Hotel minibars: COVID-19 and costs see minibars disappearing from hotels

If there's a single in-room item that has left hoteliers cold in recent times it's that iconic, oft concealed petite fridge stuffed with overpriced but irresistible goodies. The minibar has long created maximum angst for hotel bean-counters with pandemic fears offering an excuse to either de-stock or banish them.

Minibars are labour intensive to maintain and administer, particularly in an era of acute staff shortages, and even with extravagant mark-ups they are usually run at a loss at hotels big and small.

Furthermore, opportunistic guests remain notorious for cheating them, replacing the contents of miniature whisky bottles with alternative liquids.

For Paul Berman, owner of the Melbourne-based Just in Case Direct, a leading supplier of minibar items to hotels, times are tough.

"Minibars have become the bane of the hotelier's life but, for the guest, a minibar stocked with a variety of items remains an iconic aspect of their stay in a hotel," he says. "When guests first enter a hotel room there are three things they check out: the bathroom, the TV and the minibar.

"The minibar represents an indication that you're travelling somewhere and what will really save it in the end will be more people travelling, particularly corporate travellers, who tend to use them more than leisure travellers. But COVID-19 has really pushed the decline of the minibar as it's finally given some hotels a reason to remove them."

Fortunately, some hotels, such as the Grand Hyatt Melbourne, are continuing to provide full minibars for guests, though many others are not.

"Our mini-bar offerings are essential to the overall guest experience at Grand Hyatt Melbourne," says Henri Sarrasin, the hotel's food and beverage division manager. "Over the years, we have seen a change in minibar requests and have adjusted our in-room experience based on guest feedback. One stand-out theme includes providing guests with healthier snacks that suit different dietary needs. We work with local suppliers to maximise our minibar by offering a range of sweet and savoury options and locally-inspired products."

In other changes, multinational hotel groups have recently invested heavily in automated, sensor-fitted minibars, that see the cost of a taken item go straight onto the guest account, eliminating labour costs.

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At the Sofitel Darling Harbour Sydney, with the potential for COVID-19 surface transmission in mind, guests must now order traditional minibar items by using a QR code and pay a special service charge of $8 for their room delivery.

At the new Hilton Melbourne Little Queen Street, the only occupant of an in-room minibar this week was a small long-life container of milk. Global accommodation brands such as these have to adhere to standard policies across their network.

However, there are some hotel groups, such as the Hong Kong-based Ovolo brand with properties in Sydney and Melbourne, that have turned the cult of the minibar to their advantage, recognising that it can and should be a positive and fun aspect of any stay.

Guests are subject to the childlike pleasure of "free" in-room bagged items, dubbed "the loot" including chips, biscuits, protein bars, and something called "gummy bears". In the "mini-fridge" are complimentary soft drinks, juice, sparkling and still waters, beers and small bottles of red and white wine.

For Ovolo, it's all designed to remove the traditional guest guilt factor over minibar usage as well as the familiar bill shock from over-indulgence.

"Ovolo is all about providing our guests with an effortless, guilt-free experience and connecting with our guests emotionally," says Stephen Howard, group marketing manager for Ovolo Hotels. "Prior to being in hotels Girish Jhunjhnuwala [founder and owner of the Ovolo group] hated how hotels would "nickel and dime" guest through the minibar and he wanted to change that mentality."

Many independent boutique hotels, such as the new Convent Hotel in Auckland, which recently received its first Australian guests, don't need to conform with the global guidelines of multinational brands. The result? They have not even included minibars in their rooms.

It's all part of a trend of stripping back hotel rooms to their basics with more and more establishments ditching not only minibars, but also wardrobes and landlines - once a strong revenue stream in the days before mobiles became ubiquitous.

After even excluding TVs in its smallest rooms, the Covent Hotel has now decided to install them in the interests of guest satisfaction (though so far there's been no clamour for the installation of minibars).

"We do have TVs in all the larger rooms, along with great Wi-Fi and large screen tablets for guests to borrow if needed," says Claire O'Shannessy, operations and development manager. "However maybe we have been too ahead of the curve."

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