels that stick a few take-out or delivery menus from nearby restaurants in our room. And its not for nothing that many of the economy brands in the Choice Hotels and Wyndham Hotels chains are within walking distance of fast-casual or fast-food restaurants. Or consider this note tucked in the guest-services directory of an extended-stay hotel where I recently stayed: “Want to live like a local but not up for a night on the town? We can have food from one of our local spots delivered right to your suite; you’ll find the menu right on your message board.”
+ Bowing to technologyMany hoteliers aren’t even concerned about eliminating room service in the years to come. Why? They are bowing to the reality of the Internet. It’s awash in food-delivery services such as Seamless.com, Grubhub.com, Delivery.com, Foodler.com and Eat24.com. “Why would you order from a limited room service menu when you can surf the net or tap a phone app and have food from any number of restaurants sent right to your door?” asks the general manager of a hotel in a major metropolitan area.
The rise of tech-savvy guests ordering room-service meals off the Internet may eventually create an entirely new lodging paradigm. We may soon see hotels boasting about their traditional benefit (Location! Location! Location!) and the fact that they’re in the delivery zone for dozens and dozens of restaurants.
That’s not Xavier Cugat rocking a modern-day version of Perfidia, of course, but a good burger delivered to your room at two in the morning has charms to soothe a savage business-travel breast, too.