It came to Robert Arnold at 32,000 feet above the South China Sea. The food and beverage manager of the Hong Kong Hilton was returning to work on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok in the summer of 1974. Ordering a drink, the stewardess handed him a miniature bottle of whisky. Maybe these dinky bottles could go in the mini fridges recently installed in each of the 840 rooms in the hotel? Put alcohol alongside the water, currently given away free, and they might make a fast buck, or at least pay for the water. The plan was put into action. Bucks were duly made, the hotel's profitability increased, the management in New York took note.
The format, with added peanuts and the odd packet of crisps, spread through the Hilton chain and across the globe. By the end of the 20th century, minibars were installed in hotel rooms from Biarritz to Bogota. Businessmen hopscotching around the world could find the same products behind the little metal door wherever they were.
But the minibar's money-making glow has begun to fade in recent years. In part the result of the global recession and the tightening of corporate belts, but in equal measure the product of a pre-recessional discernment that turned its nose and closed its wallet when presented with Identikit food and drink – namely the ubiquitous mini-tube of Pringles and packets of M&Ms. What to do to stem the losses incurred through employing minibar attendants and endemic "breakages"? For most hotels the answer was simple, says Warren Lee, bar manager at the boutique Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, east London: "You look locally and go upmarket." So the minibar got a facelift, and an expensive one at that.
In the new set-up, the snacks are distinctly upper crust, the drinks small-batch and boutique. At the 18-room Boundary Hotel in east London, Schweppes soft drinks have been usurped by Fentimans lemonade, Frobishers orange juice and Fever-Tree tonic. At the five-star Connaught in Mayfair, alongside the usual suspects – Hennessey XO, Johnny Walker Black Label and Billecart-Salmon Rosé – you'll find 1995 Bas Armagnac Francic Darroze, which is supplied by the brother of Helene Darroze, the hotel restaurant's two-Michelin-starred head chef, from his small vineyard in south-west France. Yours for £125. Claridge's, just down the road, has gone a step further and created its own brand of humbugs and jelly babies. The Savoy recently put rose and violet chocolates and crystallised fruit from royal chocolatiers Charbonnel and Walker in its in-room "refreshment centres". These perch next to three different kinds of mineral water: Volvic, Kingsdown and Voss. "We look to please all our guests," says Sean Davoren, head butler at the Savoy, "make them as comfortable as they are at home. And in terms of quality we go for the finest things – we give our customers what they expect."
At the new, rather more over-the-top hotels it seems the customers expect a little more than armagnac and boxes of chocolates. Open the fridge at the Banyan Tree in Ringha, China, and you'll find mini-oxygen canisters. In the depths of la-la land at the Los Angeles Mondrian, guests can sit, narcisuss-like, staring at themselves in the Alice-in-Wonderland-style mirrors that each room has in its minibar. The 199-room W Hotel in London lives up to its "work hard, play hard" mantra by supplying Berroca and Scholl party-feet packs. Plus "intimacy kits" which include condoms, lubricant and sex toys for both sir and madam. Though that isn't something all hotels plan to emulate. "People must do as they please," say Davoren, "but we wouldn't put those items in the refreshment centres at the Savoy. Frankly its makes the places look like a knocking shop. It doesn't fit with our image at all."
Some five-star hotels have decided that minibars themselves don't quite fit with their image. "Each of our rooms is bespoke," says Warren Lee, "so when we opened in 2009 we didn't want a uniform option, we wanted to be more personal than you can be with a minibar. Instead, if guests want a pre-dinner cocktail they can phone 'Mabel and Fitzgerald', our roving cocktail makers, who come to the rooms with a trolley and create a cocktail in their room. We wanted to offer something a bit different and play off the hotel's Victorian heritage."
Though the content may have changed, there is one constant in the world of the minibar: price. Wherever we are, we can expect to see 60p bottles of water on sale in the minibar at four or five times that price. Why do hotels risk alienating guests with such extortionate pricing? Well, although hotels are highly reticent when it comes to discussing the pricing of the produce in their minibars, contrary to what we might expect, they aren't profitable.
As Beth Scott, Vice president of food and beverage strategy at Hilton Worldwide recently explained to The Wall Street Journal: "People think the hotels are trying to gouge them, but actually [minibars] are loss-leaders." Citing theft – filling empty vodka bottles with water and whisky bottles with tea – and the cost of employing people to look after them as the main drains.
Pricing to one side, one thing is clear: the minibar has undergone a transformation of which Madonna would be proud. The product of Robert Arnold's mid-air epiphany has got defiantly sexy, gone up-market and even a bit narcissistic in an attempt to ensure we all keep peering inside that little buzzing cabinet in the corner.
But, the question is, has it been a success? What is the biggest selling item in the super minibar? Across the world, in hotels at all levels of luxury and price, there is one thing that we all want: bottled water. Maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board – or include mineral water in the price of a room.