The allure of the minibar by Richard Benson
Our love-hate romance with the hotel minibar
in january 2016, a company i worked for sent me to New York for a job. They booked me into the James Hotel, a small place that at first seemed pretty good, if a bit selfconsciously trendy, and the stay might have been OK had it not been for the blizzard that started as I arrived. It closed down Manhattan and grounded flights back to the UK so, after doing my presentation, I was stuck inside the James for five days. It was on the second day when I noticed the handcuffs.
They were a novelty item, packaged in a cardboard box with a clear window, covered in neon-pink marabou feathers and sitting among the M&M’s and premium popcorn in the minibar desktop tray. They were intended to advertise the risqué nature of the James and its guests, which was fine, except that as I sat wondering if I’d ever see home again, I didn’t feel particularly warmed by the idea of the previous occupants handcuffing each other to my bed. I’m not a prudish man, but as the claustrophobia set in, the fluffy stranger-sex cuffs began to annoy me. I hid them near the safe, but then I thought: imagine the conversation about getting them taken off the bill if they think I’ve used them. So I returned them to the minibar but hid them under the M&M’s and popcorn. It helped only slightly, and as the days passed I felt increasingly like Jack Nicholson in The Shining if it had featured a scene involving a really shit Ann Summers party. On my last day there, I had the meeting to review my presentation. It went pretty badly. I know it doesn’t really make sense, but a part of me will always blame those handcuffs.
this might seem odd behaviour on my part, but hotel minibars can bring out the weirdness in people. To start with, there’s all that backlit booze, which for some can prove an irresistible temptation. When Soviet diplomats were negotiating the end of the Cold War in Washington in 1987, they were so impressed by the minibars that they ran up nightly bills worth £3,000 in today’s money, and the head of mission had to ask the hotel to replace the alcohol with soft drinks.
One 23-year-old City trader told me that when he gets pissed on work nights out and ends up staying in suites in flash Shoreditch hotels, he “perversely enjoys” emptying the minibar “because it’s so extortionate, though I regret it in the morning like anybody would”. According to an old story passed down at Minibar Systems — the world’s biggest minibar supplier — one night in the Eighties, a guest in a Copenhagen hotel became so annoyed with his that he ripped it out and threw it from his window.
In the early Nineties, I briefly had a job on the front desk of a tourist hotel in central London, and can tell you that minibars are the cause of endless low-level resentment, lies and pain. Ordinary law-abiding customers consider them such a rip-off they refill vodka miniatures with water just to prove a point. Hotel managers hate them because they take staff so long to check and re-stock. No one on staff wants to refill them because you have to keep backtracking to the Do Not Disturb rooms, who might not have used theirs anyway.
“Minibars,” sighs Peter Ducker who, as chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality in Britain, might be expected to defend them, “are an area of significant emotional confrontation between hotels and guests. They can be great builders of empathy. More often, however, they create between guest and hotel a psychological battle which is there to be won or lost.”
You may be surprised to learn that the future of these glass-fronted portals to the world of overpriced Coca-Cola and too-small Toblerones has become the subject of major controversy in hotelier circles. The basic problem is the ever-increasing number of lateopening convenience stores where guests can buy refreshments across the street for a fraction of room minibar prices. On average, only about 30 per cent of check-ins use hotel minibars and of those most only take a single bottle
of water. This is a problem because minibars are incredibly expensive to operate. Unless the hotel has a modern system with sensors connected to a central computer (more of which later), someone has to physically check each fridge. They have to pay close attention to broken seals and use-by dates, as a smart guest with out-of-date stock will ask for money off their bill. And, of course, staff have to go back and forth refilling the drinks trolley.
One person can do about 100 minibars a day, which means that at UK minimum wage levels, it costs a 100-room hotel about £500 a week, £24,000 a year, to keep you in salted peanuts and £8 cans of beer. And after all that, minibars only contribute an average of 0.4 per cent to a hotel’s food and drink revenue.
Actually obtaining payment is also difficult. Minibar charges are the most disputed items on customer bills, because staff make lots of mistakes, and a lot of guests know it. The minibar audit might well have been done only after a guest has checked out, especially after a single-night stay. Front desk receptionists can’t be certain if an item is still there or not, or if a departing guest is being honest. For these reasons, reception staff will usually remove the charge to avoid a scene. It doesn’t help that minibars tend to be run by the food and beverage team, who are usually very sociable but may not be the most organised members of staff: it’s a kind of cruel joke that a job as intricate but dull as minibar re-stocking should fall to the guys who are most at ease chatting to customers in the bar.
“If an F&B manager tells me they’re making money on the minibars, I’m, er, sceptical,” says British businessman Michael Harding whose company Minibar Products replaces the usual cans and bars with slickly-packaged themed canisters (“Couples Collection”, “Sleep Works Collection”, “Recovery Collection”) of remedies and accessories. “In a big hotel they can lose fortunes. Take a 1,000-room place at full occupancy: if half your guests nick a £2 bottle of water, that’s £1,000 you’ve lost [per day]. I’ve not come across anyone losing £365,000 a year, but £80,000–£100,000 is perfectly possible. That’s why most managers would love to get rid of them.”
