Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bar None

Today's WSJ reports on changes afot in the world of the Hotel Minibar (sub req):

Dissatisfied with tepid sales or fed up with arguing over disputed charges, hotels world-wide are overhauling their minibar offerings, moving tempting items out into open view, or just leaving fridges empty for guests to use.

The moves aim to ease the headaches of operating the Lilliputian appliances. Traditional minibars need to be checked and replenished by employees daily. Unsold items expire. Bottles of beer disappear.

Paying $8 for the same bottle of water that costs $2 at the corner store may mystify guests, but hotels say they need to charge high prices.

"People think the hotels are trying to gouge them, but actually [minibars] are loss-leaders," says Beth Scott, vice president, food and beverage strategy, at Hilton Worldwide, which has been phasing out stocked minibars at some hotels.

Theft and billing problems can eat into minibar income. Hilton loses 5% to 20% of minibar revenue to "quote-unquote breakage," says Ms. Scott.

While some decry hotel minibars as rip-offs designed to prey on the weak of will, I actually find them useful especially on international trips. After you’ve spent the better part of a day traveling, when you finally get into your hotel room late at night it’s nice to have a supply of snacks and beverages at easy disposal. In those situations, I’ll usually knock back a few beers and scarf down some chips or peanuts to help unwind before drifting off to sleep (and a little alcohol increases the effectiveness of sleeping pills as well). Are the prices outrageous? Absolutely, but for the convenience offered they're ones I’m usually willing to pay.

Gordon Scott, who travels for business about twice a month, steers clear of minibars—except to keep his own drinks cool. "They're overpriced, there's nothing good in them and I'm not a big drinker, especially when I'm alone in a hotel," says Mr. Scott, a partner in a hedge fund from Northfield, Ill.

Really? From my perspective, being alone in a hotel room seems like a most apt occasion to enjoy a drink or two. However, I do appreciate Mr. Scott’s approach to putting the hotel minibar to use for your own needs. If I’m going to be hunkered down for more than a few days, I’ll do the same thing and clear out the hotel’s stock and replace it with my own beer, juice, and water.

To cut costs and keep better track of sales, more hoteliers are installing automated minibars equipped with sensors that know when an item has been removed, immediately charging a guest's bill.

Hotels and minibar manufacturers say these can cut labor costs since employees only have to check the roughly 25%-30% of rooms that use the minibar on a given day. Software can track how long items have been sitting in the minibar, cutting down on the problem of expired snacks.

But automated minibars cause problems of their own. If you take out an item and put it back, you might be charged, though most hotels give a grace period of about 40 seconds. And forget replacing a minibar's high-priced sodas with your own snacks.

This would definitely be a move in the wrong direction. I’d rather have hotels simply provide refrigerators that we can fill ourselves.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts is eliminating stocked minibars from some of its convention hotels, leaving empty refrigerators for guests to use for their own items. It is adding stores selling snacks and fresh foods in many lobbies. Hilton and Omni are making similar moves.

This obviously works better in some locations than in others. If you’re in the US and you have a car, it’s usually quite easy to find a nearby store to pick up your supplies. All US hotel rooms should have a refrigerator. It can be much more difficult in foreign locales, especially since hotels are often located in complexes not convenient for shopping. In those cases, I would prefer the option of having a traditional minibar available.

Some hotels have been driven to pull booze completely from their minibars.

"The reality of minibars is that you drink the whiskey and put tea in the bottle; you drink the vodka and put water in there," says Gordon Slatford, general manager of the Tides Inn in Irvington, Va. In January, the Tides removed alcohol and started charging a flat $2 for sodas and snacks. "Disputes disappeared," Mr. Slatford says.

Really people? I’m shocked and ashamed for my fellow travelers (no pun intended). Yes, the whisky and vodka in minibars is overpriced, but it is really that bad that you go to such lengths to commit fraud and steal what you refuse to pay for? If you drink it, at least have the decency to pay for it. Otherwise, your loutish behavior ends up punishing the rest of us. Let’s keep the bar in the minibar.