Monday, March 2, 2009

Surviving room service

I came across this article in an industry newsletter and thought it was worth sharing. After staying in a number of hotels recently, I do my best not to order room service. I think the fact that I worked in room service years ago at Sheraton Brisbane may also be a factor!

Don’t eat in bed: Tips for making the most of room service, the costliest way to enjoy a meal

By Daniel Edward Craig

For weary travelers, there's nothing more appealing than having a hot, scrumptious meal delivered to our hotel room. Room service brings out the kid in us. We get to do things we can't do at home: eat in bed, watch TV, and leave our dirty dishes in the hallway. Yet the experience rarely lives up to expectations. Meals take forever to arrive, food is cold and soggy, and prices mysteriously double after we place the order.

Hotels are often accused of gouging when it comes to pricing, but the costs of delivering a single meal to a room are comparable to running a full-service restaurant with only a few customers per night. It's a service hotels provide to guests, and almost invariably it's a money-loser. From a guest's perspective, it's one of the costliest ways to take a meal and everything should be perfect. But can it be?

As a hotel manager and frequent traveler I've been on both sides of the room service quandary. I've thumbed through menus and huffed in indignation at the prices and I've chaired meetings where those prices were set. Last year, while living in a hotel for five months, I became intimately acquainted with the pros and cons of ordering a meal to one's room. Here are some tips for hotel guests for making the most of the room service experience.

1. Consider Taco Bell. I'm loath to discourage guests from spending money, but in today's economy it's difficult to justify dropping the cost of a week's worth of groceries on a single meal. Yet the alternatives can be bleak: dining alone in the wastelands of the hotel restaurant or foraging for food in the mean city streets. A more prudent decision might be to head down to the local Taco Bell for an enchilada platter. If you can't bear to leave your room and miss the latest episode of Hell's Kitchen, consider raiding the mini-bar instead. Yes, a can of Pringles, a Kit Kat and two Buds is a revolting meal, but the calorie intake will be no greater, and in either case you'll be filled with self-loathing afterward. Use the savings to splurge on breakfast in the hotel restaurant or beachfront property in Malibu.

2. Do the math. Ordering room service is like booking a flight on a discount airline: the base price sounds reasonable; it's all the extra charges that leave you feeling swindled. In addition to taxes, hotels typically add a delivery charge-a lump-sum that goes to the hotel-and a service charge-a percentage that goes to the employee. Before confirming your order, ask for the grand total and clarify whether a gratuity is included. This spares you the embarrassment of struggling over simple math calculations while the delivery person is staring at you expectantly. A 15 to 20% gratuity on net food and beverage costs is standard. If the tip is included, don't expect the attendant to volunteer this information; he'll be long gone by the time you realize you double-tipped.

3. Ask the right questions. If you call down to place your order and think you've been patched through to a remote island in the South Pacific, it's because room service is usually located in the bowels of a hotel next to the kitchen. In smaller hotels you might place your order with the front desk, the switchboard, or, if labor is really tight, the general manager. Don't be shy about asking questions. If you're a fussy eater, ask to talk to the kitchen directly. Keep in mind these people are busy, so try to have an idea of what you want before you call and avoid idle chitchat and long, boring stories. Before you hang up, make sure the attendant repeats your order and gives an estimated delivery time. It shouldn't take more than a half-hour-forty-five minutes tops during peak times.

4. Don't leave good habits at home. Room service food tends to be bland and overdone or rich and overdressed. To avoid feeling like barfing afterward, ask for sauces on the side, bypass fried foods, and order fruit for dessert. Don't hesitate to order off-menu-any decent kitchen can whip up a green salad or grill a breast of chicken. But clarify prices first. At a Los Angeles hotel I told the order-taker I was so sick I wanted only a simple bowl of broth. She charged me $47. Go easy on the environment by requesting filtered tap water instead of bottled water and bulk condiments instead of those cute miniature bottles. Few hotels can afford to retain overnight kitchen staff, so after 11:00 PM expect a limited menu of pre-prepared items heated in the microwave. You might want to call the local pizza parlor instead. Or better yet, sleep off that booze-fueled craving.

5. Don't expect Michelin three-star cuisine. Room service has come a long way in recent years, but it's still virtually impossible to deliver a piping hot, perfectly cooked meal to a room in thirty minutes or less. Attendants must navigate a back-of-house obstacle course of broken furniture, soiled linen, slow service elevators and chatty colleagues. Food warmers help keep things hot but tend to overcook the meal. Before the attendant arrives do her a favor and put away your underwear, turn off the porn, and pull on a bathrobe, ensuring the belt is securely fastened. Before she leaves perform an inventory and quality control check; otherwise you might be buttering your dinner roll with a teaspoon. If you're not satisfied, speak up and give the hotel a chance to remedy things-don't eat every morsel and then complain at checkout.

6. Don't eat in bed. The idea of eating in bed can be highly appealing, but the execution is always awkward and messy and sheets end up acting as very large napkins. To avoid tossing and turning in breadcrumbs all night, ask for your meal to be delivered on a rolling table rather than a tray-and use it. If you don't want to wake up the next day to a horrific stench of festering leftovers, cover your plate with a napkin and place the tray in the corridor. Be sure to put on a bathrobe first, though-hotel doors self-close. Then call down to have the tray removed so your fellow guests don't have to see your ketchup-smeared carnage when they pass your room. This also helps prevent the theft of shiny pretty silverware.

Yes, room service is expensive and fraught with risk, but in a well run hotel it will be quick, beautifully presented and served with a smile. There is simply no better way to relax on the road than by enjoying a meal in the comfort of your hotel room.

About Daniel Edward

Daniel Edward Craig has worked for luxury hotels across Canada, most recently as general manager of Opus Hotel in Montreal. His blog provides a frank and entertaining look at issues in the hotel industry at Craig's third mystery novel, Murder at Graverly Manor, comes out in April 2009.

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