How to Use Night Cravings to Improve Guest Loyalty, with Sean Folkson


Sean Folkson, CEO of Nightfood, says midnight snacking and meals before bed can affect the quality of sleep. In this episode, he speaks with host Robin Trimingham about what kind of nutrition changes and offerings can be made in order to improve the quality of sleep and therefore impact hotel brand loyalty.


Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Sean: Whatever you eat at night impacts your sleep. So whether it’s a hotel that does or does not have night food is not important. The reality of it is people will be going into that shop, they will be grabbing snacks and as a hotel operator, you are impacting their sleep by the snacks that you offer. We’re not going to evolve in the next few years out of this. This is not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s driven by hardwired human biology.


Robin: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.


Robin: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is Sean Folkson, CEO of NightFood. And today we’re discussing why sleep nutrition is a wellness trend that hoteliers are interested in.


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Robin: Welcome, Sean.


Sean: Hey, Robin. Thanks so much for having me today.


Robin: Well, I think this is going to be a fun conversation because from a certain perspective, it’s fair to say that all hoteliers are in the sleep business because let’s face it, they’ve invested billions on high quality mattresses and bedding, blackout curtains, you name it. And it’s all about building brand loyalty by trying to ensure that guests get a great night’s sleep. And then along comes you. So explain to everybody, what is this whole sleep nutrition concept? Why should people be interested in this?


Sean: Sure. So, yeah, like you mentioned, the hotels have spent so much money upgrading the beds and the blackout curtains and just giving people a better sleep experience. And when that guest goes down to that hotel lobby shop, what they’re faced with typically is just an avalanche of candy, ice cream, chips, cookies, all things that are known to be, I’ll say, generally unhealthy, but also more specifically disruptive to sleep quality. So it’s not just that the hotels are potentially missing an opportunity to take advantage of this new additional touch point. It’s kind of worse than that, because what they’re selling in those lobby shops right now is proactively undermining the investment that they’ve made in that good night of sleep, because those things are sleep disruptive and I’m sure we’ll talk about that. So what we’re trying to do is we know that guests do expect to be able to see the Haagen-Dazs or the M&Ms or the Pringles or the Cheetos in that shop. And that’s okay, in our opinion, as long as the hotel also offers a sleep friendly option for those people that want those kinds of healthier options and want to be able to satisfy their cravings at night, which are very natural, but do it in a sleep friendly way.


Robin: In the bad old days, we would have called it death by minibar. So I think this is an interesting topic because when you travel, it’s quite a quandary because you know what you should do and you’re on a different time zone or a different city and your schedule’s all messed up and you do start reaching for what people might assume are unhealthy choices. But there’s scientific data these days that I understand has something new to add to this conversation. What is the latest scientific study saying about how the wrong type of food in the evening affect sleep quality?


Sean: Well, I mean, it’s exactly what you would expect. And the problem is, from our perspective, it’s not only when people are traveling, but I think we’re all susceptible to it when we travel. But so we’re hardwired as humans. We’re wired to crave and consume excess calories at night. It’s an outdated survival mechanism. So that’s why the cravings peak at night. Appetite also peaks at night. And the worst part is that willpower weakens at night, which I think a lot of people know that. So it’s kind of this perfect storm. So at night we’re wired this way and we reach for the stuff that’s high in fat, high in sugar, high in sodium. And the research that’s out there tells us that you don’t want your body to be processing and trying to stabilize blood sugar, for example, is a perfect example. You have a lot of sugar before bed, a high glycemic snack. It’s not going to impair your ability necessarily to fall asleep, but it will impair sleep quality because your body then gets on that insulin rollercoaster where it’s trying to balance out your blood sugar. So anything that detracts from the sleep experience, there’s a lot of stuff happening inside your body when you sleep, you’re supposed to be repairing and rejuvenating, and when you give your body a big digestion task, a big steak, or maybe a bag of beef jerky, or you have this blood sugar spike that your body then needs to stabilize, you’re taking resources away from the important reason why we are supposed to sleep approximately 33% of our lives.


Robin: Neither one of us, I should say, for our listeners, obviously are medical professionals. So when it comes to medical stuff, let’s make sure that you all consults your own chosen medical professional. But I think you’re making an excellent point, because even I’m aware that when you’re sleeping, your body is supposed to be detoxing, cleaning the system. And if you throw it into another task, digesting especially something with lots of sugar or carbs in it, then you’re right. It’s not going to be sleeping as efficiently because it’s running on layman’s term, a different kind of cycle. Tell me, though, a little bit about human nature here. So if you don’t get a good night’s sleep at whatever hotel you’re at, is that likely to affect how you feel about the brand? Are you? You likely to return to that hotel right away, or are you more inclined to say, well, let me see if I have a better time somewhere else?


Sean: Yeah, I actually just saw a study in the last day or two that indicated that the quality of your sleep, the quality of a guest’s sleep is a really important factor in their perception of their overall experience at the hotel. I mean, J.D. Power has reported on this, saying that helping people get a better night’s sleep is a great opportunity for the hotels, and even more specifically, that when a guest sees that a hotel has gone out of their way to try to support better sleep, it scores a lot of I’ll call it brownie points. I don’t remember the exact term that they used. Goodwill, maybe. So, yeah. I mean, my understanding from all the research, all the industry research that I’ve seen is that good quality sleep is really important in terms of how the guest perceives their stay and therefore loyalty and perception of a brand.


Robin: Well, I’m not surprised to hear that. I mean, it just intuitively makes sense. Let’s talk about wellness, because during the last year in particular, hotels have been having a huge push to expand wellness any way they can in an effort to lure guests back to their property. How big would you say nutrition based or sleep snacking industry actually is?


