Snacking on the Road

June 24, 2015

Lodging operators find new f&b opportunities when they offer guests snack options

Americans want to snack when they're on the go, and that is especially true when they travel. As a result, an increasing number of lodging operators are catering to those hungry travelers by updating their foodservice offerings. Some are refurbishing their lobby eateries, while others are moving away from traditional food-and-beverage venues such as minibars and room service, thereby creating new opportunities to accommodate guests’ desire for quick, grab-and-go snacks.

In addition, some properties, in an effort to trim costs, are changing the way they deliver food to guests while others are de-emphasizing their food and beverage service altogether, says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for PKF Hospitality Research, a CBRE Company based in Atlanta.

snacking is on the rise

“Some of it is due to the recession, and some was just evolving over the years,” Mandelbaum says. “If you look at really popular hotels being built by developers these days, they are mostly in the limited-service category. They are trying to avoid or severely limit food and beverage because they are costly and highly management intensive.” In fact, he adds, the biggest expense for hotels is labor.

Meanwhile, today’s travelers are not seeking three meals a day at their hotels, and they are not ordering as much room service as they might have years ago, Mandelbaum says. They also do not want to pay $10 for a snack from the minibar when they know they can buy something less costly at a nearby convenience store. Consequently, some hotels are rethinking the minibar.

“It takes a lot of human capital to inventory and restock the minibar,” Mandelbaum explains. “Hotels have attempted to automate that but there have been headaches. You open the door to the refrigerator and even look at a candy bar, or you drop your shoe near it, and the front desk is alerted and that triggers a sale.”

According to PKF’s Annual Trends in the Hotel Industry report, sales are stagnant in hotel food-and-beverage services. From 2007 to 2014, minibar sales were down, as were hotel restaurant sales, while room service was flat.

Travelers these days are more inclined to patronize a grab-and-go eatery outside the hotel than they are to sit down to a full meal inside the hotel. Even guests who bring food to their rooms often buy the food from an outside establishment.

Not surprisingly, hotels are taking action to halt this ongoing food-and-beverage sales drift, and catering to customers' desire for snack solutions.

“Most of our hotel lobbies changed a lot in the last 10 years,” says Christian DeVos, vice president of food and beverage for the resort and hotel management services company Delaware North, based in Buffalo, N.Y. “In most of our lobbies you see places where you can get a cup of coffee in the afternoon, breakfast pastries in the morning, panini, ice cream. They are pretty much open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.”

While paninis and other nontraditional snacks are indeed very trendy right now, many lodging operators still enjoy sales success when they offer traditional grab- and-go snacks such as crackers, fig bars, cookies and even chocolate. Despite the competition for share of stomach, these remain popular buy-now-eat-later snacks.

DeVos adds that travelers do not have time or, in many cases, the budget to sit down to a full breakfast, so they are likely to seek a nearby coffee shop. Hotels try to encourage those guests to buy breakfast or snacks onsite, either from a third-party vendor in the lobby or from an in-house establishment. “If customers are not going to buy pancakes, we want to be sure we can sell them an alternative,” DeVos says.

Delaware North’s alternative to the sit-down breakfast is its own branded Coffee Corner locations in hotel lobbies. Guests can grab a snack and drink fair trade coffee. The company also operates retail shops in national parks and other vacation spots, where visitors can get a snack while they are touring the sights. The retail shops offer a variety of packaged snacks — everything from cookies to crackers to granola bars — which come in especially handy for the many hikers visiting places such as Yosemite National Park and others.

Other hotel operators have set up their own branded grab-and-go retail in their lobbies. Hyatt Place, a brand of Hyatt Hotels, has 24/7 Gallery Market, with packaged grab-and-go items such as sandwiches, juices and cupcakes. Courtyard by Marriott has Bistro to Go by Courtyard, with snacks that can be wrapped for takeout. Hilton has Herb N' Kitchen in New York and Chicago, with fresh and packaged foods, open from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sheraton has Grab & Go Cafes. Aloft New York Brooklyn offers Refuel by Aloft, a 24/7 grab-and-go “gourmet snack station” that even has make-your-own cappuccinos.

Travelers don’t want to stay in their rooms and order room service or splurge on the minibars any more, industry experts say. “There is this desire not to just stay in your guest room,” says Mandelbaum. “Millennials and other want to go to the lobby with Wi-Fi and mix and mingle with others.”