Hello, Room Service?
Send Up Some Service!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2020 -- This is life on the road on a Sunday: The hotel's restaurant is closed until brunch. There are no coffeemakers in the room and no room service. Coffee service in the lobby is unavailable--a Coronavirus casualty, a front-desk clerk claims. The coffee bar down the street is closed on Sundays. So off I go to a 7-11 three blocks away for a container of brown water that may or may not actually fit a regulator's definition of "coffee."

This is life on the road on a Monday: The hotel restaurant is closed until lunch. Still no coffeemaker in the room, room service or coffee in the lobby. You can go down the street to the coffee bar--assuming you want to run through a hard, cold, driving rain to get there and back.

Look, I don't even drink American coffee anymore. Black currant tea with ginger-flavored sugar from Sheffield Spice & Tea Co. is my go-to. The coffee runs were about getting my frequent-flying wife the fuel she needs to start the day. Besides, I remember: Plentiful coffee, a good bed, a strong shower and fast WiFi are the backbone of any decent hotel stay.

The airlines always suck the oxygen out of any business travel discussion, of course, but airlines are basically airlines: a tube, a seat, a from and a to. There isn't much that can or will change, pandemic or no.

Hotels, though, are a vastly different story. There are so many kinds of properties, so many services, so much diversity of lodging product. And hotels can't move. The building is where it is. Unless it closes its doors or converts to an apartment building or office space, a hotel is at the frontline of this or any pandemic.

And if you haven't been on the road since this nightmare began, trust me when I tell you: Hotels are changing. They are changing fast--and not for the better. The fact that getting a cup of coffee is such a struggle in an otherwise luxe property is simply the tip of a very menacing iceberg.

I've been checking into hotels and checking in with hotel wizards for weeks now and the stays and the conversations are a litany of what will not be part of the lodging experience in the short and medium terms. With nightly rates severely depressed and nationwide occupancy below 50 percent--and that's even with thousands of properties still shuttered and removed from calculations--hoteliers are cutting everywhere. Some are logical cuts due to the pandemic, of course, but others are systemic, long-term penny-pinching masquerading as Coronavirus expediency.

Or, as one wise hotel guy said to me via E-mail this week: "Assume nothing on your next stay. That's especially true if you've been in the hotel before and think you know what it offers. It's probably not true anymore."

Hotels hate housekeeping. It's costly, it's labor-intensive and it's a no-win proposition. If your room is clean, you assume it to be the standard. If it isn't clean or it's tardy, it destroys your impression of the property.

The Coronavirus gives hotels a perfect excuse to jettison housekeeping. Except in the most luxurious places, daily housekeeping has been eliminated. The rationale is that it's "safer" not to have strangers entering your room when a communicable disease is ravaging the country. So while the chains make a big deal about their initial cleanliness effort--Hilton has gone so far as to slap ostentatious stickers on guestroom doors--you are on your own after that. No daily emptying of wastebaskets. No daily towel replenishment. Certainly no dusting, vacuuming or changing of sheets.

If you want a housekeeper to come and tidy up during your stay, you'll have to call the front desk and ask for it. Then be prepared for pushback. They'll send up fresh towels when you ask, of course, but an actual human to clean? That's going to take some effort.

Limited-service chains have spent years waging war against each other and the battlefield was often the buffet-breakfast room. The weapons? Waffle and pancake machines. Trench lines of serving trays groaning with eggs, meat and potatoes. Rows of cereal dispensers, battalions of juice bottles, armies of coffeepots and, of course, copious amounts of yogurt and oatmeal mix-ins. Bread, muffins and bagels coming off the assembly lines of toasters.

Forget that stuff now. If they have not eliminated breakfast buffet altogether, it's going to be a grab-and-go bag that has a tub of yogurt, an energy bar and perhaps a piece of fruit. In a few months, if rates and occupancy improve, some chains may expand to choose-your-own, pre-packaged offerings rather than a traditional buffet, but don't bet on it. "Buffets will be off until well after a vaccine is widely available," one hotel wag suggested. It's not just food, it's the mass seating. There's no way to address that problem given the limited space most [limited-service] properties can devote to breakfast."

Hotels hate room service because costs are high, volume is low and guests are often unhappy with the delivered product. Besides, room service was already changing given the popularity of food-ordering apps and the willingness of guests to accept grab-and-go options sold in the lobby.

Yet the pandemic has basically destroyed traditional room service, perhaps forever. In fact, one new operation called Butler is trying to build a business around a standardized, multi-hotel "room service delivery" product. The New York start-up works out of a communal kitchen in one hotel and it offers delivery to guests in nearby properties via an app or Web site. The theory is to repurpose some hotel room-service kitchens and then allow other hotels to offer a product that broadly mimics room service. Butler just this month moved into Chicago, its second market.

A disproportionate number of hotels around the nation that remain closed fit into the so-called full-service niche: bellboys, restaurants, bars, laundry and all the standard perks. The ones that are open, however, have forgotten the full-service aspect of being a full-service hotel. Their restaurants or bars may be closed, either by management choice or local regulation. Room service, as discussed, is mostly gone, too. Also shuttered: Club lounges, fitness rooms, pools, meeting facilities, business centers and all the communal things that once were part of the full-service lodging experience.

My best advice: If you are booking a full-service property, call ahead for the latest information on what may or may not be operating. And even then be prepared for unpleasant surprises--and coffee runs.