By Terry Trucco
The news last week that the New York Hilton-Midtown plans to stop offering room service later this summer was a shocker.
Envisioning a big player like the 1,980-room Hilton without food-bearing, cart-pushing servers is, at first blush, like imagining a hotel without fresh towels or porters or doors that lock.
Room service has been a basic amenity since it was popularized by the Waldorf Hotel, the 1893 forebear of the Waldorf=Astoria.
I know I’m a fan. I can recall a litany of memorable room service deliveries from a romantic breakfast for two at the Four Seasons New York, complete with a rolling white-clothed table bearing lemon ricotta pancakes nestled in a warming cupboard, to the midnight coffee – in a silver pot next to an orchid in a bud vase – my jetlagged husband and I poured happily at Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian.
And try to imagine movies without room service, starting with, well, Room Service, the Marx
Brothers 1938 hotel farce. Clicking the TV zapper last night, I chanced upon The Candidate, the 1972 political satire starring Robert Redford. Pivotal room service scene: as the staff discusses details of the candidate’s motorcade parade, an aide asks the all-important question: “Can we get this straight?” The hotel room goes silent. “Who ordered the medium rare?”
But times change. When was the last time you ordered room service? For me the idea of room service – the notion that I can call up an omelet or Cobb salad at 2 a.m. – can be more appealing than the reality, especially the 18 percent gratuity plus delivery fees that start at $3.
I find I choose room service less and less, especially in teeny New York hotel rooms, where it’s infinitely more comfortable to eat in a restaurant downstairs. Apparently, I’m not alone. A new survey from PKF Research shows room service revenues have declined since 2007 as more guests pick up dinner or snacks from the lobby coffee shop or grab ‘n go, popular alternatives to the knock on the door.
Indeed, in 2012, room service accounted for just 1.22 percent of a typical hotel’s revenue, according to PKF. “If you added up all the direct costs of room service, it is probably not a profit center,” Robert Mandelbaum, PKF Hospitality Research’s director of information services, told Hotels. That said, for certain hotels, like 5-star properties or those in isolated locales, like airports, resorts or rural areas, room service remains a vital amenity.
Which brings us to the New York Hilton, which stands in a thicket of Midtown Manhattan restaurants, delis and Starbucks. Room service will cease with the arrival later this summer of the hotel’s new eat in/take out Herb ‘n Kitchen (say the name aloud for its full impact), to be open daily from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.
From mock-up photos, the new venture looks like a riff on the Plaza Food Halls or Eataly, big stylish rooms where you can eat your hand-made sushi, freshly sauced pasta or artisanal cupcake on site or take it out. Hilton’s sprawling ground floor space, former home to the sadly outdated Market Place restaurant, is broken into sections. Live food stations will offer options from freshly made flatbread pizzas and sandwiches to an Illy coffee bar with baristas. The space also features big groupings of tables and banquettes.
“We listened to our customers,” says a Hilton spokesman, noting that room service has been declining at the hotel. But don’t expect a Herb ‘n Kitchen in every Hilton. “We’re not getting rid of room service at the Waldorf,” he adds of the famous Hilton-managed property.
So what does this mean for the future of room service? Expect two strains. At one end luxury hotels will continue to roll out white tablecloths with meals rivaling those at high-end restaurants. At The Surrey, where guests snooze on Duxiana beds, hotel restaurant Café Boulud provides room service straight off its haute nouvelle French menu. Boutique hotels with room service from independent restaurants on the property, like the popular Breslin gastropub at the Ace, will likely continue the service to lure hip guests.
At the opposite end, limited service hotels that don’t have restaurants on the premises and offer buffet breakfasts or grab ‘n go grub in lieu of room service are growing fast.
Smith Travel Research reports that there are 2.7 million such hotel rooms across the country, up 16 percent from ten years ago. In contrast, there are 2.2 million full-service rooms, up less than 6 percent. If Herb ‘n Kitchen is a success, the “contemporary alternative” category may broaden among full-service hotels.
The upshot? It’s unlikely you’ll starve, no matter where you stay. And you might save money. But you may find yourself downstairs in your PJs if you’re craving a midnight snack.