As hotels drop minibars, most travelers shrug

  • Article by: DAVID FERRELL and SHIVALI BHAMMER , Orange County Register
  • Updated: January 19, 2014 - 1:05 PM
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While the popularity of the minibar has declined the aguna Cliff's Resort and Spa by Marriott in Dana Point, Calif., keeps them stocked and the most popular item used is water.

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The quintessential Me Generation hotel amenity, the minibar, may be fading away like disco music, transistor radios and bell-bottom jeans.

Upscale resorts today seem lukewarm, at best, about providing and maintaining the self-service, in-room liquor caches, where guests can crack open a miniature bottle of tequila or vodka or perhaps even enjoy cookies and soft drinks.

Never a huge moneymaker due to chronic petty larceny and the high labor costs of monitoring and restocking liquor supplies, the minibar has become largely an afterthought in an age when fast-moving travelers care more about technology and connecting in inviting public spaces, said Mike Hall, general manager of the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“It just seems, over a period of time, to have gone to the wayside,” Hall said of the minibar. “People are so much more mobile now. They’re on the go. They have Wi-Fi. They’re traveling with two or three devices. They want to connect and communicate with each other. Everything today is in the lobby.”

The 397-room Westin is about to phase out its minibars and replace them with empty refrigerators, enabling guests to bring in their own beverages or order specific products from room service, Hall said.

Wi-Fi more important

Though the minibar is not yet dead, many travelers apparently don’t mind leaving their rooms for that martini.

In December, TripAdvisor.com posted survey results showing that only one in five travelers cared about having a minibar, making it the least popular amenity that hotels offer. By contrast, nine out of 10 guests valued free in-room Wi-Fi and free parking. Lobby Wi-Fi, free breakfasts, poolside Wi-Fi and laundry service all ranked as higher priorities than having a minibar, the survey said.

If guests do not especially care, hotels have no compelling incentive to offer minibars, said Karen L. Johnson, president of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, a consulting service for the hospitality industry.

“Even with outrageous pricing, it’s still hard to make money,” Johnson said. A few ounces of alcohol can cost $10 or more.

Stealing the booze

Unscrupulous guests resort to stealing the bottles or their contents, sometimes claiming the bar was never stocked or blaming the theft on the maid. Inventories have to be taken and prices charged before guests check out and leave. Some travelers fly home with minibar keys still in their pockets, Johnson said.

“I know of some hotels that have taken them out of the rooms because they seem to be a constant source of conflict,” Johnson said. “The big push seems to be toward having an empty mini-refrigerator in the room so guests can put their leftovers in there and not worry about having an argument at the front desk.”

Despite the hassle and low return-on-investment, minibars still add cachet and give travelers a chance to drink or snack in the wee hours if they get hungry, said Jim Samuels, general manager the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa in Dana Point, Calif. His resort’s minibars offer alcohol, soft drinks, bottled water, candy bars and popcorn.

“If you want to be a four-star or five-star resort,” he said, “you want to have that full minibar. We have some groups that want to have that. They’ll look at multiple resorts and see if they have a minibar and want to know what’s in it.”

A veteran of the hotel business for more than 30 years, Samuels said he has seen a slow decline in the minibar since its heyday in the early 1990s or before. Today, to monitor inventories, some high-end hotels are investing in state-of-the-art minibar systems linked directly to property-management software. If a guest even lifts up a bottle of water, sensors detect it, Samuels said.

“You have about 10 seconds to put it back down — otherwise, you’ll be charged,” he said. “It’s automated. You go to check out and it’s on your bill.”

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