The end of hotel room service? Good riddance.

The NYT reported the other day that the New York Hilton Midtown is going to end room service from August.

It seems that they lose money even charging $40 for breakfast. Kevin Drum doesn’t think he will miss an option he rarely uses, which was my first reaction: I stay in hotels about 40 nights a year and I last used room service three years ago.

Even travelling on an expense account, $40 for breakfast is a ripoff. Like the overpriced hotel phone and the $16 PPV movies, its an option I never use. I don’t like to overpay even when someone else is paying the bill.  But you have to wonder about a business that is unable to make a profit off of a $40 breakfast.

Room service via Shutterstock

Room service via Shutterstock

$300 is a lot to pay for a hotel that does not even have room service. But Manhattan hotels have been peculiar for a long time. Hotels with bad smells, worn carpets and furniture still charge top dollar for rooms. But even in Manhattan, this type of ‘service’ stands out:

The New York Hilton’s room service menu covers three pages, and ranges from a Pat La Frieda custom burger ($28.50) to populist items like macaroni and cheese made with Velveeta ($23.50). In small print, the menu specifies that for each order there is an additional 15 percent service charge and an in-room dining charge of $5.50 per person.

Add in the surcharges and that burger is costing almost $40 all on its own. And you can be fairly sure it is going to be just as pre-processed as the Velveeta mac-and-cheese.  Those prices are offensive.

What doomed room service, besides its usury prices?  When times are good, expense accounts are generous. The bean counters raise prices to maximize revenue. Then when times are less good people start watching expenses more, and demand suddenly drops. The bean counters raise prices to maintain revenues.

Though in the end, hotels are doing what the airlines and everyone else is doing — cutting costs anywhere and everywhere they can.  But at $40 for a simple breakfast, good riddance.

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39 Responses to “The end of hotel room service? Good riddance.”

  1. sane37 says:

    Or worse, have to wander through an unfamiliar town to find a place that’s open because the hotel doesn’t have a kitchen.

  2. karmanot says:

    I usually get my food outside and bring it in—especially on the road. Small groceries and stop-bys often have fresh produce, milk and good sandwiches. I couldn’t afford Paris restaurants so I bought fresh fruit, french bread and other delicious vender foods and them back to a relaxing room or fresh air park.

  3. MyrddinWilt says:

    If I am in NYC, certainly. Can always get food there.

    But quite often I find myself in a hotel in the middle of an industrial park with absolutely nothing closer than a two mile walk.

    I am pretty sure that the hamburger is from a frozen patty. I was going to write that but decided to stick to the proven facts. But even so, $40 for a meal whose ingredients cost $3 made by minimum wage staff who throw a bag in the microwave and carry it upstairs is way overpriced. It is going to take maybe 15 minutes maximum and I am paying the guy again with a $8 tip on the burger alone. If I have coffee and desert its more like a $15 tip on the meal.

    What I usually do is eat in the restaurant for slightly less and at least I get a hot meal. But sometimes you have a conference call you need to be on.

  4. Whitewitch says:

    I don’t mind the $16 – BUT per day is silly. While traveling recently I was shocked that it per day…especially since a Starbucks does it for free.

  5. SkippyFlipjack says:

    lol.. I know there are a couple of people who like to downvote everything I write. I’m used to it :)

  6. Whitewitch says:

    A down vote really – because Skippy likes to get an egg in the middle of the night…wow. Just wow. Me, I did it recently in Vegas and was a bit shocked at the bill…but the food was great and I was hungry.

  7. silas1898 says:

    Sometimes it is worth the premium price. After a long day working and travelling it can be a great convenience. I would rather that than stay dressed and sit alone downstairs in a mostly empty restaurant. Sometimes there is nothing else convenient around nearby.
    BeccaM is right. The local pizza joint is the best way to go. Usually good enough, reasonable and fast. Grab some beer or wine and hunker down for the night.
    As far as this hotel, whatever. They can do what they want.

  8. Ryan says:

    From what I’ve read, hotels were losing money even at these ridiculous prices. Having a kitchen staffed and stocked with food for most or all of the day in order to be able to respond to orders that quickly die off after breakfast leads to a lot of waste.

    I can’t see how this could be explained by excessive greediness. If there is a price at which the burger can make money, corporate would be better off charging that price rather than eliminating room service.

