Room service: The final call on a luxury that is just not profitable

At the New York Hilton, you will soon have to make do with a 'grab 'n go' cafeteria

Room service is one of life’s few  uncomplicated pleasures. You pay a bit extra – you get to avoid the company of your fellow hotel guests at meal times. At breakfast, when eyes still droop and conversation stutters like an old Ford Escort, it is almost immoral not to call for breakfast in bed. Plus, it makes you feel a bit special.

I remember returning drunk to a European hotel and ticking just about everything on the room service breakfast menu, only to wake up five hours later and find a spread arrayed at the base of my bed which wouldn’t have shamed Lord “Two Dinners” Goodman. It cost a fortune, included fruit with a bit of gold leaf on it, but it made me feel like a Bourbon prince. Until I got the bill.

It is now, however, a luxury under threat. At the New York Hilton, the city’s largest with 1,980 rooms, they are to cease offering room service come August. Instead they will provide a rather less appealing “grab ’n go” cafeteria. No men in white jackets, no trays in bed, nothing.

Why? Well despite the high menu prices, room service just isn’t that profitable. As the Trip Advisor Room Service Index shows,  in-room dining can be breakingly expensive (Fancy a club sandwich in Tokyo? That’ll be £15.85. Peanuts in Moscow? £7.96). But it is also breakingly expensive to offer guests a 24/7 service. You need chefs, you need waiters, you need people taking the order on reception. There is a whole ecosystem of labour (usually of around 12 staff for a large hotel) that swing into action to bring you that eggs Benedict – and they all need paying.

Which is not so easy when business expense accounts are tighter than handcuffs and the economic weather remains frosty. Data from the US shows that while revenue per available room increased from $56.47 in 2011 to $61.05 in 2012, revenue from in-room food was down from 1.3 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

Of course, some hotels do make it work. Historic hotels offering no in-room tea or coffee facilities do claw the room-service outlay back by selling hot and cold beverages at  inflated rates with a tray charge on top, but at “party” hotels (the W hotel group, springs to mind) that doesn’t exactly sit well with the easy-going attitude they attempt to contrive.

Trendier boutique hotels are increasingly attempting to shave cost by offering “brown bag” service. At Public in Chicago they leave a bag with a breakfast on your door and at the Four Seasons Washington DC their “15-minute menu” comes on disposable paper trays.

As Juliet Kinsman, the editor-in-chief of travel guide Mr & Mrs Smith, points out, removing rooms service totally may be a missed trick: “Room service can feel like you have your own romantic private dining room and it can be well worth the surcharge for the client and the operations hassle for the host”. This is one New York trend, fingers crossed, that won’t cross the pond.

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