Mini-bar attendant Leticia Ramirez re-sets the snack tray in a room at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott. The high-end resort, overlooking Dana Point Harbor, offers mini-bar beverages and accompanying snacks in part so guests will not have to bring their own food into the rooms, says general manager Jim Samuels.
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Mini-bars are especially burdensome to operate for hotels that have not invested in cutting-edge systems to monitor their contents. At the Laguna Cliffs Marriott, attendants keep track of which mini-bars have been serviced by highlighting room numbers with a colored pen.
Attendants at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott in Dana Point employ a rolling cart with drawers full of popular drinks and snacks to restock the resort’s mini-bars. The hotel faces a tough decision about whether to upgrade to a modern inventory system or phase out the mini-bars, general manager Jim Samuels says.
A fully stocked mini-bar refrigerator at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott offers guests a choice of beer, wine, water, juice, tequila and sodas. According to Jim Samuels, general manager of the seaside resort in Dana Point, bottled water is the most popular item.
The quintessential “Me Generation” hotel amenity, the mini-bar, may be fading away like disco music, transistor radios and bell-bottom jeans.
Upscale resorts today seem lukewarm, at best, about providing and maintaining the self-service, in-room liquor caches, where guests can crack open a miniature bottle of tequila or vodka or perhaps even enjoy cookies and soft drinks.
Never a huge money-maker due to chronic petty larceny and the high labor costs of monitoring and restocking liquor supplies, the mini-bar has become largely an after-thought in an age when fast-moving travelers care more about technology and connecting in inviting public spaces, says Mike Hall, general manager of the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
“It just seems, over a period of time, to have gone to the wayside,” Hall says of the mini-bar. “People are so much more mobile now. They’re on the go. They have Wi-Fi. They’re traveling with two or three devices. They want to connect and communicate with each other. Everything today is in the lobby.”
The 397-room Westin is about to phase out its mini-bars and replace them with empty refrigerators, enabling guests to bring in their own beverages or order specific products from room service, Hall says.
Though the mini-bar is not yet dead – some top-end hotels continue to see it as an important tool for pampering guests – many travelers apparently don’t mind leaving their rooms for that martini.
In December, TripAdvisor.com posted survey results showing that only one in five travelers cared about having a mini-bar, making it the least popular amenity that hotels offer. By contrast, nine out of 10 guests valued free in-room Wi-Fi and free parking. Lobby Wi-Fi, free breakfasts, poolside Wi-Fi and laundry service all ranked as higher priorities than having a mini-bar, the survey said.
If guests do not especially care, hotels have no compelling incentive to offer mini-bars, says Karen L. Johnson, president of Newport Beach-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, a consulting service for the hospitality industry.
“Even with outrageous pricing, it’s still hard to make money,” Johnson says. A few ounces of alcohol often costs $10 or more.
Unscrupulous guests resort to stealing the bottles or their contents, sometimes claiming the bar was never stocked or blaming the theft on the maid. Inventories have to be taken and prices charged before guests check out and leave. Some travelers fly home with mini-bar keys still in their pockets, Johnson says.
“I know of some hotels that have taken them out of the rooms because they seem to be constant source of conflict,” Johnson says. “The big push seems to be toward having an empty mini-refrigerator in the room so guests can put their leftovers in there and not worry about . . . having an argument at the front desk.”
Disneyland Resort eliminated mini-bars at its Orange County resorts – the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa – about seven years ago because most guests were not using them and preferred having refrigerators to store their own items, says Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown.
Likewise, the Crowne Plaza Resort in Anaheim does not offer mini-bars because the hotel loses money due to maintenance and overhead, says Paul Maddison, the hotel’s director of food and beverage.
“It’s just not worth it,” he says. “Those that have mini-bars tend to be destination hotels which tailor to the needs of the guest” – for example, he says, beach resorts that also sell sunscreen alongside bottled water and bourbon.
The Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa, which sits atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor, still features mini-bars – and operates an entire department responsible for servicing all 400 of them daily, says Jim Samuels, the resort’s general manager.
Despite the hassle and low return-on-investment, mini-bars still add cachet and give travelers a chance to drink or snack in the wee hours if they get hungry, Samuels says. The Laguna Cliffs’ mini-bars offer alcohol, soft drinks, bottled water, candy bars and popcorn.
“If you want to be a four-star . . . or five-star resort,” he says, “you want to have that full mini-bar. We have some groups that want to have that. They’ll look at multiple resorts and see if they have a mini-bar and want to know what’s in it.”
A veteran of the hotel business for more than 30 years, Samuels says he has seen a slow decline in the mini-bar since its heyday in the early 1990s or before. Today, to monitor inventories, some high-end hotels are investing in state-of-the-art mini-bar systems linked directly to property-management software. If a guest even lifts up a bottle of water, sensors detect it, Samuels says.
“You have about 10 seconds to put it back down – otherwise, you’ll be charged,” he says. “It’s automated. You go to check out and it’s on your bill.”
Meanwhile, other upscale properties are moving away from mini-bars by installing refrigerators and emailing guests in advance of their arrival to find out how they should be stocked.
Laguna Cliffs, which does not have modern automated mini-bars, faces a decision about what it will do in the future, Samuels says.
“We’re kind of in between,” he says.
The Resort at Pelican Hill, a Newport Coast hotel, also operates without the latest, sensor-based technology, but is able to track its mini-bar inventory by using hotel staff and a software program, says the resort’s managing director, Giuseppe Lama.
Pelican Hill plans to keep its mini-bars, a “convenience that the world’s most discerning guests expect and appreciate in a five-star resort,” Lama says. Some snack items are hand-picked, he adds, including fruit-and-nut mixes made especially for the hotel.
One value of a mini-bar is that it discourages guests from bringing in their own food, as they might if they’re provided an empty refrigerator, notes Samuels of the Laguna Cliffs Marriott. He would rather have travelers eating in the resort’s restaurants – a core revenue producer – than fixing tuna sandwiches and dropping them on the couch.
“Then you go in there and it smells like tuna,” he says.
If travelers do want to eat in the room, let them use the mini-bar or call room service to set up a table on the suite’s deck overlooking the sea, Samuels says. “That’s a different experience than cooking eggs in your room.”
So you say: Will you miss mini bars if they disappear? Share your comments online, by email to [email protected] or Twitter @ocrbiz
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