  9. DavidinPS says:

    Really? Good riddance? If you find it too expensive there’s an easy solution: don’t order. I find room service a life saver on occasion and am willing (and luckily able) to afford it in a pinch. So you are so put out at even the idea of it that you’d rather that not be an option for me and others? Isn’t that what’s called being an a**hole?

  10. ComradeRutherford says:

    I see your point, but this has more to do with the greed of the head office than it does paying kitchen staff. A $28 hamburger does not have $28 of cost behind it, most of that is markup determined by corporate HQ. If Corporate weren’t so damned greedy, these folks would still have jobs.

  11. MyrddinWilt says:

    Aluminium has been found in the nodes that form in the brains of Altzheimer’s patients. It is not known if this is causal or not but I don’t see any need to take the risk.

    I was not aware that they added aluminium to processed cheese but that is irrelevant to me as I never eat processed cheese. I don’t use baking mixes either. I will check out the baking powder.

    I haven’t had aluminium pans since my grandmother died of Altzheimers’ she had two AL pans that she used ever single day. They were half round pans that allowed two to fit on the same ring on the hob.

    There are perfectly good alternatives. It is illogical to take an unnecessary risk.

  12. Monoceros Forth says:

    “Processed cheese is the single largest source of aluminum in the human body…”

    This may very well be the silliest thing I’ll have read today. Leaving aside the plain fact that the toxicity of aluminium in anything but enormous doses has never been convincingly demonstrated, the chief use of aluminium salts in food is in baking powder formulations. Don’t blame American slices, blame that scone you had with your coffee, if you’re going to indulge mindless paranoia about harmless light metals.

  13. Sweetie says:

    Processed cheese is the single largest source of aluminum in the human body, and aluminum is a neurotoxin. It’s added to make it slice and melt more readily. FYI

  14. Ryan says:

    I hate the idea that businesses have an obligation to hire/not lay off people to do unprofitable jobs. It is the job of the Federal Reserve to keep unemployment low, not every random hotel or factory.

  15. emjayay says:

    Intercontinental in NYC, $16 wireless. Breakfast $40. Motel 6 in Niagara Falls, free wireless and reasonable size flat screen TV. Lobbies don’t really compare however.

  16. emjayay says:

    That’s only double the regular NYC prices. Plus all those extra charges and you still have to tip.

  17. emjayay says:

    But not in your room. NYC Comfort Inns: not bad. NYC Holiday Inn Express: crappy food in crappy room.

  18. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Isn’t that the big lie of the big-ticket hotels though? Instead of treating you great for the top-dollar rooms, they just nickel-and-dime you because they know you’ll pay. The more you pay for a hotel room, the more likely you are to be charged extra for per-day parking, the workout center and high-speed wireless.

  19. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I’m with you — it’s kind of fun having someone bring you a side of scrambled egg in the middle of the night :)

  20. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Good post. At the beginning you ask: “But you have to wonder about a business that is unable to make a profit off of a $40 breakfast.”. Not really — any business that charges too much will fail, almost by definition. Ferrari can charge $200k for a car because there are enough people willing to pay $200k for a Ferrari.

    When you think about it, the price may not be that outrageous (except to the consumer) given the typical implementation. Every room service order locks up a tray and a bunch of dishes and silverware for the whole night, which means a lot of extra stuff to buy. The extra staffing is probably significant, since it’s late-night hours and your “waiters” might be delivering meals to “tables” a hundred yards away.

    Thinking about it now, I pretty much never open the room service menu, figuring it’s a ripoff and that I’d rather get outside anyway. Maybe some hotels have gone reasonable and I never noticed :)

  21. Baby_Raptor says:

    Wow. The past few times I’ve stayed in a hotel, they gave me breakfast for free. And it was decent food, too.

    Is there just some sort of perceived prestige in being able to drop a ton of money on over-priced crap?

  22. caphillprof says:

    You guys need to get out more.

  23. Indigo says:

    I enjoy room service from time to time and the fact is, I don’t have any obligation to buy the most expensive item on the menu. I can make do with deli. But it’s a nice touch and nice touches are what make life comfortable. This detachable 21st century cybernetic style that ignores personal comfort is likely to go obsolete faster than last century’s Charleston.

