The dueling futures of hotel food service collided in Manhattan one recent Tuesday.
On the very day that the New York Hilton Midtown did away with room service, the Affinia Dumont began a partnership with grocery-delivery service FreshDirect to bring ready-to-make-meals for guests to prepare in their rooms. They can be ordered any time: when booking the room, leaving a business meeting or taking a cab on the way back from the Statue of Liberty.
Think curried chicken salad. Lemon dill salmon. Plus fruits, vegetables, nuts, yogurt and snacks that "reflect the vibe and location of each hotel," the Affinia Dumont said.
The timing might have been coincidental between the introduction of the grocery delivery and the demise of room service, but the message wasn't: The concept of hotel dining has changed. A generation ago, luxury's name was a cart rolled into your hotel room bearing a white tablecloth and gleaming white china. Though it seems unlikely that room service in its traditional form will disappear completely, the transformation is undeniable.
Room service revenue has declined markedly in the last five years, according to PKF Hospitality Research in Atlanta. Among 700 reporting hotels, the average occupied hotel room produced $4.33 of room service revenue in 2007. In 2012 that figure was down 25 percent, to $3.25.
Much of the drop in room service sales can be tied to the recession that began in late 2007. But even as hotel occupancy has picked up, calls for room service have not, said Robert Mandelbaum, PKF research director. "Guests are spending fewer dollars," Mandelbaum said. "There's been a total change in guest perception about food and beverage."
Steven Carvell, associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said there's a reason for that: Neither hotels nor their guests much care for room service.
For hotels, he said, supplying room service is expensive (mostly because of labor costs), and it presents challenges with getting food to a room at a reasonable temperature and cleaning up quickly enough to avoid a hallway littered with trays.
Customers aren't much more enthusiastic, "especially on a price-value relationship," Carvell said.
"If you look at the equation of being not very profitable and not very satisfying to the customer, it doesn't add up to a lot," he said. "Most hotels that have room service feel it's an amenity that is expected, but they would be just as happy without it."
Instead, hotels have become more creative with food service in recent years, increasingly adding coffee shops, cafes and what the industry calls the "grab 'n' go" -- restaurants offering fresh, (sometimes) hot food that can be eaten in lobby common spaces, taken back to a room or carried out.
In fact, a grab 'n' go has replaced room service at the Hilton Midtown; the hotel says its new Herb N' Kitchen "features seasonal salads, artisanal sandwiches and brick-oven pizzas" as well as "a barista zone (that) prepares specialty coffees."
Proving that room service isn't exactly disappearing, Herb N' Kitchen offers delivery to rooms between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. But some hotels, such as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich., have gone a step further: The 684-room Grand Plaza created an in-house pizzeria.
Andrew Bowen, associate director of food and beverage at the hotel, said the Grand Plaza saw a decrease in room service orders along with a rise in pizza delivery to the hotel lobby. In a bid to capture that business, the Grand Plaza invented Piezelli's, which it advertises in its rooms but avoids branding it as a hotel product, precisely to avoid associations with "room service."
"We wanted to be clear that this is not your grandfather's room service," Bowen said. "It just came down to getting guests a better product at a better price while avoiding the association people have with high prices for room service."
Yet, Piezelli's offers room service convenience that customers still seem to want, such as delivery to the rooms and the ability to charge cost to the final bill. The project has been enough of a success to eye expansion to submarine sandwiches, lasagna and cheese bread, Bowen said.
Industry observers say room service still has its niche: breakfast for business travelers and, say, late in-room dining after the clubs have closed. But short of that, the culture seems to be drifting away from the idea of eating alone in a hotel room.
Able to work wirelessly, business travelers are more interested in life outside their hotel rooms. Local-food movements have bred a new generation of food tourism that runs counter to eating a hotel hamburger in Miami that tastes like a hotel hamburger in Seattle.
Though luxury hotels are likely to maintain room service, much as they still hang cushy robes in the bathroom and deliver a newspaper to your door every morning, the Hilton Midtown's move could reverberate through the industry.
"It's like the airline baggage fee; once one airline showed it could be done, everybody followed suit," Carvell said. "If Hilton is able to maintain occupancy, and I would expect that they will, you'll see other hotels willing to take that leap."