Faced with these challenges, those managers are actually trying many different strategies. It’s now not uncommon, for instance, to find hotels where the minibars are entirely free — something that appears a luxury, but may well be saving them money. As Sam Weston of travel marketing consultants 80 Days explains, a free minibar is often a reward offered to visitors who book direct rather than through online booking agencies, which take 20 per cent of room tariffs. Other hotels have given up and leave the fridge empty for guests to stock themselves.
An opposing faction at the luxury end of the market is seeking to update the whole concept with what is becoming known as the “maxibar” — trays and cabinets of expensive, specialist, artisan products that are more interesting and therefore tempting than anything on offer in the all-hours mini-market down the road. The Standard chain in America now sells Lord Jones CBD-laced gumdrops, for example; the UK fashion-pack’s current favourite, The Pig chain, provides mini “larders” featuring food produced locally to each hotel. Meanwhile, at the much-anticipated Equinox Hotel in New York opening this summer, “a customisable RoomBar experience will transform the minibar as we know it”.
In Paris, the Hôtel Providence has icemakers and mini-cocktail bars in each room, and the Darcy in Washington will send a fully-stocked cocktail cart with butler to your room, upon request and at an extra charge. These tend to be popular in the early evening, catering to the one-drink-while-getting-ready niche; what Tom Kerr, drinking director at London’s Soho House venues, calls “the one while changing”. The point here is a belief in the minibar as what marketing theorists call an “intrinsic consumer touchpoint” — a part of the guest’s experience of a hotel that makes a conspicuously strong impression, like a doorman knowing their name.
“It’s what we called a ‘hot button’,” says a former deputy manager at an independent hotel in the north of England. “One of the things that makes a big difference and, crucially, the sort of thing likely to make someone leave a bad review on TripAdvisor if anything goes wrong. You have to remember online reviews have made everything about running hotels way more difficult.”
Michael Harding’s firm now sells 10,000 units per month at an average of £20 (most popular: the mobile phone charger; least: “Sleep Works”). “I realised the minibar is often the most individual thing in the room, but as it was being done in most hotels, it all felt too ‘wholesale’,” Harding explains. “There wasn’t enough thought in the products on offer, and the branding isn’t special enough for a hotel that wants to be memorable. I’m sure there’s a future for minibars,” he says. “But they’re going to need to sell things people find exciting.”
I tell him about the handcuffs at the James. “Well, the challenge is always matching the product to the guest. But it has to be different,” he says. “It could be a bible, it could be a vibrator, but it sure as hell can’t be a Kit Kat or a can of bloody Pringles for much longer.”
the minibar was invented in 1963 by a German company called Siegas-metallwarenfabrik Wilhelm Loh GmbH & Company Kg. Initially, it was a small refrigerator divided into smaller compartments whose main aim was to ensure drinks could be consumed “at the proper temperature”. Ordinary fridges, the patent notes Germanically, did not get beer and wine cold enough. It took a while to catch on (in the US, authorities were wary of encouraging boozing) but in 1974, Robert Arnold, the food and beverages manager of the Hong Kong Hilton, installed one in each of that hotel’s 840 rooms and, it’s said, increased its overall income by five per cent.
Other international hotels followed suit. There was an idea that it would encourage guests who felt intimidated by the idea of calling room service, remembers Peter Ducker, but it was mainly about cost saving (room service is the mostly costly and inefficient operation in a hotel). For 30 years, the basic format didn’t diverge much from the familiar default size of about 50cm high, 40cm wide, 40cm deep, with 30 litres of volume. The size probably came about because room designers prefer amenities to be hidden, or to sit beneath desk level, which is usually 70cm; the 50cm size fits a 70cl bottle and a row of 330cl cans, but another row would bust the 70cm level.
As for the temperature, most hotels set thermostats between 7–8°C. Medicines and baby milk, often kept in minibars by guests, should be refrigerated at 4–5°C, but lower than 7°C risks liquids near the chiller plate freezing. A modern minibar uses between 0.4–0.8 kWh per day, costing about 12p at UK current rates. It sounds small but with hotels you have to keep in mind the scale of large operations; at the 0.8 kWh rate, the minibars of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas could in theory use as much electricity in a single day as a UK household does in a year.
Keeping minibars stocked has always been problematic in western hotels, although in Asia it’s easier because wages are much lower. Adding in fancy statement items dates back to the Eighties and Ian Schrager’s Royalton and Morgans hotels: in those days, it felt impossibly with-it for a British person to visit Morgans New York with a partner and find both Dean & DeLuca sweets and condoms in trays on the desk. When Soho House New York and Babington House in Somerset
opened, installing grown-up fridges and tabletop trays with regular-sized bottles of spirits, good wine and artisan crisps in rooms, it was updating and improving that Schrager feel. A particularly smart thing Soho House did was to supply pleasingly heavy tumblers and wine glasses: as minibar suppliers have learned, quality glassware significantly improves alcohol sales.
Between the Soho House-style boutique hotels trying to maximise the minibar and others abandoning them, however, there remains a significant number of minibar experts who believe that, contrary to Michael Harding’s vision, plenty of people are perfectly happy with Pringles and consider that half-bottle of wine an irresistible indulgence.
