Cutting costs without apparently cutting corners is a global headache for hotels. So does the news that the New York Hilton Midtown has ditched room service indicate a growing trend, or is it one step too far? Rosalind Mullen finds out
For some hotel guests room service is a by-word for overpriced food delivered a tad too tardily, while for others it's a lifeline when checking in late or travelling solo. So can a half-decent hotel really operate without it?
New York's 1,981-bedroom Hilton Midtown, which charges an average of $200 (£128) a night, reckons it can. As of this month, guests will have to get dressed and nip down to serve themselves at the Herb n' Kitchen market if they have the midnight munchies or want an early breakfast.
So, as room service is not contributing much to Hilton Midtown's coffers and it is saving about 50 salaries by axing it, the move would seem to be a no-brainer.
Critics, however, question why guests would pay top whack for a full-service hotel that doesn't offer a full service. Indeed, it offers an opportunity for competitors to raise their game, as when the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach switched to a take-out and delivery service last autumn, claiming that room-service orders had dropped by 40% in 10 years. This prompted local competitor Sheraton to put three- and four-course meals on its room-service menu.
service revenue shrinkage
Nevertheless, there is evidence that the demand for room service is tailing off. A recent PKF Hospitality Research survey found that room service accounted for just 1.2% of total hotel revenue, down from 1.3% the previous year. President Mark Woodworth says there is a trend for guests to help themselves to what they need, as evidenced by the growth of buffets, automated check-ins and so on.
Arguably, airlines have paved the way. Passengers are now used to booking online, printing out boarding cards, checking onto flights and even paying for their food on board. People are similarly happy with casual dining, and how they eat at home is translating into how they eat when travelling.
While few full-service hotels have abandoned room service altogether, plenty are making changes to their offer. At the uber-luxury end, the Public Chicago hotel has introduced a gourmet express menu with dishes created by top chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and delivered in brown paper bags. At the Grand Hyatt New York there is a 24-hour upmarket convenience store. While at chic budget hotels such as Qbic in Amsterdam and Ibis in France there are vending machines.
In the UK, few top-end hotels have scrapped room service, even in city centres, where F&B competition is fierce. Malmaison brand director Scott Harper recalls that when founder Ken McCulloch first developed the Mal concept he didn't want to offer room service, but in the end the pressure of expectation, especially from the corporate sector, forced his hand. As a result, all 12 boutique hotels in the group offer their brasserie menu through room service to tap into guests' time-poor lifestyle.
"Most business people, if they are on their own, will want to work and then enjoy the TV options, or listen to music in their own environment while they have dinner, rather than sit on their own in a restaurant," says Harper.
Arguably, room service and the fact that Malmaison is city centre-based could draw custom from the brand's brasseries, but Harper says: "We prefer to encourage guests down to use the brasserie to build a buzz and atmosphere, but it's important to have the flexibility that our customers expect of a quality hotel. There is a definite expectation that we should provide room service."
Anthony Cox, general manager at the five-star Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire, also believes room service adds value. He says: "At our level it's all about what the guest wants, where they want it and when they want it."
Of course, the 49-bedroom Vineyard is a foodie haven, so most guests want to experience the restaurant. As a result, room-service delivery incurs negligible additional costs and tends to be used mostly at breakfast.
Embracing immediacy However, Cox concedes it makes sense for some hotels to rethink it. "Guest expectations are continuously changing, particularly around service, as people have widely varying lifestyles these days. They want more immediacy in many cases.
"I can see why city centre hotels that continue to up their own game in terms of bars and restaurants may stop it. It is interesting to see how hotels react to this potential revenue loss by making public spaces more geared up for dining and operationally more cost-effective to service. Citizen M in London is a good example with their Canteen M concept."
Although the evidence suggests that demand for traditional room service is ebbing, it seems likely that the trend will be for hotels to adapt the service to meet contemporary needs rather than drop it altogether.