Sean: Well, I can talk about the overall industry in terms of over 80% of us snack regularly at night. The most popular choices are cookies, chips, candy and ice cream. We spend over a billion dollars a week. Americans alone spend over a billion dollars a week on snacks, just those ones consumed between dinner and bedtime. Now, what percentage of that or how much is being spent in the hotels today? We don’t have those statistics, but what we do know is things bought in that hotel lobby shop are most likely being purchased for immediate consumption. We know a significant portion of that is taking place at night. So anybody in there at night buying something to snack on for that immediate consumption. That’s the customer and one person at a time. We think that the sleep friendly nutrition in hotels will certainly grow. Right now, our brand NightFood is in about 500 hotels spread across almost all the major chains Holiday Inn and Courtyard by Marriott and Hyatt Place, and probably a couple of dozen chains and most people don’t really know about what we’re doing yet. They discover it at the counter when they’re there looking for. I mean, right now it’s ice cream pints. So if they’re there reaching into that freezer, looking for a pint of Haagen-Dazs or looking for a Klondike bar, they see NightFood. It says sleep friendly on it and they grab it. So it’s the really early days of this. But I think that as we get into more and more hotels, then it will kind of compound on itself and we will have more and more consumers looking for sleep friendly options.


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Robin: So let’s talk about this in terms of revenue and cost saving because that’s language that all hoteliers can understand and really care about here. I would imagine that if you’re an urban centre hotel or maybe an airport location where you have a highly transient customer base that you’re actively looking for anything that reduces labor and has a cost saving alternative to offering 24 hour room service. Can you share any data at all regarding how expanding product offering in a lobby shop or a pantry has positively impacted revenue for properties?


Sean: Well, I know that there are groups out there that are really focused on helping hotels expand their assortments in those lobby shops for enhanced guest satisfaction in terms of having more of the most popular choices available and in stock, but also adding in self checkout to decrease the labor burden on the properties as well. We’re seeing a trend. I remember talking to some hotels ten years ago when we first launched our nutrition bars and the idea of a lobby shop, the kind that we all think of now in 2022 was not really a thing back then. I think the last 5 to 10 years, it’s just exploded in terms of the number of hotels that are focused on identifying that as a revenue stream, as opposed to being kind of a burden. I mean, we’re not that far removed from just having a couple of vending machines on the fourth floor across from the icemaker. Now, if you go into a hotel that doesn’t have one of these lobby shops with a reasonable assortment, it almost feels like the hotel is actually missing out on something. And the guest, I think, feels a little bit let down as well.


Robin: I think you’re absolutely right, particularly if you have an international client base. You have people who are hungry at all different times of the day and you might be looking for something substantial at three in the morning because your stomach is saying, hey, it’s lunch time. The idea of not having the lobby shop at all, I think that’s a real miss. Having said that, though, some of our listeners might be tempted to dismiss the idea of sleep friendly snacking as just a fad or a momentary trend. How would someone like you respond to that?


Sean: Well, there’s probably nothing more permanent than what we’re addressing. Everybody eats, everybody sleeps. We know the nighttime snacking or the nighttime cravings are hardwired and this is not going away. Whatever you eat at night impacts your sleep. So whether it’s a hotel that does or does not have NightFood is not important. The reality of it is people will be going into that shop. They will be grabbing snacks. And as a hotel operator, you are impacting their sleep by the snacks that you offer. We’re not going to evolve in the next few years out of this. This is not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s driven by hardwired human biology. And there’s probably nothing more permanent, like I said, than than what we’re addressing.


Robin: Okay, that sounds fair enough. We’ve got time for one more question here. I’m going to ask you to look into the crystal ball a little bit. Wellness, I think, is here to stay. And I agree with you. It’s just going to become bigger and more and more permanent. Where do you think the industry and hoteliers are heading? Are we going to be going to a place where hotels are helping to educate people on, hey, here’s healthier alternatives, Hey, you might be interested in this? Or do you think they’re just going to stand back and keep out of it and have a hands off approach and say, well, if you’re hungry, there’s food?


Sean: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think there are a lot of things that the hotels can do around sleep that I don’t think they do. For example, I don’t think they go around educating people that the darker the room is, the better your sleep quality can be or the cooler the room is, the better your sleep quality can be. So I don’t necessarily expect them to try to get involved in the education as much as we would expect them to certainly have the options available for the people that care. There are so many factors, Robin, that go into the quality of sleep that somebody has at night. And that’s true whether it’s at home or at the hotel. And it all rolls up into what’s called sleep hygiene. And that’s all about providing the best inputs that you can. And the output is going to take care of itself. We know that if somebody, whether it’s a guest in the hotel, they’re staying there for ten days or somebody at home, you could wake up the same time, ten days in a row, have the same breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack at night, don’t snack at night, get the same amount of sunlight, same amount of exercise. Your sleep is going to be different every single night. And that’s just part of human nature. So what we want to focus on and what I think the people in the industry can focus on is helping to provide the best inputs for their guests. That’s the linens, the mattresses, the pillows, the environment in terms of sound, quiet darkness, light temperature, control, nutrition. And then you have to hope for the best. I mean, if you do the right things, though, you will be much more likely to have a good quality night’s sleep as a guest in that property.


Robin: Sean, I want to thank you so much for your time today. I’ve learned things, so hopefully everybody else has, too. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast brought to you by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry.


Robin: You’ve been listening to The Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels Magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.

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