In a tidy office suite in London’s Belgravia (around the corner from the hotel where I was briefly employed), a group of suited sales and admin staff run the UK subsidiary of Minibar Systems. The firm has fitted about 1.5m minibars and its staff has refined operations to an esoteric craft. Espen Andersen, executive vicepresident of global sales and strategy with 22 years’ service, is here on one of his visits from its US HQ, and says minibars can actually make money easily — if hotels treat them as a serious profit centre and not just “an offering”.
Key is understanding the market, he says. “And the market is about impulse sales. It actually has nothing to do with what’s happening outside the room. In Las Vegas, the casinos
‘Minibars,’ says Peter Ducker from the Institute of Hospitality in Britain, ‘create between guest and hotel a psychological battle which is there to be won or lost’
give away free cocktails, but this has no effect at all on alcohol sales from in-room bars. It’s about, ‘I want something right now, and I want it so much I don’t care what it costs’. What you find is, people consume more on impulse when they’re given a wide choice, so we try to offer options. This is why glass doors boost sales so much. People can see the choice.”
He gives an example. One top shelf offers three bottles of orange juice; another, two orange and one grapefruit. The latter sells more orange juice than the former because the choice stimulates buying. Minibar Systems doesn’t believe the specialist local food thing works. “Guests are not open to local things on an impulse sale. We sell national brands. It’s all very well to go with a sophisticated brand of chips — crisps as you call them — but it will always be hard to outsell Pringles, because guests buying on impulse want a known, trusted brand.” One variance, he says, is water: in four- and five-star hotel minibars, high-end bottled waters like Voss and Fiji, which one suspects are not trusted favourites for many guests, outsell other bands two-to-one.
Some things have changed, though. Over the last decade, spirits miniatures and peanuts are “the big losers”; quality wines, high-end water, cashews and almonds the winners. (According to Gareth Coombs, of business consultants the Cambridge Strategy Centre, almonds and cashews are perceived as healthier than peanuts; miniatures are associated with sad, solitary drinking and the mass-market spirit brands that have been devalued by artisanal upstarts. The tray, home to Schrager’s condoms and sweets, has also become popular in the last 10 years, helping boost sales by up to 40 per cent. (Trays work, says Andersen, “because they tempt people, so long as it doesn’t make the desktop look cluttered.”) But novelty items — “like your handcuffs or intimacy kits” — can be risky. “Even in smaller boutique hotels, you’ll find that not everyone finds that sort of thing funny or interesting. It pays to be relatively cautious. You do get complaints.”
In 2006, Minibar Systems introduced perhaps the most controversial innovation in minibar history: The SmartCube minibar. It uses sensors to detect when items are taken, and feeds the information through to billing and to the re-stocking staff, which reduces fraud and increases efficiency. For Andersen, sensor technology will make minibars really viable in the future and create exciting possibilities (minibar happy hours, for example, or special deals for certain rooms). For others it’s a visible sign the hotel mistrusts you from the off.
Tom Ross, operations director at The Pig, says when the founders set up the company, they knew people were discomforted by sensor technology and stories of guests being wrongly charged. “We felt a lot of people don’t like the lack of trust involved in minibars, especially those that make you feel like if you touch it you’re going to get charged 100 quid or something. So we try to be generous and trustworthy, and show we trust the customer from the beginning. At checkout, we just ask if they’ve had anything, and take their word.” And does it work?
“Errrmmm,” he says. “Well, I think… there are still a lot of people out there who can still be… forgetful at times. But that won’t change what we do.”
there is, inevitably, talk of room-service robots replacing minibars, but it’s hard to see it happening just yet (and harder to imagine food and beverage guys being into anything so technical). Perhaps a greater threat is fashionable hotels making the hotel room itself less important for the guest experience: one major trend this decade, exemplified by chains like The Hoxton, CitizenM and the Ace, has been for smaller, plainer rooms and more ambitious, buzzy ground floors with warrens of bars and restaurants, and a front desk tucked away like an afterthought.
As 80 Days’ Sam Weston points out, cheap technology and more accessible, welldesigned furniture makes it increasingly difficult to keep hotels looking more spectacular than people’s homes, so a cool crowd downstairs is now a stronger sell than a big, cool room upstairs. In this model, guests don’t need drinks in the room because they’re supposed to be enjoying themselves on the ground floor.
It’s when you think about the hotel room minibar disappearing entirely that you realise you’d miss it, even in its most basic incarnation. Because the essential silliness of them, the quirky snacks you’ve not seen before, and the irrationality of treating yourself on the spot when you could visit the convenience store, are surely part of what makes travel worth it in the first place.
Getting from A to B and briefly staying there can be a severe pain at times, but the queues, the delays and the lost luggage are offset best by small delights: watching TV lying on a big bed in a robe; having an unexpectedly pleasant chat with a concierge; blowing £20 on a fancy gin. This is why, for all the drawbacks, we must join the side of the maxibarists, and look forward to its coming golden age — while secretly hoping for a slightly better class of handcuff in our trays.