Room service no more: why luxury is leaving the middle class behind | Helaine Olen

Hilton’s pulling of room service in New York is another example of how middle income earners are losing access to life’s luxuries

New York City’s Hilton Hotels recently announced they would end room service this summer, offering customers instead a high-end food shop in the lobby.

That’s right. For $200 a night plus taxes, you’ll be expected to brown-bag it.

Think of this as one more demonstration of how services for the middle class are getting squeezed – and in some cases, vanishing – everywhere from the hospitality industry to retail.

From Hilton’s perspective, the announced reasons seem to make sense. Room service is a notorious money-loser for the hospitality industry, and is not as popular as it once was. According to hotel industry analysts, an increasing number of customers don’t want to pay more than $20 for an egg-and-bacon dish that might well arrive cold when they can order a fresh breakfast for less than $10 at a nearby diner.

Or, perhaps, it’s their bosses paying the bills don’t want to pay for such luxuries. The New York Times reported last year that more companies were insisting that their business travelers downscale the type of hotel they stayed in. Goodbye to full-service but not high-luxury hotels like, yes, the Hilton, and hello to such do-it-yourself places at Courtyard by Marriott, where the rooms are more than adequate but the indulgences designed to make customers feel important – like room service – are few and far between.

Yet the highest-end hotels are doing quite well indeed. According to Smith Travel Research, revenue per room at luxury hotels is expected to increase by 8.8% in 2013. The next-lowest tier? A mere 4.8%.

At the same time, the number of rooms in hotels without even a restaurant – never mind room service – has increased by 16% over the past decade.

For the luxury traveler who can still afford the high-end, things are going great. When the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach announced last year they would end their full-service around-the-clock in-room meal offerings, claiming that room service requests had dropped by 40% over the past decade, the manager of the nearby Sheraton told a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser they were planning to up their game, offering hotel guests three- and four-course meals from their well-regarded hotel restaurants, instead offering them a basic menu from a dedicated room service kitchen.

All this sounds distressingly similar to the world of retail, where the great middle-income department stores of the last century like Sears are slowly but surely seeing their patrons trade down to places like Target or Kohl’s, even as luxury retailers are on the rise. At the Neiman Marcus Group, earnings rose by 13% in the last quarter as customers buoyed by the rising stock market hit the registers for full-priced goods. At JC Penney, the company is hemorrhaging money, a combination of a failed attempt to cease reliance on gimmicky sales and the payroll tax increase.

As a result, the choices in retail can feel increasingly stark. A salesperson at Nordstrom’s will walk you from department to department, helping you select what you need, but Walmart is so bereft of sales help that Bloomberg reports they can’t even keep the shelves stocked. Neiman Marcus still mails out its famed Christmas Book in the fall, but Sears’ famed Christmas catalog is now available only online. As for Black Friday? You can check out the action at the discount big-box retailers on YouTube but if Bergdorf Goodman held a post-day after Thanksgiving sale, the world missed it.

It all sounds so petty: do you really need room service? When was the last time you ordered anything from the Sears Christmas catalog anyway? However, all this feeds into a sense that many of us are losing access to life’s small luxuries, while those with money are being treated more royally than ever before.

It seems silly to complain, but we all deserve our small pleasures, instead of just leaving them to the very richest.

On that note, I’ll have breakfast in room 427 between 7.15 and 7.30, please. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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