Some high-end hotels are embracing elevated in-room dining

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Thompson Chicago’s in-room dining.
Thompson Chicago’s in-room dining.

The JW Marriott Chicago may be an established brand doing business in middle America, but its room-service items go far beyond the traditional beverage glass topped with plastic wrap or a burger kept tepid by a silver plate cover.

The 611-room hotel's in-room dining options include Japanese bento boxes, a striped bass dish finished in the room with a miso broth and, more recently, a so-called dessert "ski," which is actually a narrow wooden board topped with items such as sugar cookies, chocolate truffles and a bottle of prosecco.

"We're really looking to evolve in-room dining," said Ryan Bauer, the JW Marriott Chicago's food and beverage manager. "In-room dining sometimes tries to be everything to everyone, but you can still make it a local experience."

As many full-service hotels narrow their room-service options or do away with it altogether in favor of grab-and-go counters or buffet-type offerings, a few higher-end properties are going against the grain by stepping up their in-room food and beverage options as a point of differentiation.

For example, a couple miles north of the JW, the Thompson Chicago earlier this month debuted an in-room food and beverage program that offers guests a wider range of items that can be ordered from the hotel's Nico Osteria restaurant. At the same time, it makes room service more restaurantlike by letting guests have each dining course brought separately and serving the food with trays and linen that have a lighter-colored design scheme by day and a darker one by night.

"Even in five-star hotels, room service can be lackluster," said Chad Jackson, director of operations, catering and conference services for Thompson parent Commune Hotels. "It's omelettes, burgers, pastas and Caesar salads. They just try to elevate it by putting a silver closed shell on there. Room service used to be a luxury. I'm trying to bring that back."

Aparium Hotel Group’s Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee includes in-room elixirs from Bittercube Bitters, which guests can mix with spirits from the minibar.
Aparium Hotel Group’s Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee includes in-room elixirs from Bittercube Bitters, which guests can mix with spirits from the minibar.

And the trend is not limited to food. Boutique hotelier Aparium Hotel Group reached an agreement for Milwaukee's Bittercube Bitters to custom-make non-alcoholic elixirs that are now a standard in-room amenity for guests at that city's Iron Horse Hotel. Guests can make their own Old-Fashioneds, Gimlets and other drinks by mixing the elixirs with spirits from the hotel's minibar.

"Everyone has peanut M&Ms," said Angela Kuzma, corporate director of food and beverage operations for Aparium. Of the drinks, he said, "you can literally mix it, pour it over ice and crawl into bed. It's a cocktail to go."

Granted, such hotels aren't alone in counting on business from discerning travelers looking to bring unique dining or beverage options upstairs. The U.S. city most associated with the anything-anywhere mentality is Las Vegas, and that applies to dining, as well. The most obvious example is the Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace, named for and conceptualized after Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa. There, guests can order up items such as Green Tea Waffles for breakfast or Wagyu Beef Tacos for an unusual, albeit expensive, appetizer.

Down the Strip, hotels like the Bellagio Las Vegas can bring up everything from a boxed Bon Bon selection to a $195 "Seafood on Ice" platter.

In New York, the Trump Hotel Central Park gives guests a chance to taste cuisine from celebrity chef Jean-George Vongerichten without leaving their rooms, and it can provide an in-suite chef with 24 hours notice. Meanwhile, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) acquired this year, has long offered guests room-service delivery from the well-regarded restaurants inside their 60-plus hotels across the U.S.

JW Marriott Chicago’s room-service offerings include a dessert “ski” with prosecco.
JW Marriott Chicago’s room-service offerings include a dessert “ski” with prosecco.

Still, by recently broadening room-service culinary choices, hotels like the Thompson and JW appear to be bucking the broader trend of hotels looking to cut their losses by eliminating room service in favor of grab-and-go food options.

Two years ago, the New York Hilton-Midtown, the city's largest hotel, announced plans to eliminate room service. Overall, food and beverage revenue, which includes both restaurant and room-service sales, has dropped to about a quarter of U.S. hotel revenue from 38% in 1980, according to PKF Consulting. That drop is the result of the declining popularity of room service and the steady rise in limited-service hotels that either eschew room service or offer perks such as free breakfasts.

Either way, hotelier surveys appear to support such a strategy. According to a survey this spring by Expedia's Hotels.com, room service didn't make the top four preferred amenities list for either leisure or business travelers, though free breakfast was second-most desired after free WiFi for both groups.

In fact, of the amenities guests were willing to sacrifice to reduce room rates, room service came in fourth (at 48% surveyed), behind turndown service, bathrobes and designer toiletries.

And even among business travelers who often arrive at hotels at odd hours and frequently host business meetings in their suites, room service doesn't register high among the list of preferred amenities. According to a Global Business Travel Association survey in late 2013 (the most recent poll of its kind taken by that group), travel managers listed free WiFi, free breakfast, on-site parking, airport shuttle, gym and business center as the six most preferred amenities. Room service wasn't listed.

The full menu from Thompson Chicago’s Nico Osteria restaurant is included in the hotel’s room-service offerings.
The full menu from Thompson Chicago’s Nico Osteria restaurant is included in the hotel’s room-service offerings.

That said, hoteliers' food and beverage executives such as Bauer and Jackson say there are enough guests who want either the convenience or the exclusivity of broader room-service options to invest further in the concept. In the Thompson Chicago's case, the strategy is fueled in part by the fact that some guests can have trouble getting Friday or Saturday night reservations at Nico Osteria, which is operated by Chicago-based restaurateur One Off Hospitality Group.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based hospitality consultant Technomic, said the trend reflects a bifurcation of sorts within the hospitality industry: Some guests want the stark convenience of a breakfast buffet or an in-hotel Starbucks, while others want the luxury of having multicourse, in-room meals.

As a parallel example, Tristano cited sporting events: While most fans go for the experience of the game, the concept of a fully serviced sky box or club level has gained popularity in recent years for corporate clients or higher-end fans.

"It's what affluent people look for," Tristano said. "We're seeing it in other places. Why not the hotel industry?"

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