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Mr. Hilton, what do you think now?

Conrad Hilton Senior passed away in 1979. A hard-working, passionate man, he amassed a fortune that grew, with his son’s contributions, to well in excess of US$2 billion before it was converted to a charitable trust. Known for innovation, Mr. Hilton is probably best known for setting a standard of quality that cemented his worldwide hospitality empire. A guest staying at any of the hundreds of Hilton properties in the United States or overseas was assured of high-quality, confortable accommodations. Thus, the brand name “Hilton” became synonymous with the upper end of our industry.

My, how times have changed. Here we are in 2013, nearly 35 years after his death, to learn that the Hilton New York Midtown, one of the brand’s largest properties, has done away with room service. The man responsible, Hilton Worldwide CEO Christopher Nassetta, has called upon other hoteliers to follow in his footsteps.

Any volunteers? No doubt you’ve already read one or two articles ridiculing this move. Throw my lot in with the detractors; I don’t see this call to remove room service as a viable universal strategy. I wonder how Conrad would react.

Let’s step back from the financial rationale, which I am sure in today’s world of exceptional POS data management is flawless. What I want to address is the issue of hospitality and the experience of staying at a hotel.

I am probably a bit old-fashioned, but when I stay at a luxury property, I want that stay to be something special. In essence, everything has to be superior to what I have at home. At least it better be for the prices they charge these days! This means the linens, the décor, the bathrooms, the amenities and the services all must live up to the contractual agreement implied by a 4- or 5-star badge. And part of that expectation is room service of a quality befitting the rest of the hotel experience.

Take this recent example. I arrived in London from Toronto at 10 p.m. By the time I got from Heathrow to my downtown hotel and checked in, it was approaching midnight. All the restaurants at the property were closed, and while there are probably a few all-night spots open in the area, I was not in the mood to traipse around in the rain searching for a late-night dinner. Moreover, I wanted to get as much shuteye as possible in order to become acclimatized to the time difference. This meant no walking and no exercise to pump adrenaline through my system — just a quick meal in my room as I lulled myself to sleep. Given these parameters, room service was the perfect solution.

For this instance, if room service had not been available, what would I have done? Thinking philosophically, how does a hotel fulfill its promise as a true purveyor of hospitality without anything more than salty snacks in the minibar? Remember that while I used London as an example, this same quandary is only magnified when applied to secondary cities, suburbs and rural areas where the hours of operations are far more limited.

So yes, eliminating room service might benefit a property in Midtown Manhattan, which holds the nickname “the city that never sleeps” for a very good reason. The greater New York City area houses roughly 20 million souls, a necessary concentration to make 24-hour restaurants viable en masse and to offer enough alternatives for guests so room service isn’t strictly essential. Ditto for other world-class cities like London, Paris, Chicago, Tokyo, Shanghai and so on. This model is not applicable elsewhere.

I believe there is a solution, however — a compromise somewhere between fine dining and total elimination. Call it the “night owl” menu. Limit the selection to a few items, comfort foods that can be easily managed by the relative paucity of nocturnal staff — salads, sandwiches and a few freezer-ready dessert items should do. Let your culinary team decide. The key is to offer a few quality items, rather than a wide range of complex items that necessitate a heftier staff commitment.

Before you follow the Hilton lead, there is one more issue that needs to be addressed. According to AAA and Forbes guidelines, the minimum standard for 4- and 5-diamond and star requirements includes 24-hour room service. I am not sure if this protocol will change any time soon, so if this rating is part of your mission statement or mandate, be cautious.

Conrad Hilton Senior built his business on adding quality, not removing services. What would he think of the current state of the industry and this trend towards de-contenting? With the OTAs hacking at our margins and brand perceptions, as well as other “disservices” like fee-based Wi-Fi, opt-out housekeeping and everything else encompassed by drip-pricing models, should we now throw room service on the chopping block? At what point does a hotel become just a guestroom and something completely excised from what the word “hospitality” implies?

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in HOTELSmag on June 12, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyMr. Hilton, what do you think now?