A cart with finished room-service orders at the New York Hilton Midtown, June 2, 2013. In August, the hotel will discontinue food and drink service to all 2,000 of its rooms; in its place will be a new cafeteria-style restaurant that will be stocked with grab-and-go items.
There’s a knock at a hotel door. A table is wheeled in, and on it stands a silver ice bucket with a bottle of Champagne. The room service attendant smiles and backs out of the room to the sound of a marriage proposal being accepted, a cork exploding.
Those were the days.
And those days may soon be gone.
For hotels that have built themselves around satisfying the traveler’s every need, room service has always been the definition of decadence. But that idea of service has been changing for many years. Before wheeled luggage was introduced in 1970, bellmen were a necessity, not a luxury. Just 10 years ago, when I worked as a front desk agent for a hotel in New Orleans, I used to watch guests wait five deep in line for the concierge, just to receive a cartoonlike map with their destination circled on it. Then came the iPhone, then the self-check-in kiosk.
Now, starting this summer, the New York Hilton Midtown, the city’s biggest hotel, will stop offering room service. Who needs it, when every guest has MenuPages? So goodbye to the cloche - that polished, bell-shaped dome that is lifted off a plate to release a rush of steam and reveal a gourmet meal. And hello to the paper bag.
The truth is, I am not surprised by the Hilton’s decision. The money has never made sense. The cost of keeping a kitchen active through the night, of paying the attendants to stay awake and caffeinated, has never been covered by the three drunk guests who order fries at 4 a.m.
So why would hotels, which are all about making a profit, even bother to provide this service in the first place?
Because it’s expected. In fact, typically hotels must have room service in order to receive a four- or five-star rating from travel guides. So, begrudgingly, they have done it, if only to keep up appearances, even while offering lesser quality food and limited service.
And the guests have noticed. How many times in my long career as a hotelier have I been regaled with a tale about a magical room service experience? I can count the times on zero fingers. But it would take all the fingers in Midtown Manhattan to count how many times I’ve been battered by complaints: it was served cold, 30 minutes too late, with hidden fees. And the butter! It looked, “like, I don’t know ... like it had been touched. Why would someone touch my butter?”
I don’t know, ma’am. They probably wouldn’t. It was most likely jostled on the rocky road from the kitchen, up the service elevator and, lastly, when the cart smashed against the door frame on its way into your room.
Guests are actually much better off, especially in Manhattan, opting for outside delivery. People seem to assume that restaurants in the area, good-quality restaurants, won’t be able to find their way inside a hotel to a sequentially numbered door, but they can - and they can even do it at half the price of room service.
And yet I will still mourn the end of room service. Where else will we find those cute little mustard and ketchup jars? The reveal provided by the ceremonial lifting of the cloche? The decadence of it all, when you’re dressed in nothing but a robe.
But the people who stand to lose the most are, of course, the innumerable hardworking room-service attendants who make a living providing this ancillary and apparently antiquated feature of hospitality. (The Hilton Midtown’s move alone will reportedly cost 55 jobs.) Many room-service jobs are unionized, provide good health care and even supply the attendant with gratuities, all of which add up to a nice life.
And like many hotel positions, the skills needed to be a good room-service attendant do not translate very well to other jobs in other industries. Front-desk agents are best at front desking. Concierges are good at circling things on maps and putting you on hold. And room-service attendants are skilled at presenting a meal in a private space, elegantly served on a table with wheels. Where will they go in this new world?
For now, at least, I take comfort in the fact that the star-rating system remains, and that rock stars still demand the right to order 30 cheeseburgers and $3,000 worth of vodka and mixers at midnight. Until that changes, I doubt every hotel will follow the Hilton Midtown’s path. Room service will limp on.
After all, hotels still offer you shoehorns, and I’m pretty sure no one has used those for at least 30 years.
Jacob Tomsky is the author of “Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.”
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