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June 2012
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Hotel mini-bars may be facing last call

By David Ferrell and Shivali Bhammer McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The quintessential "Me Generation" hotel amenity, the mini-bar, may be fading away like disco music, transistor radios and bell-bottom jeans.

Upscale resorts today seem lukewarm, at best, about providing and maintaining the self-service, in-room liquor caches, where guests can crack open a miniature bottle of tequila or vodka or perhaps even enjoy cookies and soft drinks.

Never a huge money-maker due to chronic petty larceny and the high labor costs of monitoring and restocking liquor supplies, the mini-bar has become largely an after-thought in an age when fast-moving travelers care more about technology and connecting in inviting public spaces, said Mike Hall, general manager of the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.

"It just seems, over a period of time, to have gone to the wayside," Hall said of the mini-bar. "People are so much more mobile now. They're on the go. They have Wi-Fi. They're traveling with two or three devices. They want to connect and communicate with each other. Everything today is in the lobby."

The 397-room Westin is about to phase out its mini-bars and replace them with empty refrigerators, enabling guests to bring in their own beverages or order specific products from room service, Hall said.

Though the mini-bar is not yet dead - some top-end hotels continue to see it as an important tool for pampering guests - many travelers apparently don't mind leaving their rooms for that martini.

In December, TripAdvisor.com posted survey results showing that only one in five travelers cared about having a mini-bar, making it the least popular amenity that hotels offer. By contrast, nine out of 10 guests valued free in-room Wi-Fi and free parking. Lobby Wi-Fi, free breakfasts, poolside Wi-Fi and laundry service all ranked as higher priorities than having a mini-bar, the survey said.

If guests do not especially care, hotels have no compelling incentive to offer mini-bars, said Karen L. Johnson, president of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, a consulting service for the hospitality industry.

"Even with outrageous pricing, it's still hard to make money," Johnson said. A few ounces of alcohol can cost $10 or more.

Unscrupulous guests resort to stealing the bottles or their contents, sometimes claiming the bar was never stocked or blaming the theft on the maid. Inventories have to be taken and prices charged before guests check out and leave. Some travelers fly home with mini-bar keys still in their pockets, Johnson said.

"I know of some hotels that have taken them out of the rooms because they seem to be constant source of conflict," Johnson said. "The big push seems to be toward having an empty mini-refrigerator in the room so guests can put their leftovers in there and not worry about â ¦ having an argument at the front desk."

Disneyland Resort eliminated mini-bars at its Orange County, Calif., resorts - the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa - about seven years ago because most guests were not using them and preferred having refrigerators to store their own items, said Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown.

Likewise, the Crowne Plaza Resort in Anaheim, Calif., does not offer mini-bars because the hotel loses money due to maintenance and overhead, said Paul Maddison, the hotel's director of food and beverage.

"It's just not worth it," he said. "Those that have mini-bars tend to be destination hotels which tailor to the needs of the guest" - for example, he says, beach resorts that also sell sunscreen alongside bottled water and bourbon.

The Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa in Dana Point, Calif., which sits atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor, still features mini-bars - and operates an entire department responsible for servicing all 400 of them daily, said Jim Samuels, the resort's general manager.

Despite the hassle and low return-on-investment, mini-bars still add cachet and give travelers a chance to drink or snack in the wee hours if they get hungry, Samuels said. The Laguna Cliffs' mini-bars offer alcohol, soft drinks, bottled water, candy bars and popcorn.

"If you want to be a four-star â ¦ or five-star resort," he said, "you want to have that full mini-bar. We have some groups that want to have that. They'll look at multiple resorts and see if they have a mini-bar and want to know what's in it."

A veteran of the hotel business for more than 30 years, Samuels said he has seen a slow decline in the mini-bar since its heyday in the early 1990s or before. Today, to monitor inventories, some high-end hotels are investing in state-of-the-art mini-bar systems linked directly to property-management software. If a guest even lifts up a bottle of water, sensors detect it, Samuels said.

"You have about 10 seconds to put it back down - otherwise, you'll be charged," he said. "It's automated. You go to check out and it's on your bill."

Meanwhile, other upscale properties are moving away from mini-bars by installing refrigerators and emailing guests in advance of their arrival to find out how they should be stocked.

David Ferrell and Shivali Bhammer write for The Orange County (Calif.) Register

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