In an era of on-demand food delivery, hotel room service is forced to evolve

CHICAGO — Hotel room service has always been a tough sell. 

It’s expensive both to order and to operate, looks extravagant on a business traveler’s expense report, and for most people, goes against the very point of travel: to get out and explore new sights and cuisines. Room service revenue industrywide is down more than 25 percent since before the recession, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate firm.  

Still, some members of the traveling public want the option of food delivered to their rooms, and hotels are eager to offer solutions that will differentiate them from competitors without breaking the bank.  

For a few hotels in Chicago, that has meant delivering meals to guest rooms through partnerships with a popular local gastropub, a cult-favorite burger chain and a hometown service that delivers organic, chef-made meals.  

“The economics of running a food and beverage operation can be a strain, so (some hotel operators) are looking for more creative ways to serve guests,” said Scott Berman, the U.S. hospitality and leisure practice leader at PwC.  

While hotels and food providers generally don’t reveal financial details of these partnerships, the benefits are clear. It gives the hotels a valuable marketing tool in offering food delivery without the high cost of producing it themselves, and provides added exposure and a broader customer base for the restaurant or food delivery company.  

The Kinzie Hotel in downtown Chicago didn’t have to stray far to find a room service provider. The hotel inked a deal with gastropub Public House, which sits next door. Public House is now the sole provider of room service meals to the hotel, for lunch, dinner or a pared down menu for late night.  

Andrew Eck, the hotel’s general manager, says Public House works well for the hotel because of its varied menu and “essential Chicago” feel.  

“I thought the chance to partner with a trendy gastropub and take advantage of their popularity with locals was exciting for the people that weren’t able to explore the city as much or wouldn’t get to experience Public House in person,” Eck said. No money changed hands in the partnership.  

An in-room order from Public House comes with an automatic 20 percent gratuity included and a delivery fee of $3.50.  

Staff from the hotel and the restaurant have met frequently since starting the service last year to perfect the offering and solve any problems quickly, Eck says. But so far, he said they haven’t had to make major adjustments to offerings or service. The food is served on plates used in the restaurant, instead of in takeout containers, to improve the perception by guests, Eck said. He estimates that about 20 to 30 room service orders are placed on busy nights at the 215-room hotel.  

Public House meals are delivered to the hotel by restaurant staff and brought up to a guest’s room by employees of the hotel. Eck said guests order from other delivery services very rarely, in part because the Public House menus are featured so prominently in guest rooms.  

Room service is an important draw for the Kinzie’s business travelers, who often don’t have time to go out to restaurants, or travel to Chicago in the winter months, when eating in the warmth and comfort of a hotel room seems more appealing than trudging through snow to eat out, expense account or not.  

Eck estimates that about 30 percent of the Kinzie’s rooms are filled with business travelers in the summer. That figure swells to about 70 percent in the winter.  

A new Shake Shack restaurant on the ground floor of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel in the downtown Loop area meant a new option for guests to order from, and marked the first time that the burger and custard chain had ever done room service.  

Shake Shack spokeswoman Kristyn Clark said the partnership, which began last August, is unique to this hotel and isn’t expected to be replicated at other Shake Shack locations.  

Hotel Chicago, which opened in April of last year, doesn’t have a built-in restaurant and initially filled the gap by offering guests 10 percent off at neighboring Park Tavern and Angel’s, a Mexican restaurant. But General Manager Imran Jivani also wanted a healthy and quick delivery option for the large number of young people and medical professionals who stay at the hotel because of its proximity to the Illinois Medical District and the United Center sports arena. Hotel Chicago and the Kinzie are both owned by Westmont-based Portfolio Hotels and Resorts.  

Chicago-based meal delivery service Eat Purely turned out to be a “perfect fit,” he said. Eat Purely offers a handful of chef-made organic meals each day that can be delivered in 30 minutes.  

He estimates between 5 and 10 percent of guests in the 116-room hotel use the service regularly, and many order multiple meals that can be refrigerated and microwaved in their rooms. As with the Kinzie, no money changes hands in the The Hotel Chicago-Eat Purely deal. 

“People have loved it,” he said. “It works for any discerning customer or someone who wants all the bells and whistles.”  

Eat Purely meal delivery may also be a way of helping hotel guests break out of their routines.  

Chicago visitors tend to stick to the familiar when staying at hotels in the city, according to delivery company DoorDash. The most popular restaurants for DoorDash hotel deliveries in Chicago are The Cheesecake Factory and Buffalo Wild Wings.  

While smaller boutique hotels have found solutions to their room service dilemmas, large chains have been experimenting with partnerships too.  

Hyatt Centric, a Hyatt chain aimed at younger travelers, launched a “Restaurant to Go” service in which guests could order from restaurants or an express menu and have food delivered to their rooms in 20 minutes. As part of that program, the brand formed a pilot program with Grubhub to provide room service delivery from a curated set of restaurants at its hotels in Miami; Park City, Utah; and Long Beach, Calif. Local hotel employees picked seven to 10 restaurants for each property, and ordering goes through a customized webpage that’s provided at check-in.  

Grubhub wouldn’t offer financial details of its partnership with Hyatt, but said that hotel guests tend to spend more on orders overall.  

Sandra Cordova Micek, senior vice president of global brands at Hyatt, said the collaboration has been “received enthusiastically,” and that the hotel chain is “looking forward to evolving the relationship.”

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