Few hotel features ignite debate quite like the minibar. For some they represent a luxurious indulgence, for others daylight robbery with high prices and poor choice.
The cost of minibar items has long been an issue of contention but what many don't realize is that price tag on a pack of M&Ms for example also reflects the extensive labor, inventory and potential waste that stocking that item entails.
"We had a full department looking after our minibars; six people working seven days a week," says John Askew, the director of food and beverage at The Peabody Hotel Orlando.
"Our minibar had 35 items, and with 831 rooms to look after you can imagine how many cases you had to have on hand to keep it stocked. If an item wasn't moving, you could find yourself with 16 cases of expired Coke."
The Peabody is one of several hotels that have jettisoned their minibars in the last couple of years. The Marriott started yanking their in-room fridges in 2004, and nearly every major hotel chain, including Hyatt, Hilton and Starwood Hotels, have started to follow suit.
Instead of a pre-stocked fridge, guests at The Peabody Hotel can order snack and beverage packages as part of the room service. If they pre-order, the hotel staff will stock the fridge with goods before they arrive. The program is called "Feed the Fridge" and prices are closer to what you might find at a local grocery store.
"If you price it like a minibar, people are going to leave the hotel," notes Askew.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel in Florida has been experimenting with a similar model, which they call the "personal pantry". Tony Porcellini, the hotel's food and beverage director, notes that the savings in labor and inventory gets passed on to the customer.
"In the Personal Pantry, we offer a six-pack of beer for $8. That was about the price of one beer in the old minibar," he says.
As minibars are often a loss-leader, some hotels have opted to stop charging for them and simply make them a free amenity for guests.
The Siam Kempinski Hotel in Bangkok, for instance, gives out free local beer and soda, while the Andaz Liverpool Street in London offers complimentary snacks, including biscuits and potato chips. Other hotels hope to lure clientele into charging items by instituting more upscale offerings.
The Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona, is just one property to introduce local wines and craft beers to their menu.
It has given its minibar a complete makeover, moving it out of the purview of food and beverage and under the jurisdiction of retail.
The contents not only got a major sprucing, but so did the display and packaging of items. Near the TV sits two bottles of local Arizona Stronghold wine and chocolate-covered grapes.
Both run-of-the-mill and gourmet snacks migrated from inside the fridge onto a leather tray in full-view. The hotel also started selling M&Ms packaged in a teddy-bear shaped jar that's proven almost irresistible to kids.
"The first thing I wanted to do was visually merchandise the minibar," Kelly Dunagan-Johnson, the resort's retail director. The approach has worked, as sales have seen a 30% increase year after year.
Given Enchantment's success, it's a wonder more hotels don't follow their lead
"F&B aren't testing display opportunities and saying, 'This isn't working, let's move it here,' or, 'let's trade out that snack.' They're resetting the same stuff over and over in a pattern," says Dunagan-Johnson.