Tellingly, Hilton sees its move at the New York Midtown as a one-off. A Hilton Worldwide spokesperson says: "This offering is currently unique to New York Hilton Midtown and we have no plans to roll out the initiative more broadly. Each property is unique, and any such decisions to eliminate room service would be made on a property-by-property basis if we determine it would allow us to meet the needs of our guests more effectively."
Minibar delight Though room service remains popular for guests of InterContinental Hotels Group's (IHG) boutique hotel brand Indigo, they are also treated to complimentary snacks in the minibar as well as the use of Nespresso machines in rooms.
What's available differs between hotels, but guests are likely to find a bottle of beer, water and a chocolate bar in their minibar, all available free.
"Many of our hotels have taken the decision to offer this to our guests and we've had some great feedback," explains Tom Rowntree, IHG's vice-president of brand management upscale and luxury brands, Europe. "This is driven from individual hotels' execution of 'surprising and delighting' our guests at every opportunity."
The hotel group has been researching changing guest expectations, though its findings don't herald the end of room service as we know it.
"To mark 10 years since the launch of IHG, we partnered with the Futures Company to gain a deeper understanding of future trends and travellers' evolving expectations," says Rowntree. "The findings show we can't look at travellers through a simplistic lens. Travellers are multidimensional, with conflicting needs during their hotel stay.
"At Indigo hotels room service is still a popular option among guests; likewise we've had some great feedback from guests who have stayed in our hotels which surprise guests with complimentary snacks."
Vending machines with local flavour Vending machines are used increasingly as an alternative to a restaurant or room service in budget hotels in Europe, such as at the affordably trendy Qbic in Amsterdam, which stocks home-made products from local bakeries in its machines.
In France, Ibis Budget provides a Continental breakfast buffet but relies on vending machines to supply hot and cold drinks, and salty and sweet snacks at other times. The machines are located in the hotels' public spaces, where guests have access day and night.
According to a spokesperson, vending brings in between 50 and 90 cents additional revenue per person per night. Ibis Budget research in Europe has concluded that 73% of guests are "very satisfied" by the products and services.
It might be a bit too radical for the UK market, though. Karelle Lamouche, vice-president marketing - Ibis brands Northern Europe, says: "The Ibis Budget hotel brand in the UK has adapted its food and beverage offer to the local market and preferences, and offers a selection of hot and cold dishes for guest satisfaction."
Express 'takeaway' offers in-room casual dining Another New York hotel exploring room-service alternatives is the chic Hudson hotel owned by Morgans Hotel Group, which launched an express takeaway-style menu back in February.
Waving aside silver trays, glassware and snow-white linen, the deluxe 866-bedroom hotel has introduced Common Express, a quick, casual dining concept that offers a few best-selling menu items from the hotel's trendy beer hall and burger joint, Hudson Common.
Common Express is on speed dial on the in-room phone, and orders are delivered within 15 minutes in a simple delivery bag with items individually packaged and ready to eat.
"It is very popular with our guests. The no-frills convenience and speed seem to be more important to today's travellers than the traditional slow, stuffy, room-service model," says Alan Philips, group vice-president of F&B.
Breakfast Express is available from 6am to 11am daily, with choices such as egg and maple-braised bacon sandwich, and all come with orange juice, whole fruit and coffee or tea. Nightly Express is available from 5pm to 11pm Sunday to Monday and 5pm to midnight, Tuesday to Saturday, with dishes such as kale Caesar salad, burgers and French toast grilled cheese. All come with quinoa chips, a bottle of water and chocolate chip cookies.
"Guests still expect the kind of food you would get in a dining room," says Philips. "We want to be able to give them the high-quality food experience they are looking for without the stuff surrounding it - the excess service, the trays."
According to Philips, the cost implications are significantly more favourable to guests than traditional room service. For a start, expensive accoutrements such as trays, tables, flowers, china and glassware are no longer needed.
He adds: "The need to retrieve tables, trays and dirty plates and glassware throughout the hotel is also eliminated, further enhancing productivity and efficiency among employees. It is the only room-service concept I know of in New York City that actually makes a profit."
It's timely, too, given that the Hilton Midtown New York has closed its room-service operation because of rising costs and a fall in demand.