By Tom Kombiz-Voss, Dean of the School of Hospitality Management
Hilton Hotels certainly ruffled a few feathers this month, when it was announced that their largest New York City property would discontinue room service to all 2,000 of its rooms.
It was in 1969 that the Westin chain implemented the 24-hour room service, establishing a unique service in hotels that, throughout the years, has had many ups and downs. Today, in the interest of cutting costs to make a profit, hotel and resorts have struggled to make financial sense of this now expected luxury.
In the 1980s, luxury hotels decided to rebrand room service, calling it “in-room dining”—how becoming! This elaborate form of fine dining certainly raised the bar. Traditionally, elegant meals were delivered about two hours after ordering—often prepared by the hotel’s own gourmet restaurant. A well-dressed server would knock on your door and the show began: a nice white tablecloth cart was rolled in, the wine bottle would be corked, and even tableside cooking was performed! From there, the server would leave, returning a short while later to serve dessert, pour more wine, and clean. It’s hard to find honeymooners or other vacationing couples who would not like to experience this romantic, private service scenario!
Some time later—similar to the industry’s “bed wars” of 2006—hotels launched a “room service war,” switching up standards by offering delivery-style pizza with uniformed servers, health conscious meals or celebrity chef-inspired menus. These new amenities were often featured in elevator advertisements and guest service directory flyers.
Today, some hotels are seeing room service less as a symbol of decadence, and more of a heavy burden on their budget. To justify expenses, hotels have tried to cut down on labor costs, increase delivery time, use simplified menus or—following trends in airline food service—switch to disposable silverware. Some properties have even assigned their restaurant manager to babysit their room service department. Yet, despite these shifts in quality, in-room dining and its less elegant offshoots remain a desirable amenity for many guests.
For travelers, there aren’t many benefits to discontinuing room service, aside from eliminating dirty dishes and trays of leftover food in the hallways of hotels. (Keeping those trays off the hallways has been a challenge for hotel staff.) Yet it would seem that the easy accessibility of grab- and- go is too easy of a solution. Guests have always had the option of purchasing carryout food from a hotel’s in-house restaurant.
Guests do not plan when they are going to be hungry, nor do they plan on returning to their rooms to eat at a scheduled mealtime. They want to order food and beverages at the time that is convenient for them. We always compare a good hotel to our homes, and in our homes, the kitchen is always open.
At some point, hotels must decide if they want to budget for staff who, too often, are sitting around and waiting for orders. Cutting costs may or may not be worth upsetting guests, as those who prefer room service may opt to stay elsewhere.
If hotels decide to eliminate this expected luxury, travelers will certainly miss their club sandwiches and breakfast in bed. According to a Crain’s online poll, people were asked if they would stay in a top hotel if it didn’t offer room service. Forty-two percent said “Yes. No one depends on room service anymore. That’s not why I go to luxury hotels,” while 58 percent said “No. Room service is essential. That’s what the luxury hotel experience is about.” There is more to be said about room service, but one thing is certain, not all hoteliers will ever agree that this service can be eliminated without the risk of losing valuable guests.