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Published: Sunday, 1/19/2014 - Updated: 9 months ago

HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY

Minibars checking out of rooms in swank hotels

Guests, managers show marked chill to amenity

ORANGE COUNTY (CALIF.) REGISTER
Jim Samuels of Laguna Cliff’s Resort and Spa by Marriott in Dana Point, Calif., says the minbar is an amenity that no high-end resort should do without. Jim Samuels of Laguna Cliff’s Resort and Spa by Marriott in Dana Point, Calif., says the minbar is an amenity that no high-end resort should do without.
ORANGE COUNTY (CALIFORNIA) REGISTER Enlarge

The quintessential “Me Generation” hotel amenity, the minibar, may be fading away like disco music, transistor radios, and bell-bottom jeans.

Upscale resorts today seem lukewarm, at best, about providing and maintaining the self-service, in-room liquor caches, where guests can crack open a miniature bottle of tequila or vodka or perhaps enjoy cookies and soft drinks.

Never a huge money-maker thanks to chronic petty larceny and the high labor costs of monitoring and restocking liquor supplies, the minibar has become largely an after-thought in an age when fast-moving travelers care more about technology and connecting in inviting public spaces, said Mike Hall, general manager of the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“It just seems, over a period of time, to have gone to the wayside,” Mr. Hall said of the minibar. “People are so much more mobile now. They’re on the go. They have Wi-Fi. They’re traveling with two or three devices. They want to connect and communicate with each other. Everything today is in the lobby.”

The 397-room Westin is about to phase out its minibars and replace them with empty refrigerators, enabling guests to bring in beverages or order specific products from room service, Mr. Hall said.

In December, TripAdvisor.com posted survey results showing that only 1 in 5 travelers cared about having a minibar, making it the least popular amenity that hotels offer. By contrast, 9 out of 10 guests valued free in-room Wi-Fi and free parking. Lobby Wi-Fi, free breakfasts, poolside Wi-Fi, and laundry service all ranked as higher priorities than having a minibar, the survey said.

If guests do not care, hotels have no compelling incentive to offer mini-bars, said Karen L. Johnson, president of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, a consulting service for the hospitality industry.

“Even with outrageous pricing, it’s still hard to make money,” Ms. Johnson said. A few ounces of alcohol can cost $10 or more.

Unscrupulous guests steal the bottles or their contents, sometimes claiming the bar was never stocked or blaming the theft on the maid. Inventories have to be taken and prices charged before guests check out and leave. Some travelers fly home with minibar keys still in their pockets, Ms. Johnson said.

“I know of some hotels that have taken them out of the rooms because they seem to be constant source of conflict,” Ms. Johnson said. “The big push seems to be toward having an empty minirefrigerator in the room so guests can put their leftovers in there and not worry about … having an argument at the front desk.”

Disneyland Resort eliminated minibars at its resorts in Orange County, California, about seven years ago. Most guests preferred having refrigerators to store their own items, said Disney spokesman Suzi Brown.

And the Crowne Plaza Resort in Anaheim, Calif., does not offer minibars because the hotel loses money because of maintenance and overhead, said Paul Maddison, the hotel’s director of food and beverage.

“It’s just not worth it,” he said. “Those that have minibars tend to be destination hotels which tailor to the needs of the guest” — for example, he said, beach resorts that also sell sunscreen alongside bottled water and bourbon.

The Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa in Dana Point, Calif., which sits atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor, still has minibars and operates an entire department to service all 400 of them daily, said Jim Samuels, the resort’s general manager.

“If you want to be a four-star … or five-star resort,” Mr. Samuels said, “you want to have that full minibar. We have some groups that want to have that. They’ll look at multiple resorts and see if they have a minibar and want to know what’s in it.”

In the hotel business for more than 30 years, Mr. Samuels said he has seen a slow decline in the minibar since its heyday in the early 1990s or before.

Some high-end hotels are investing in systems that are linked directly into property-management software. If a guest even lifts up a bottle of water, sensors detect it, he said, and it’s on the bill.

A minibar in the room discourages guests from bringing in their own food. Mr. Samuels said he would rather have travelers eating in the resort’s restaurants, a core revenue producer.



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