You’ve been flying all day, stuck in crowded airports, distracting yourself from flight delays with a good Kindle read or the chance to clear out your inbox without interruption. By the time you get to your hotel you’re tired and hungry, ready to just order a burger from room service and collapse.
Not so fast.
Recent announcements from mega-hotel chains, including Hyatt and Hilton, have sounded the death knell for traditional round-the-clock room service. Still, there’s no reason for business travelers to think when they get to their hotel they’ll be left with nothing to eat except what’s in the vending machine. Hotels are limiting menus and adding alternatives such as casual 24-hour food marts that industry and hotel experts hope you’ll like them better than that apocryphal $50 room service burger.
The market for traditional room service is fading, due to changing habits and travel spends. Research from Atlanta-based PKF Hospitality Research found that revenue per occupied U.S. hotel room, a data point which includes room-service spending, dropped to $3.25 in 2012 from $4.33 in 2007, obviously a small fraction of what travelers spend at the hotel, as compared with room rates, parking, and dining elsewhere in the hotel. In 2012, room service accounted for a meager 1.22 percent of total hotel revenue, a 20% drop from 5 years earlier. Clearly, guests aren’t taking advantage of room service like they used to, so it makes sense that hotels would develop alternatives that better meet modern traveler demands.
"We started looking at business travelers, how they eat on the road,” explains Beth Scott, vice president of restaurant development for Hilton Worldwide/Hilton HHonors, one of the chains that recently revamped its in-room dining options. "The business traveler really changed and we wanted to not be stuck in the old hotel model."
In the last year both the Hilton and Doubletree brands began testing and rolling out a cross-section of 24-hour alternatives to room service, including packaged gourmet take-out and meals that can be ordered in advance and picked up from the lobby, restaurant or market, so that they can be eaten anywhere travelers might want to take their tablet and their meal. Those options are still being tested and tweaked, Scott says, but the bottom line is: There’s no reason to feel holed up in your room.
"A lot of what we call upper midscale hotels have introduced bistro food 24-7, while limited service hotels are adding brown bag lunches and breakfasts," says Jeff Higley, vice president, digital media and communications of HotelNewsNow.com.
The trend is being driven not just by changes in customer needs, but by economics. In urban markets where hotels have largely unionized workforces, reducing the costs of organized labor providing room service can be a big boon to the bottom line, he adds. In addition to the pressure of a more expensive workforce, hotels in large urban markets have more options for guests. If there are a number nearby of restaurants that will deliver to hotel guests, the hotel is under less pressure to provide 24-hour dining. In a more rural environment, a hotel may need to continue to offer room service.
"Hotels are continuing to try to make their business model as tight as they can to achieve success," Higley says.
The Peabody Orlando has long had a 24-hour restaurant, and runs its room-service operations out of that same kitchen. This allows the hotel to offer room service to guests who fly in all hours of the day and night, says Barb Bowden, vice president/general manager. Bowden, who is a board member of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International, says that design permits the hotel to offer room service without some of the higher staffing charges that make it difficult for other hotels.
Hotels that are keeping room service, she says, are making tweaks to make it more economically viable. Some are limiting the hours room service might be available. Others, such as the Hilton Hawaii Village and the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, have shifted to digital room-service menus, saving on printing charges and permitting changes to be made for seasonal and other dishes. These digital menus can be accessed from in-room TVs, iPads and even custom apps.
Those planning trips should find out what option might be available when they book and consider downloading a food delivery app for the area in advance. If the service is available, they might even ask to have their guest room fridge stocked with their favorite snacks to make sure their dining needs are met when in-room service isn’t just the push of a button away.
Margaret Littman is a journalist who covers small businesses, travel and all manner of other topics, with a sweet spot for anything relating to stand-up paddling or Music City. She is the author of the Nashville Essential Guide iPhone and Android app and many travel guidebooks. Her work has appeared in many national magazines, and she is the editor of Entrepreneur magazine’s Start It Up section.