Ice/vending/in-room amenities

The secret is making guests feel special and giving them options

By Marni Andrews

Vending machines used for pool wear, jewellery, recycling
For hotel guests who have forgotten their swimsuit and had to forgo a dip in the beyond fabulous pool not pictured in the brochure, a new wave of vending machines should make them swoon. Of course it means they would have to be staying at what is still a relatively short list of properties who see the advantage in ultra-specialized customer self-service vending machines.

Such machines are a far cry from the  slightly down market or limited option image that vending machines continue to have for many. Meanwhile, some analysts are calling specialized, targeted vending machines “the future of retail.”

The Standard High Line hotel in New York and The Standard Spa in Miami Beach clearly understand the customer service upside and realize it is right for their guest demographic. Each offers disposable Quiksilver swimwear in their machines.

Likewise, The Hudson in New York, Mondrian South Beach in Miami, and St. Martin’s Lane hotel in London all signed on for the incredibly minimalist but terribly style conscious Semi-Automatic vending machine that offers beautiful items from nearby boutiques. The St. Martin’s Lane version stocks jewellery made of iridescent beetle wings, white feathers and 22-carat gold and hand-printed French fashion tights, fake eyelashes and skull watches, even hand-knitted baby clothes among other high-end fashion and gift items.

The “Reverse Vending Machine,” already in use in Beijing, allows people to insert empty plastic bottles and get paid for recycling. Beijing is expected to have 2,000 machines soon.

And yet, the perception remains for some hoteliers that vending machines do not offer a high-end experience. For others, the exact thing that makes them appealing in some settings, their complete accessibility, is what makes them less desirable.

“The Park Hyatt brand is a luxury provider that offers an intimate experience with privacy and personalized service so something requiring self service does not work within that. Our concierge team sources out anything a guest needs and delivers it to the guestroom,” explains Bonnie Strome, general manager of the 346-room Park Hyatt Toronto.

Robert Hood, corporate food & beverage manager, Atlific Hotels, notes that while some of their properties have vending machines, many properties have also gotten rid of them, mostly in favour of selling items at the front desk to realize the profit that would have gone to the vending company or moving to a lobby market, retail grab-and-go setup for food and other guest items that is transacted through the front desk as well.

“We have a lot of family style hotels, and people just come to the front desk if they want a couple of Cokes and a blow-up rubber ring for the pool. It’s a lot cheaper as well,” he says.

At the Lake Louise Inn in Alberta, Kelly Anne Yeaman, area director, Canadian Rockies, Atlific Hotels, has one vending machine in the gift shop for the five-building property spread out over 8.5 acres.

“Our vending machine dispenses Advil, Tylenol, chips, chocolate bars, that sort of thing,” says Yeaman, “because we can’t give out medication directly. We sell things like toothbrushes in the gift shop.”

David Astifan, owner of David’s Vending in the Vancouver area, currently works with four hotels who have his vending machines. One hotel is a five star, but he is taking out that machine soon; the rest are limited service properties. He provides swim goggles through the vending machine for one hotel with a pool. His most popular items are snacks (chocolate bars and chips), rice krispy bars, pop tarts and popcorn.  

“The average hotel has two machines, one for beverages, one for snacks. Some hotels already have a beverage contract so I provide only snacks for them,” he says. “One hotel asked me to put in detergent because they have washing machines. Anything so that guests don’t have to walk or drive to the store.”

He provides the machines at no charge and makes his profit from what is sold. He adds that most hotels want a commission on sales as well, between 10 and 15 per cent.

The 24-hour, grab-and-go food and beverage area has been all but perfected by Aloft Hotels & Element Hotels in the Starwood family, according to Dan Young of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, with two Aloft hotels in Canada — Aloft Montreal Airport and Aloft Vaughan Mills in the Toronto area.  

Young says that although Aloft Hotels do not have traditional vending machines, they have transformed this experience with their concept re:fuel by Aloft, which offers sweet, savoury and healthy food, snacks and drinks such as sandwiches, vegetables and ice cream.  Guests charge their purchases to their room or pay directly at the Aloha desk in the lobby.

