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Exclusive: Hilton Declares Room Service Overhaul Successful

August 1, 2014 Hotel News No Comments Email Email

The days of the $30 room-service cheeseburger may be numbered, thanks to new findings from Manhattan’s biggest hotel.

Herb N’ Kitchen’s grab-and-go area. Photo courtesy of New York Hilton Midtown.

Top executives at the nearly 2,000-room Hilton New York Midtown hotel revealed to Travel Update recently that their decision to replace traditional room service with a stripped-down version has been a critical and financial “success.” The program is there to stay.

“If revenues were down, we would not call it successful,” said Jason Tresh, the hotel’s food and beverage director.

The newfangled set-up – which hinges on a contemporary restaurant called Herb N’ Kitchen with a broad to-go menu that doubles as the room service menu – better serves the needs of today’s time-pressed guests, especially business travelers, Tresh said.

“We’re seeing a lot of business travelers grab food here before going to meetings. They bypass room service. They don’t want to wait that 45 minutes,” he said.

Room service in upscale hotels typically loses money despite costly prices and delivery fees. Simply put, room-service sales typically don’t run high enough to cover expenses related to the dedicated staff and kitchen space required to run the operation. At the Hilton today, there’s just one kitchen instead of two to manage, which helps to control costs, said Richard Brown, the hotel’s top chef.

The Hilton’s news could influence other hotels to follow suit.

“We have toured everyone in NYC’s food and beverage world,” Laurens Zieren, general manager of the Hilton New York. Asked about their reaction, he said, “The overall theme is we’re jealous of what you’ve accomplished.”

Travel Update recently sat down with Zieren and the hotel’s other top executives for their first in-depth discussion about the controversial move.

The Hilton’s decision, announced about a year ago, to get rid of rolling carts and formal waiter service was criticized by workers as well as some customers who said they still want the traditional silver-domed trays delivered to their room – and are happy to pay for the added pampering.

“It was a daring move in the beginning. You had to take a chance,” said Brown, who came from the five-star St. Regis to take over food operations here two years ago.

The property’s declaration of room service success also flies in the face of critics who said the hotel was crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed. One question often heard from both consumers and industry insiders alike was this: How would a four-star hotel without traditional room service differentiate itself from a three-star hotel?

Clearly, some people won’t be happy with the new room service model, Zieren said. Among them: Couples who’d like to order a romantic meal up to their room and female business travelers who dislike solo restaurant dining.

“You see guests who love it. You also see a few guests who say that’s not for me,” Zieren said. “If you’re more traditional, that’s not what we do anymore.”

Frequent business traveler Rivkah Tuttle is one of those female business traveler who sometimes relies on room service for late dinners. On her current trip, she told Travel Update, she was left frustrated by limited room service hours.

“When I called the front desk after 9 pm, they told me they couldn’t deliver even something like water or fruit at that hour. They simply don’t offer room service now,” Tuttle said. “I had to go out to a convenience store, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.”

Millennials in Mind

The controversial move to streamlined room service highlights the race by hotel and travel companies to re-evaluate their operations through the eyes of Millennial travelers.

Over the last five years, hotels have remade boring lobbies into inviting living rooms – with hip music piped-in – where people can hold impromptu meetings, plug in their laptops, order wine or share food. They’ve also been scrambling to increase the number of power outlets in guest rooms given the higher demand to charge multiple mobile devices.

Room Service Is No Different.

Remember, travelers in the 18-to-33-year-old category grew up with Starbucks. So, not surprisingly, they tend to prefer quick yet customized service similar to what they do when they order a cafe latte in a premium coffee shop.

Healthy food options are popular with this crowd, as is technology. Many hotels, for instance, have witnessed an uptick in guests using apps to order meals from local neighborhood restaurants and bypass room service altogether.

Bottom line: Hotels worry that if they don’t fulfill the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s customers, they might go elsewhere – especially in an age where alternatives such as Airbnb rentals are becoming more popular.

Behind the Scenes: How It Works in New York

The newfangled room service style wouldn’t be possible if the hotel hadn’t done away with the old-fashioned, three-meal-a-day hotel restaurant.

The replacement – Herb N’ Kitchen, a restaurant that’s a cross between a Panera Bread location and an upscale New York deli – let the hotel make the menu more hip and modern to broaden appeal, re-arrange the kitchens to make them easier to manage, and encourage new revenues from to-go sales.

The most visible part of Herb N’Kitchen is an order area with an open kitchen with a wood-burning pizza oven. Here, people can order items such as a house made turkey burger ($12.75), a glass noodle salad ($14.75), a pepperoni oven-baked flatbread ($17) or a side of crudités and hummus ($4.50). Customers can select from ready to go items such as a lemon-zest quinoa salad ($5.50) artisanal chips and chocolates, and chilled desserts still made by the hotel’s on-site pastry chef. Brown’s team now makes the flatbread dough themselves instead of buying pre-made pizza shells like before.

The new style dining area – equipped with free Wi-Fi – features contemporary tables with raw-finished slabs of marble and built-in power plugs. People can eat and work in the area like they can in a Starbucks. Employees move around the space bussing tables, but there are no waiters asking guests to place an order and leave a tip.

For room service, a runner “shops” for the guest’s requested items, bags them in an upscale to-go paper bag and walks them up to the guest’s room. They will not unpack the food and drink items, enter the guest’s room, linger and wait for a tip. Guests won’t pay the old service charge of $5.50; delivery is free as long as $15 worth of items, excluding tax, are ordered.

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