  24. Naja pallida says:

    I’ve personally never been able to justify the expense of room service… or all too often, even staying at a place that offers it. In any major city there are almost always local restaurants that deliver, but I generally find a local market and stock up on a few things that I can munch on if I should get hungry in the “off hours” when I can’t just go to a restaurant. There are plenty of meals you can prepare without having access to a full kitchen. But then… I once traveled from Montreal to El Paso by train, with only $20 bucks in my pocket. It took nearly a week, and the only food I had was a one pound bag of chocolate covered espresso beans. So I’m comfortable being on the road on a tight budget. :)

  25. Fifi says:

    Interesting case of a service pricing itself out of customers, a Laffer curve for business of some sort.

    Undercharge and you can’t recoup your variable costs, no matter how many customers you serve. Overcharge and you can’t recoup your fixed costs, for lack of enough customers.

  26. BeccaM says:

    You can, but sometimes it’s a pain in the arse. Does the hotel allow delivery people to come to the room, or do you have to pick it up in the lobby? What about dishes and utensils? What if you want drinks with the meal?

    It all depends on how much the hotel goes out of its way not to be a pain and whether they offer those amenities necessary to eat in your room.

    Whenever I travel, except when it’s over in India where room service is still a bargain in most hotels, I try to look for hotels and motels where ordering out won’t be an issue. Oh, and when it’s a car trip, I take along my own place setting and glassware.

  27. ComradeRutherford says:

    Because that would make sense.

  28. UncleBucky says:

    But why couldn’t a person order from the restaurant/food service they want and have it delivered by bicycle? :D

  29. BeccaM says:

    That’s exactly what’s happened.

  30. ComradeRutherford says:

    Hey, no, I get that. They’ve priced themselves out of the market…

  31. usagi says:

    Revenue stream for people traveling on expense accounts. Screws those of us who aren’t, but yes, complimentary wireless is definitely a thing I check for now (and mentally subtract $20.00 from the room cost if it’s provided).

  32. tomwoolf says:

    When I traveled a lot I loved room service. I was working as a consultant and billing all travel and living expenses to the client, and the boss had one hard-and-fast rule for T&L (“Don’t piss off the client”). I figured a “reasonable” meal would be able to be purchased via room service after a long day working for the client…

    The first night in town at the hotel the client recommended, I’d order a “reasonable” meal using room service – usually a burger, salad, dessert, and one beer or drink. I would use whatever that cost was as my “reasonable” dinner limit. It was very easy to find damn fine food at a “reasonable” price the rest of the trip.

  33. BeccaM says:

    I think what happened is they priced themselves out of being relevant. It’s one thing to have to pay a little extra for ordinary meal items, for the convenience of them being delivered to your room. But what they’re charging now is pure gouging.

    Mac & cheese w/Velveeta at $23.50? When you can buy a box of it for less than $2? And I’ll wager that $40 hamburger is made from frozen patties.

    The linked story says one of the reasons a hamburger costs $40 — besides the greed — is the hotel has to pay for sufficient staff to maintain an open kitchen, plus cleaning staff for it, plus the room service waiters. Even if they’re only delivering one meal an hour, all those people are still on the clock, and the higher the price goes, well, it’s a positive feedback loop. The hotel raises the prices to try to make a profit, more people balk at the higher prices and don’t order, profits keep going down, necessitating another round of price increases just to keep paying the staff and break even, and so on.

    Another factor is so many decent restaurants offer take-out and delivery. I don’t know about you, John, but my go-to choice for a quick dinner when I’m on the road is I find a nice pizza joint and order from there. Sometimes pizza, some calzone, or Italian sub. Take it back to my room where I’ve already got some sodas and maybe a bottle of wine on ice, and I’m set for the night.

  34. Houndentenor says:

    You could order takeout from the restaurant across the street for a fraction of what room service costs. I suspect it will continue in luxury hotels but I would never pay that and I guess more and more people aren’t either which is why they aren’t doing it any more.

  35. The problem is that hotels got greedy. I don’t care how many jobs it creates, I’m not buying $28 hamburgers.

  36. ComradeRutherford says:

    Oh, thank god even more people are being put out of work to starve on the street!

  37. karmanot says:

    Well, maybe it’s time. When a pot of coffee at the Plaza costs $30.00 times have changed.

  38. nicho says:

    The last time I was in a high-end hotel, for wireless they wanted $16 per day per device. Absolute rip off. Low-end hotels give you free wireless.

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