Along the same lines, Element Hotels offers the Restore Pantry, with quick snacks and a variety of gourmet ingredients that guests can use to make their own meal in their guestroom kitchen. Choices range from salads to pastas and sauce to ready-to-go meals. Snacks include yogurt, chips and dip, cookies, candy, biscotti and trail mix. Beverages include smoothies, sodas, energy drinks, water, tea, coffee, beer and wine.

Ice machines or room service ice served on a silver platter

Between the exploding popularity of iced coffees and teas, the new range of specialty ice cube sizes and the growing preference for chewable ice, frozen water has not been in such demand (or this sexy) since hockey was invented. The Shangri-La in Toronto and Vancouver understand the important role that ice plays in guest comfort. Accordingly, they bring ice to the guest on a silver platter on demand.

Liz Sperandeo, public relations manager, The Shangri-La Vancouver, says the hotel has ice machines located in the service area on every other level to increase cost effectiveness yet not sacrifice delivery efficiency. The fact that ice is not accessible to guests removes any awkwardness about having to search for the ice machine or to have to get dressed to do so.

At The Shangri-La Toronto, Julian Darisse, front office manager, says that ice is delivered to guestrooms in a silver pot with a lid within five minutes of a guest ordering it. He says that every guestroom is also provided with ice at turndown.

Hoshizaki America, which offers ice machines, dispensers, etc., is seeing a trend towards locating ice machines for guests at the service point, not just in hotel hallways. They also have a small under-counter refrigerator suitable for rooms, bars and convention areas, says Barbara Harrison, director of customer support. Hoshizaki’s new square ice cube is proving popular in bar settings.

“Ice cubes come in several sizes, primarily full (used in cocktails and water) and half cubes (like in soda from McDonalds). Half cubes are often used in guestrooms or hall dispensers,” says Scott DeShetler, director of marketing, Ice-O-Matic, which offers a full line of ice equipment.  “If the hotel has a fine dining establishment, one of the trends we are seeing is larger ice cubes for cocktails.”

Production and storage facilities per square feet of space is becoming a much bigger deal and most hospitality prep areas do not have a lot of space for new equipment, says DeShetler. “As they start using more ice, for which we see a steadily growing demand, we’re starting to see machines that are taller but narrower so they don’t increase the footprint.”

Another trend he sees emerging is that for combined ice and water dispensers. In most cases, this is coming from the hospital industry where they’ve been using them for years, he says. They use chewable ice in hospital settings along with ice water. This is being looked at more and more by people who don’t want the environmentally unfriendly huge containers of water. Chewable ice has a cult following in some regions of the U.S. People go in to convenience stores and fast food restaurants with big bags to pick up the chewable ice.

“I was on a cruise ship in October and every food station had an ice and water dispenser at it. They’re touchless and very sanitary,” he explains.

Scotsman Ice Systems offers optional smart technology for its line of Prodigy Cubers that allows operators to program ice levels for up to seven days a week and four intervals per day, says Terry Toth, marketing communications manager, Scotsman Ice Systems.

“This allows operators to make the ice they need when they need it, or produce it at night when energy is less expensive,” she suggests.

Minibars work if they’re done right

Minibar North America offers some interesting statistics related to in-room services such as minibars and refrigerators. They claim that glass door merchandising increases sales by 10 per cent, that water accounts for 15 per cent of minibar products sold, that external snack displays increase sales by up to 15 per cent, and semi-automated minibars reduce labour by 40 per cent while fully automated minibars reduce labour needs by 60 per cent.

There is no doubt that, handled correctly and for the right demographic, minibars can add to the bottom line.

“We position our minibar to be a profit centre,” says Mickael Damelincourt, general manager, Trump International Hotel & Tower, Toronto. “We use easily recognized products such as Coke, M&M’s and RedBull mixed with local vendors such as the company (Spudniks) that supplies our chips. We also don’t overstock them as this can lead to wastage, which hurts both the environment and profit.

