Hilton's Room Service Overhaul Signals Welcome Change

The New York Hilton Midtown caused quite a stir this week by announcing that it will end traditional room service in August. But despite the hand-wringing of some traditionalists, the move really is just the latest in a larger trend that's been going on in the hotel industry for years.

The hotel, New York's largest, in about six weeks will open the grab-and-go-style Herb n' Kitchen (just say it aloud a few times), replacing Hilton's New York Marketplace restaurant, which fed its traditional room service. The company already made a similar move at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, and Hilton Worldwide president and CEO Christopher Nassetta said other Hilton properties likely will follow.

"Grab-and-go [eateries] are where we think the world is going, particularly in big urban markets," Nassetta said this week during a press conference at New York University's International Hospitality Investment Conference. "The customer has said to us that they want in full-service locations__and resorts are an exception__something that gives them more control over what they're eating, when they get it and without a significant wait time."

Some industry commentators have accused Hilton of cutting service strictly to improve the bottom line. To be sure, the hotel's room service by all accounts appeared to be a major profit-drainer.

"We lose significant amounts of money doing it," Nassetta said. "I can count the number of dinners we were serving at the New York Hilton room service on one hand, and it's a 2,000-room hotel."

This is hardly limited to the New York Hilton. PKF Hospitality Research reported that between 2007 and 2012, the average revenue per occupied room generated by room service at U.S. hotels dropped to $3.25 from $4.33. Room service as a percentage of total hotel revenue during that time dropped to 1.22 percent from 1.52 percent.

It doesn't take Lee Iacocca to understand that keeping a 24-hour kitchen staff on hand to prepare a daily handful of eggs Benedict orders might not be the best business model.

The traditional hotel restaurant in the midprice tier has been dying a slow death for years, and it's only natural that the upper-upscale restaurant__and, by extension, room service from that restaurant__would follow. Newly minted upper-upscale and luxury hotel restaurants nowadays inevitably have some sort of connection with a celebrity chef or another angle to draw in local foodies, as well as guests.

Considering the now-defunct New York Marketplace had a TripAdvisor rating of 6,187 out of 8,732 restaurants in New York, it likely was not drawing too many customers who were not hotel guests.

Should room service from a full-service kitchen be an expectation at a full-service hotel? Sure, I enjoy having room service as an option at a hotel, particularly when I need a night or morning in to work. But when is the last time you can recall having a room service breakfast or dinner and thinking, "Wow, what an excellent meal"? Probably about as often as you look at a room service menu and say, "Wow, what a bargain!"

What's also been missing in much of the commentary on this development is that the Hilton is not entirely eliminating room service per se. Guests still can have food from the Herb n' Kitchen delivered to their rooms, Nassetta said. It just won't come on that tablecloth-covered rolling cart that always seems to fit through the door just fine when it's delivered but never when you're trying to roll it back outside.

Nassetta noted that when requests for proposals come in asking whether the hotel provides 24-hour room service, it still can check "yes."

Though a few of their most frequent travelers might grumble, travel buyers should welcome this development. Providing guests with a more modest in-room breakfast option__rather than a $25 platter of bread and fruit, $8 pot of coffee that no one human being could ever finish alone and various service fees__should eventually benefit their bottom lines as well.