Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Jenn's USA Today Road Warrior-Article #2

Hotels get creative to elevate minibar ; Managers add local flavor, novelty items to room staple; [FINAL Edition] by Chris Woodyard. USA TODAY. McLean, Va.: May 5, 2004. pg. B.03

Copyright USA Today Information Network May 5, 2004 (Travel Section)

Hotel guests diving into their in-room minibar for a late-night snack might be surprised at what they find.

No longer are the little in-room fridges and snack centers just a convenience for guests who don't want to wander to a nearby 7- Eleven. To reinvigorate flagging minibar sales, some hotel operators are reaching far beyond the overpriced Cokes-and-Pringles fare for which minibars have become known and adding some unconventional items.

* Regional favorites. The Westin Buckhead Atlanta offers Southern favorites like a Moon Pie, $4, and a mini pecan pie, $7.50. A Westin on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, sells waterproof disposable cameras for $22. Guests use them for underwater photography of the colorful reefs.

* Adults only. The James Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., has condoms, three for $5, and mix-your-own martinis. W Hotels offers an "Intimacy Kit" for amorous couples and a first-aid kit, both $10. Amara Creekside Resort in Sedona, Ariz., sells aromatherapy candles for $12 and a cassette of soothing sounds for $18.

* Kids and dogs. The Hotel Monaco in Seattle offers a plush, stuffed fish toy in small, $7, and large, $20, and other fish- themed items, such as Goldfish crackers, $3.50. Two Loews hotels, the Jefferson in Washington and the Loews Denver, sell gourmet dog biscuits for $10. Proceeds go to a charity that supports training for police dogs.

The merchandise underscores how far hotel operators are going to revamp their dying minibars.

"Hoteliers are acting much more like retailers," says Michael Mahoney, a hotel industry consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

They had to do something. Minibars are costly to operate. They require daily checks to see whether customers have bought anything. And items must be restocked constantly. Hoteliers hardly make a profit even when prices are high, Mahoney says. High prices also can limit guests' satisfaction.

"Minibars, by nature, are passive bandits," says Jenny De La Cruz, a Las Vegas-based consultant and frequent traveler who says she dips into them as a last resort.

She has seen Coke for $3, candy bars for $3.50 and other snacks for $7 in minibars. The same items can be bought at nearby convenience stores for a fraction of the cost.

"If you nickel and dime the guest, there's a bad taste in their mouth," says Kevin Johnson, general manager at the Amara.

His hotel is among those that have lowered prices or increased the products' sizes to make guests think they are getting a better value. Johnson said he limited the price of drinks and snacks in the minibar because the closest convenience store is up a hill.

At the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, all minibar prices were adjusted about six months ago to a flat $2.95 for each item. To get there, the price of a can of beer was cut 55 cents. Candy and soft drink prices were raised, but the minibar stocks larger sizes.

General Manager Bob Peckenpaugh says the initial reaction has been encouraging. "I don't think we get as many complaints about the minibar as we used to."

While some novelty items can command higher prices, many guests prefer to buy routine items elsewhere rather than pay high hotel charges.

"I use the minibar as my private refrigerator," says Ellen Leible, a corporate trainer from Madison, Wis.

She brings her own drinks and stores them but is careful to replace the hotel's drinks in the fridge before she leaves.

Not everyone sees a future for the hotel minibar. The share of hotel rooms with in-room minibars slipped from 12% in 1994 to 7% in 2001, the last time the American Hotel & Lodging Association conducted a survey.

Mahoney, the consultant, says many hotels pulled their minibars out. At the Crowne Plaza in San Jose, Calif., General Manager Doug Wood says no one has complained.


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