Hotel room service as we know it may soon be a thing of the past

Room service in hotel
'Room service is primarily the domain of the wealthy and the expense account,' says Mark - Getty/Maskot

Now that most hotel rooms come with a fairly decent pod-type coffee maker, I rarely order room service of any kind. I once splurged on breakfast with someone I was dating, when we were staying at the George V in Paris. It felt the most glamorous, sexy weekend imaginable, so we’d ordered a full spread the night before, on a drunken whim.

At 9am the next morning we sat in our bathrobes staring at an array of gleaming steel cloches on a tablecloth-clad trolley, both so hungover that not a mouthful of the £100+ meal would stay down. Then there was the time I’d decided to skip a snack at London City Airport en route to the Dolder Grand in Zurich, intending to treat myself to dinner in the room. When I saw the price for a plate of chips (£15), I made do with an apple from the fruit bowl.

Room service is primarily the domain of the wealthy and the expense account. As hotels change according to what we want from them, will it survive at all? A minibar with free soft drinks is now standard (I remember in Las Vegas many moons ago, being told that if I moved anything in the fridge it would trigger a charge, so I asked for an empty fridge “for my essential medicine”, which I then stocked up with beer from a 7-Eleven).

Cost of a club sandwich at five top London hotels
Cost of a club sandwich at five top London hotels

Today, even the one per cent bristle at being ripped off for a bottle of Voss water. Unless you’re halfway up a mountain or on safari, all kinds of alternatives are in close proximity. I am reminded of the story told by actor Brenda Blethyn, when she was still up-and-coming, and staying at a hotel in Los Angeles for work. Horrified by the prices on the room service menu, she went out and bought a box of cereal and a carton of milk and ate her breakfast out of a vase by her bed using a shoehorn from the wardrobe.

In the age of myriad dark kitchens and Deliveroo, many mid-range hotels simply direct guests to online out-of-house options. “Demand for room service is already very low and financially not beneficial,” says Lina Zakzeckyte, general manager at Hart Shoreditch in London. “The variety of food and cuisine offered through food delivery services such as Just Eat or Deliveroo is available for an affordable price with a small delivery charge, so it’s a preferred choice for guests staying in a central London hotel such as ours.”

Bigger chains have attempted to streamline and modernise room service. Marriott has its Bonvoy app, which lets you order straight from your phone without placing a call. That doesn’t sound significant, but Millennials and Gen Z will do anything to avoid verbal communication.

Room service cart in hotel hallway
With hotel room service coming with high price tags, some travellers opt to order in via platforms such as Deliveroo - Digital Vision/Getty

Laurent Gardinier, President of Relais & Châteaux, believes room service “doesn’t have the same dimension as in the past.” He has seen an overall decline in demand across the hotels he represents and attributes this largely to a change in what has been the most popular room service meal of the day – breakfast. “It’s now experiential,” he says. “Our chefs include it as part of their overall approach to the culinary and guest experience, just as they do with lunch and dinner.”

Fans of the breakfast buffet will be nodding silently in agreement. It’s one thing to have toast and coffee in bed or on your balcony, but if you’re at a five-star hotel on the Asian continent or in a mega resort, it’s likely that breakfast in the main dining room will be a spectacular, purposely photogenic, immersive experience.

You’ll want to go station to station, from French toast to dim sum. There will be bubbles, and it will feel acceptable to partake. As for the rest of the day, if you’re in a city such as London or Paris, you’d be silly to have lunch or dinner in your hotel when there’s a world of culinary wonder out there. Your hotel may, of course, have a landmark restaurant, but then it’s likely to be violently expensive. And the chef will almost definitely refuse to take part in offering dishes for room service.

You will be able to get versions of Akira Back’s signature dishes when his restaurant opens at the new Mandarin Oriental in Mayfair later this year. But the “Akira Back to your room” menu has been shaped with an eye to what travels best from kitchen to room. With logistics in mind, Back is offering tuna pizza and his version of the classic Caesar salad, made with koji rice.

Room service tray in hotel hallway
'There will be two extremes – a full in-room private dining experience, and then an almost interaction-free one,' predicts Francisco Macedo - plainpicture.com

Francisco Macedo, operations director for the Iconic Luxury Hotels Group and general manager of Cliveden House hotel in Berkshire believes that, as at Marriott’s properties, apps and advanced technology will play a greater role in the future of room service. “My view is that room service will go in two directions,” he says. “There will be two extremes – a full in-room private dining experience, and then an almost interaction-free one, with delivery to your door, as little interruption as possible, and a seamless automated process to get it all cleared away.”

Context is everything, of course. If you’re at a beach resort, you probably want to be in your room as little as possible. Phillip Morstedt of Bequia Beach Hotel in St Vincent & the Grenadines confirms: “We saw demand for in-room dining during the pandemic, but now people want to be at the bar, after being deprived of it for so long. And we aren’t getting guests ordering gold-coated steak and caviar to their room at 1am. That’s not happening at a rustic Caribbean resort.”

The cost-of-living crisis doesn’t seem to be impacting the hotel industry as much as had perhaps been feared, with this summer being one of the busiest of all time for travel. People are still ring-fencing holidays as periods when they don’t want to think about money.

But if you want to relax in a bubble bath in your room one evening with a bottle of champagne (as I absolutely do), then it’s common sense to plan ahead and get one at Waitrose, or Duty Free, before you arrive. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but you can generally get a bucket of ice for nothing.