The debate on room service: Is it slipping away?

  • Article by: SARA K. CLARKE , Orlando Sentinel
  • Updated: June 30, 2013 - 12:54 PM

It’s a lessening slice of revenue, but the amenity still has its backers.

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Room service at the New York Hilton Midtown will end in August.

Photo: ROBERT CAplin • New York Times,

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– Might U.S. hotels be showing room service the door?

The New York Hilton Midtown sent tremors through the industry last month when it announced it was dropping the pricey amenity this summer in favor of a grab-and-go cafe in the hotel lobby.

But just as obituaries were being prepared for in-room dining, travel columnist Joe Sharkey of the New York Times told the world about a large, freshly made chicken Caesar salad delivered to his room in the Peabody Orlando hotel — at 2 a.m., no less.

Room service, Sharkey declared in his Times column, is here to stay, at least in high-end hotels.

In Orlando, the nation’s second-largest hotel market, folks in the industry tend to share Sharkey’s view of room service’s possible demise.

“I don’t think we’re there yet. The Hilton in midtown Manhattan, they’re first, and I think others will watch,” said Hugh Anderson, regional director of operations for InterContinental Hotels Group. Anderson has no plans to eliminate in-room dining at any of the Florida hotels that he oversees.

It’s not that hoteliers are big fans of room service. Keeping meals hot while delivering them across sprawling resorts is a challenge — and labor-intensive. Demand for the service varies wildly from day to day. Some operators say it’s a money-losing operation. Others suggest that the white-tablecloth generation that cherished in-room dining has passed on.

And not many hotel guests actually use room service. For Tammy Green, a South Floridian who travels regularly to Orlando on business, it isn’t a priority.

“The last few times, I’ve stayed at hotels that didn’t have it, and it was not a problem,” she said last week during an overnight stop at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Orlando, which does offer room service. “It doesn’t bother me to come down” to a hotel’s cafe or restaurant — instead, “it’s nice to get out of your room,” she said.

Still, at high-end properties, at least, room service endures.

In an era of flight delays and less-than-generous airline food, and for business travelers who want to get a little work done in private before an important meeting, room service matters, said Leslie Menichini, vice president of sales and marketing for Orlando’s Rosen Hotels.

“It’s incredibly important to the comfort of our guests, which is incredibly important to us,” she said.

Even Hilton has said the change at its midtown Manhattan hotel is unique to that property; in an official statement, it said it has “no current plans to roll out the initiative more broadly.”

Still, room-service revenue nationwide has fallen sharply in recent years, according to PKF Hospitality Research. Of hotels that reported room-service revenue, the average room resulted in $1,157 in room-service orders in 2007, compared with just $866 per room in 2012. Room service now contributes just 1.2 percent of those hotels’ revenue, a rate that has also been falling in the past half-decade.

“It’s amazing how much interest there is” in the topic, said Robert Mandelbaum, PKF’s director of research-information services, considering that room service is a “relatively minor source of revenue for a hotel that not many people use.”

From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, “it’s very, very hard to make it break even,” added Jan Freitag, senior vice president of the hotel-tracking company Smith Travel Research.

Yet some hotels — especially five-star properties and airport hotels — keep offering it because it is required by their company brand or signals a certain level of customer service overall. The Wyndham Lake Buena Vista (Fla.), for example, continues to offer both room service and a 24-hour lobby cafe, with no plans to quit.

“The thing that takes away from room service in Orlando is simple,” said Jay Leonard, the Wyndham’s general manager. “We probably have more restaurants [in the area] than any location of our size. So people like to dine out.”

The nearby Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa, another property on Walt Disney World property, cut its lunchtime room service more than a year ago for lack of demand.

“People are out at the parks all day, and there’s just no need for it,” said Greg Hauenstein, area managing director. Instead, the hotel offers a grab-and-go option — much as the Hilton Midtown in New York plans to do. It’s been immensely popular with families heading to and from the theme parks, he said.

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