When talking about the in-room dining experience – order-in menu, minibar and all – there appears to be a very powerful ‘healthy food never sells' stigma amongst hoteliers.
I don't believe this to be entirely true. Guests want healthier options, but the problem is that the quick-and-now tendencies of our genetic makeup can overpower any drive for dietary perfection, especially when it comes to hotel dining and away-from-home cuisine.
It's the same fundamental reason that proper weight loss dieting is so hard to sustain. We're hardwired for junk food; that is, any calorie vehicle that delivers an instantaneous fix to replenish a brain's sugar levels. And our brain craves sugar. Most people have enough basic nutrition knowledge to understand that fruit is a better source of sugar than a candy bar and that a salad is better than a greasy burger. Unfortunately, junk food is simply too readily accessible. No prep time, no fear of decay, just ‘pop the top' and munch away.
Now more so than ever before, people are striving to eat healthy and seek out health-conscious establishments. It's a going trend, and if you can appease this emergent bracket of consumers with new features, then it could easily morph into an additional revenue stream. However, to implement any new facet of your operations in this regard is to first understand the chief obstacle of accessibility.
To do this, you must first understand just how truly impatient the human brain is. When it gets tired and cranky, it'll scrounge for sugar right away and you'll need a heavy dose of willpower to stop it from compelling your body to grab the closest source available. If that happens to be grapes, then the brain gets healthy sugars, but if it's a can of soda, the brain gets junk. Either way, the brain gets its fix.
Most of the time, healthy foods are far less accessible than junk food, and this problem does not start and stop with the hospitality world. For starters, the shelf life of fruit is a paltry fraction of that for candy bars and potato chips (read: preservatives). Fruit rots, which means a hefty inventory replacement cost for hotels and households alike. This, plus fresh fruit and veggies can be significantly more expensive than the average piece of junk food.
You also have to consider another key aspect of accessibility: preparation. Cutting up an apple and mixing a salad are both laborious tasks when compared to opening a soda bottle and ripping open a bag of chips. All said, these are pretty good reasons to back up the ‘healthy food never sells' mentality. Junk food is quick and healthy options don't last: game over.
So, how does one make healthier options as accessible to hotel guests as their pre-packaged, processed counterparts without running a deficit?
I'd begin with awareness – how you phrase and how you highlight such options. It's not just a minibar or room service, but an ‘in-room dining experience'. This more illustrious and pleasing terminology has to be displayed in large, bold text and situated where guests are guaranteed to notice. Strategically placed brochures in the front lobby, above the minibar and on the bedside table are good start.
And of course, this can evolve into another point of differentiation for your marketing teams to use. For this, educating people on the options always to them is equally as important as the options themselves. Think about how your in-room dining menu is displayed on your website. Does your front desk staff discuss this service with guests upon arrival? Is it a feature conveyed in your promotional materials?
I'll mention one example that fits the bill. I arrive at a luxury hotel and there's a tray of fresh fruit, crackers and cheese waiting in my room. A handwritten welcome note on top adds personable warmth to an already pleasant touch. But the kicker is that beside the tray is the room service menu – hard not to notice, especially with the clear instructions that everything is available within 30 minutes, 24-hours a day. Given the gratuitous surcharges of the minibar items, this healthy menu comes off as fairly enticing.
Do you provide your guests with healthy snacks upon arrival? It doesn't have to be anything as exuberant as a full tray in each room, but perhaps some light refreshments by the front desk. That'll make for a more social and enjoyable lobby atmosphere anyway. Or, given the on-to-go nature of business travelers, perhaps such guests could have the option of requesting a bowl of fruit to be placed in their rooms for an extra fee. Think quick, energizing food choices like bananas, grapes and oranges, all ready and in plain sight for the harried visitor. This could even be incorporated as a feature of your loyalty program.
Moving onto the menu itself presents even more opportunities to show off your healthier side. Salads are a no-brainer as are yogurt parfaits, smoothies and cleanly prepared seafood. Not only do you want to offer these, but you'll want to consider giving a short explanation as to what your kitchen does to make them particularly nutritious and beneficial when compared to regular foods. Think in terms of organic, locally produced and bought fresh.
Additionally, there are subtle changes you can make to the classically-deemed unhealthy mainstays like pizza and burgers. For pizza, emphasize how your kitchen uses such nutritious preparations as whole wheat crust, high quality cheeses, less grease and an abundance of vegetables. For burgers, highlight organic, grass-fed beef (or another meat) and a gluten-free bun. Did you know that burgers can be made out of tofu, lentils, chickpeas, beets or a host of other sturdy vegetables? Consider one of the above to add some vegan flair.
The point is that there's always a way to spruce up your menu to appeal to a more health-conscious guest while not neglecting the junk food crowd. Additionally, many junk food addicts are yearning for a way to convert, but need the appropriate nudges to do so.
This discussion may even necessitate a total redesign of the in-room menu as well as a deeper appreciation for the presentation of that menu in order to attain full effectiveness. As nutritional awareness and healthy mindsets proliferate amongst consumers, this is definitely a topic to warrant consideration amongst your F&B management team. One last word: Try this yourself: eat an apple or some grapes. Then see if you still have a craving for potato chips or sweetened chocolate.
(Article published in eHotelier on June 20, 2012)