In August of 2013, Hilton Worldwide announced a controversial plan: It would discontinue room service at its flagship New York Midtown location. The move sent a shock-wave throughout the hotel industry, not unlike the one you might feel after looking at your mini-bar bill following a one-night stay. The reasoning: “Like most full-service hotels, New York Hilton Midtown has continued to see a decline in traditional room-service requests over the last several years as customer preferences and expectations continue to evolve,” a spokesperson said at the time. Instead of in-room service, the hotel set out a plan to offer to-go food in a market-style café called Herb N’ Kitchen. Situated in the lobby, Hilton thought it that it would allow greater variety and convenience for busy guests presumably not content to stay in their rooms for 45 minutes while food was prepared fresh in a kitchen below.
Although the move, which eliminated 55 jobs, was reversed one month later — though with meals now being delivered to guest rooms in paper bags instead of on silver trays, and only during breakfast and dinner hours — it spelled the beginning of a new era in the evolution of room service.
First, there’s the matter of economics. In 1980, room service (including drinks) made up almost 40 per cent of a U.S. hotel’s revenue. Today, that’s dropped to about 25 per cent, according to PFK Consulting — a devastating plunge in an industry that is ever more perilous, thanks to a confluence of factors that include the fluctuating cost of airfare and the rise of Airbnb and other ancillary accommodation services. To be fair, hotels themselves must shoulder much of the blame. After all, they’ve been the ones dishing out arguably subpar food at sky-rocketing prices for the past five decades or so, often charging $35 for a cold club sandwich with limp fries.
When, truly, was the last time you remember enjoying a room-service meal — actually savouring it, rather than struggling through a last-resort hamburger at 11:30 p.m. after a long day of meetings?
Of course, hotels have also been cannibalizing their own room service revenue, thanks to the rise of free breakfast buffets and other complimentary perks. Naturally, they’ve been doing this to attract a customer base in a fiercely competitive market, but it does affect the mentality of a customer. I recall, a few years ago, visiting a chain hotel in downtown New York City and being amazed by its free breakfast buffet (complete with eggs, bacon, oatmeal and pancakes), then shocked by its happy hour snacks and late-night tapas. With this bounty, why on earth would I want — or need — to then fork over more money for kitchen-prepped salads and sandwiches, even if they are delivered to my room?
In an age where hotel guests, primarily business travellers, are constantly on the clock and so less apt to stay in the room for a prolonged period of time, there is suddenly a need to be more flexible in room-service offerings, and in catering to the needs of a client base that craves innovation and flexibility, even when it comes to the simple matter of a club sandwich.
So, where does this leave the current state of room service? Are we doomed to either suffer $35 hamburgers that take an hour to prepare or simply suffer in silence with prepackaged tuna sandwiches from a lobby bar? This is where the luxury market comes in. As with most bygone hotel amenities, the luxe bracket of hotels has taken a look at the industry and decided that if it wants to stand out, room service just might be the key to guests’ stomachs, hearts and American Express Black cards.
Take The Singular in Santiago, Chile, for instance. While the country has a number of upper-end hotel options, The Singular tries to stand out by offering in-room dining that not only highlights, but makes a celebration of, local Chilean cuisine, including wild game like Patagonian hare and wood-fired lamb. “Our chef, Laurent Pasqualetto, only cooks with locally grown or raised ingredients, many of which originate from Southern Chile in the Patagonia region,” says Lanny Grossman, who manages public relations for the property. “The Singular Santiago’s mission is in its name; to offer a Singular experience that is representative of its location, culture and heritage. That rings true for every aspect of the property including room service.”
That same above-and-beyond philosophy rings true at luxury establishments the world over, including St. Barth’s Hotel Le Toiny, where giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano arrive at your room, alongside a chef who carves the cheese into the shape of a bowl before adding spaghetti and black truffles; Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito, Calif., where personal bartenders are available to show you how to make use of your mini bar); and Raffles Paris’s Le Royal Monceau property, where treats are courtesy of chef Pierre Hermé, a.k.a. the “Picasso of Pastry.”
This aim-to-please balance has also spawned a perhaps expected push-pull in the other direction, with mid-range chains turning room service up to the proverbial 11. The JW Marriott Chicago, for instance, is making in-room dining less of a last resort and more of an experience. The 611-room hotel offers everything from high-end Japanese bento boxes (striped bass with miso broth, anyone?) to a unique dessert called a “chocolate ski” — a thin wooden board topped with cookies, truffles and accompanied with Prosecco.
Other properties are going in similarly extravagant and/or eccentric routes. There’s the boutique Aparium Hotel Group, which boasts artisanal non-alcoholic elixirs; Caesars Palace, with room service available from in-hotel restaurant Nobu; Trump Hotel Central Park New York and its in-suite chefs from Jean-George Vongerichten’s kitchen available at just 24 hours notice; and Aloft Hotels, where you can order your meal using emojis (really), as well as care package-like combos for different types of travellers, such as “The Sightseer” or “The Hangover.”
Lest you think any of those offerings are too extreme, there’s also the future-is-now option. Intercontinental Hotels Group is responsible for the San Jose-Silicon Valley Crowne Plaza, which is currently using androids to deliver room service meals. Thanks to Dash, a three-foot-tall android that weighs less than 100 pounds, the Crowne Plaza’s new server can travel floor to floor at basically the same speed as a human server, with wifi enabling it to use elevators. The food items may be standard, but the delivery is the definition of special-for-special’s sake.
So pick up that in-room phone and order in, already. It’s only going to get better.