I Love Room Service

And when I don't love it

Words: Lee Tulloch

‘Ooooooooo, I absolutely love room service!’ So gushed Eloise, the six year-old heroine of Kay Thompson’s 1955 book about a little girl who grows up in New York’s Plaza Hotel.

The precocious Eloise loved nothing better than to order up treats for her pug Weenie and turtle Skipperdee and then instruct the room service waiter to ‘Charge it, please!’

I have a bit of Eloise in me. I’ve always loved the idea of having room service at my beck and call 24 hours a day. Perhaps that’s why I became a travel writer, to earn a living from ordering club sandwiches and testing how quickly they arrive.

I’m also enamoured of the idea of living full-time in a hotel, as did the author Jacqueline Susann, who resided in New York’s Navarro Hotel for many years. Many of my favourite authors of the 20th Century sought the solace of hotels, even flea-bag ones, because when they’d finished a day’s work, there was always a bellhop to send out for whiskey, or a room service waiter who’d arrive with a jug of cocktails. (And, of course, for those who required it, there was the room service martini to kick start the day.)

I say I love the idea of room service because the reality doesn’t always come up to the fantasy. I don’t order it that often, preferring to be out and about in a destination, sampling local food away from the bland international menus offered by many of the larger hotels. I’d choose the hotel restaurant over breakfast in bed, in any case, as I’m addicted to long, slow breakfasts in dining rooms and I’d rather observe the other guests than what’s happening on CNN.

When I’ve had to use the resource, it’s mostly because I’ve been tired and hungry and I’m in a place where there’s little option.  To be quite frank, a starched tabletop and a rose in a vase rarely compensates for lukewarm food, inflated prices and a 20% gratuity.

I stayed at a reputable Paris hotel, where a plate of chopped lettuce off the room service menu was €40.

Not long ago, I stayed at a reputable Paris hotel, where a plate of chopped lettuce and dressing off the room service menu was €40. What irked me the most was that the rest of order, orange juice that cost as much as a glass of good champagne, was forgotten, and I had to call for it twice. I’m not a cheapskate and I understand that 24-hour room service is a loss leader (hotels lose money on it) but I sensed a certain indifference to guests that was not deserving of five stars.

It’s surprising how common it is to come across indifferent room service. In response, guests are voting with their wallets, with increasing numbers cutting down on discretionary spends such as room service and mini bars.

Some hotels are responding in their own way, by reducing room service hours or eliminating it altogether, replacing it with ‘grab-n’-go’ food outlets in the lobby. The Hilton group has experimented with this in some of its hotels, such as Midtown Manhattan and the Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. It makes perfect sense in destinations where there is a multitude of eating outlets and for hotels with a high percentage of families checking in.

Recently, I stayed in one of Starwood’s Aloft hotels, which had no room service but a well-stocked and inexpensive take away food outlet in the lobby. It was a mid-range hotel but the management made a virtue out of practicalities. There were no porters but supermarket trolleys to carry your luggage, a witty touch.

Of course, the luxury hotels need to offer 24-hour room service to win their five stars. And many are worthy of Eloise’s approval. London’s Goring Hotel, for instance, delivers gratis an afternoon cocktail to each guest on a silver tray with mixing instructions.  In the end, it’s the thoughtful and inventive details that make a hotel’s room service stand out.

Last June I was reminded of why I love room service when it’s good. I was staying at the PuLi Hotel in Shanghai. I came down with a serious flu the day I arrived and, travelling alone, I was unable to get up for five days. Room service delivered me regular infusions of ginger tea and wonton soup; the concierge ran out for medicine and paid for it out of his own pocket until I could pay him back, and staff monitored my health with the care of a parent.

I absolutely love room service. Sometimes.



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