Not just gin and crisps: raising the (mini) bar

A feature of hotel rooms since the 70s, minibars are moving upmarket with designer mineral water, fine wines and even sex toys

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 Bogata. 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, 60p bottles of water are 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.

Open at your own cost: Inside the minibar

The big seller

What is the biggest-selling item in the minibar? Organic crisps? Vodka? Or maybe those luxury chocolates? In fact, the biggest selling item is the most mundane: bottled water.

Boutique Brands

Say goodbye to Schweppes. The soft drinks found in minibars nowadays are more likely to come from small boutique makers such as Fentimans, Frobishers and Fever-Tree.

The modern mini

In the modern minibar you are just as likely to find oxygen canisters (Banyan Tree Hotel, China) and Alice-in-Wonderland hand mirrors (Mondrian, LA) as crisps and M&Ms.

Doubly expensive

Though the prices of some items seem extortionate, hotels insist that minibars are unprofitable because of the cost of employing attendants and losses due to pilfering.

A tiny trick

Watch out for those miniatures. A favourite trick of unscrupulous guests is to fill empty bottles of whisky with tea and vodka with water then put them back in the fridge.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering