Hilton’s room service ploy: The aftermath

Last month, I published a post detailing my thoughts about the recent move by Hilton to eliminate room service from its flagship property in Manhattan. Although many presaged this as the start of a sweeping shift in industry practices, I opined that this decision would not work for anything close to all hotel instances, but only for a niche subset that matches the circumstances of the Hilton New York Midtown. Excising room service from operations is feasible for properties in the hearts of metropolises where there’s a close proximity to a variety of restaurants with a takeout or delivery capacity. However, for places lacking the 24-hour lifestyle, room service must be sustained as a fundamental tenet of proper hospitality.

Readers were quite divided on the impact of Hilton’s decision, and many had a lot of interesting points to add to the conversation. Talking the time to review these comments, I’d like to continue the grand tradition of debate in assessing the long-term consequences of reducing or removing room service.

The elephant in the room

Room service would still be kept on the ledgers if it wasn’t running a deficit, and by far the largest contributing expense (of nearly any hotel operation) is labor. I’m glad a few commentators came out and identified a major part of this equation: unions. The primary force behind the elevated labor costs are union-mandated job descriptions that typically stipulate a firm delineation of tasks — that is, more staff than what may be necessary. As a result, hotel operations are devoting more energy towards staff administration and losing sight of the real goal: guest satisfaction.

If such organizations are part of the problem then I fear this process of amenity elimination may not stop with room service but continue on to restaurants and bars, effectively outsourcing all F&B operations to purveyors that can circumnavigate strict union regulations. Might we see the day where the standard (and not the exception) are hotels and restaurants as independent entities under the same roof?

Changing consumer habits

Room service would have been abolished decades ago if it wasn’t producing on the revenue front. There’s a reason Hilton’s calculated move comes on the heels of the digital age. In the 20th century, finding food was a far more arduous task than it is at present, where one needs only a five-second search on a smartphone through Google or one of many resourceful restaurant-oriented apps. In the old days, room service made sense; the world was large and mysterious, so best be safe and eat at home. But the Hilton New York Midtown is within a few blocks of arguably some of the world’s finest eateries. No knock on Hilton’s cookery or culinary team, but why on earth would a guest stay in when they have so many delicious choices at their immediate disposal?

Hilton has seen the future of urban hotels and, barring posh 5-star pads boasting chefs with Michelin-equivalent renown, such properties would be better off optimizing their hospitality experience while leaving food up to those who can do it better and cheaper.

The evolution of luxury

Is room service a defining aspect of 21st century luxury? How about modern 4-star hotels, where the Hilton brand currently positions itself? Do the Forbes star and AAA diamond rating scales need to be amended to reflect evolving consumer demands and expectations? There are lots of questions to ask here, and perhaps Hilton’s action is one small piece in a grander scheme of specialization and “niche-ification” of the industry. By moving out of the room service business, Hilton is giving itself a bit more leeway to strengthen other aspects of its hotel experience. Yet on the other hand, the chain is opening the doors for competitors (possibly those likening themselves as more luxurious or boutique) to excel with their culinary amenities or 24-hour offerings.

Progress caused the problem; progress will solve it

By “progress” I mean technological innovation and all the latest means for consumers to locate and access an array of food choices. If this is at the root of what has caused the decline in usage of room service, then our best option is to embrace this upheaval.

Think apps. For starters, familiarize yourself with the most popular apps focused on food (OpenTable, Urbanspoon, GrubHub, etc.) so you know all the restaurants available nearby and so you can expedite guest requests.

Another more ambitious undertaking would be to design your own property-specific app that compiles all the local eateries’ information then coordinates with the front desk so the hotel staff would complete the takeout or delivery transaction, and then bring the food directly to a guest’s room. I realize I’m just spit-balling here, but if people are going to use technological methods to source their next meal, then it is our duty as hospitality providers to meet them halfway.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on what I’ve brought up here as well as anything else you feel is significant.