“Something that is unique to Trump Hotel minibars are Trump chocolate bars fashioned as blocks of gold and silver. We have also added Veuve Cliquot champagne splits to the minibar in response to guest demand,” he adds.

Trump International offers complimentary tea and Nespresso coffee machines in room as well as complimentary Evian in glass bottles.

Corinne Lund, operations manager for the 59-room James Hotel in Saskatoon, says the guest is given a choice of complimentary still or sparkling water for their room. The minibar amenities are from Torn Ranch, rather than “off the shelf.”

“Minibars can absolutely be a profit centre,” says Lund, who says that for a few years there was a move toward outlandish prices that were viewed by the consumer as an unreasonable cash grab.

“Nobody wants to pay $10 for a small bottle of water. Having overpriced stock that doesn’t move isn’t doing anybody any favours,” she suggests.

“The hotel inventory becomes stale dated and must be removed and you’ve not put any dollars toward your bottom line. Once again, properties need to respond with respect toward what the guest is telling you, which is offer a good product, charge me a reasonable price and I’ll be happy to purchase it.”

Hood from Atlific Hotels feels that minibars work in certain cities and not in others.

“In Montreal, they are always successful because there is a vibrant nightlife and people like to have a beverage before they go out and when they get back. In more conservative cities, minibars don’t make much,” he says.

“They’re either very successful or they break even. They’re labour intensive, so make sure the margin you’re charging is something you can make a dollar on.”

The Shangri-La Vancouver strives to have guests feel that they are at home when they are at the hotel, says Carmen Wong, guest relations services manager.

“We offer a wide variety of services in room — complimentary wireless, local calls, Nespresso coffee machines for single cup servings without the waste.

It’s a high quality espresso capsule that’s not a brand standard; we piloted it here in Vancouver because it’s a well-regarded luxury brand of coffee that really emphasizes the coffee culture in this city. It’s been very popular so Shangri-La Toronto is using it too with a slightly different model,” she says.

“Our minibars have two components, a dry storage drawer for nuts, crackers, cookies, chips, chocolates and small bottles of spirits; and a fridge component for white wine, sodas, tonics and beer. At Shangri-La, we cater amenities to the location. All of our properties offer welcome amenities that vary but every guest gets something that will delight them and is tailored to their experience,” explains Wong, who says the guest is never directly asked about preferences. Instead staff note things from the reservation call or they look up previous hotel bills and then, for example, may have a specific brand of beer awaiting the guest in room upon arrival.

Robert Hood of Atlific Hotels says that tea and coffee are offered in room in the majority of their properties because guests expect it.

“I don’t think we’d ever take that away. One trend we see is the move from coffee packets to the individual pods. A lot of people have them at home and they enjoy the flavours so when they see a coffee maker with a filter, it can look a bit antiquated,” says Hood, who notes that the Saskatoon Inn is considering moving to the pods because the hotels in their market set have already done so.

At The Park Hyatt Toronto, all guestrooms have minibars with a selection of alcohol, wine, juice and snacks with appropriate glassware. Bottled water is complimentary; however coffee and tea are not offered in the hotel guestrooms.

“We decided to enhance the coffee service for guests with a beautiful lobby bar that serves Illy cappuccinos, lattes, espresso, and a wide variety of steeped and loose leaf teas, day and night,” says Bonnie Strome, general manager.

“Hotels are realizing they need a very high quality coffee offering rather than just any coffee in the room that may not taste that great. To be a good host it’s also nice to be able to welcome guests with a cappuccino or latte as soon as they arrive at the hotel. There is seasonal warm apple cider and a variety of snacks such as dried fruit or nuts that our culinary team selects daily.”

As hoteliers strive to make guests feel at home in their lodgings, it is important to realize that customer service and quality are integral parts of that experience.

Whether it’s ice hand delivered to the room so the guest does not need to search for the ice machine at a high-end hotel, or radically overhauling the in-room food and beverage experience by sourcing more local suppliers or offering only higher quality items, this is an area of management that can reap large rewards for effort invested.