Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why is hotel food so expensive?

Lately, there has been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about government excess and the $16 muffins and $8 cups of coffee that the Department of Justice had at a couple of their events (Here is the article that touched it off). Mind you, the article leaves out a lot of details behind the numbers and, instead, focuses on the particular items that are sure to fire people up. After all, they need an attention-grabbing piece to sell the news and including the details explaining how those figures came to be would have turned off most readers. The Meeting Professionals International (MPI) blog posted a response to it here, so I won’t go into that particular issue.

However, I have heard complaints for many years – from conference attendees and funders, mostly – about how expensive hotel food is. It certainly seems that way. $8/person for a coffee break, $22/person for a lunch, $34/person for dinner – you can certainly eat quite well as an individual at those prices, especially when you find out that these prices are “plus-plus”. Let’s examine each of these examples one by one. I’ll start with dinner, since that is the one most often referenced in conversations on this topic.

Dinner, at a hotel, typically includes a soup and/or salad, bread, the entrée (with sides), dessert, and coffee service. All of that is included in the $34/person. Now it isn’t fair to compare this to a fast food joint, like McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. The two types of meal service aren’t even close. Meals served at conferences are more like eating at a restaurant – and a moderately nice one at that. If I were to get the same menu items at a middle-of-the-road restaurant in the same city as my conference, the prices (before tax and tip) might break down like this:

• Soup (or Salad): $5
• Bread: usually included for free
• Chicken Entrée: $16
• Dessert: $7
• Coffee or Tea: $3

Add that all up and you have…$31. Suddenly, the hotel’s pricing does not seem so out of line as it did before, does it? Yes, it is still a bit higher, but it is not shockingly so, which is what most people react to.

Lunch is very similar to dinner. For a restaurant lunch comparable to what a hotel might serve, you’re looking at prices something along these lines:

• Soup (or Salad): $4
• Bread: usually included for free
• Sandwich Entrée: $10
• Dessert: $5
• Coffee or Tea: $2

The total for a similar lunch at a restaurant is…$21? Yep, we’ve saved an entire dollar compared to the hotel’s pricing. Not much of a difference there…

Finally, let’s look at the $8 coffee. Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to into it here but this is the one that seems to generate the most ire from certain folks and it is one area where your local coffee shop is way below the prices charged by hotels. Let’s look at in more detail…at $8/person for coffee service, what do you get? You get coffee service for a fixed amount of time (usually 1/2 hour), during which your attendees can pretty much drink as much coffee or tea as they want. How many of them do you think have just one cup?

When I order “in bulk” for coffee (to save money), I know that one gallon will give me 16-20 cups, depending on the size of the cups used by the hotel (see this post for more details). Will I order one gallon, then, for a group of 20 people? Probably not. I will want to have some extra available in case they drink more than I anticipated, even if this results in leftover coffee that no one drinks.

When ordering a break package, such as coffee service billed “per person” instead of by the gallon, the same principle is at work. The hotel does not want to run out of coffee (it makes them look bad), so they need to prepare more than they think people will drink. Plus, coffee service includes tea and decaf. The hotel needs to make sure that there is enough for people with those preferences as well. Your corner coffee shop (even Starbucks) can make coffee one gallon at a time and still promptly serve their customers. A hotel, trying to serve coffee to several hundred people all at the same time, must make much larger batches.

The upshot of all of this is that there is the potential for considerable leftovers (aka “waste”) with coffee service. Since the hotel must, at least, cover costs for providing it, they must take that into account – which results in higher prices. Even your corner coffee shop does this; their level of “lost product” is simply much smaller. In fact, every business that serves food must take wastage into account with their pricing or they will quickly be out of business. That’s basic economics.

So, does this mean that hotel food in not expensive? No, it’s still pricy – and I still think it’s expensive when I compare it to preparing a meal at home. However, when I compare it to eating out, I find that the prices are not too far off from what I would pay in a restaurant. Restaurants and hotel both need to cover not just the cost of the food, but also the costs of rent, equipment, staff wages, maintenance, and a myriad of other expenses that go into providing a service to the public – which means that it will always be more expensive than what it costs me to make the same dishes at home (assuming I even know how to make and have the time to make said dishes…).

So, the next time you hear a complaint about how expensive hotel food is, look at similar options before joining the chorus. You might find that the claims are right on track – or a bit overblown…

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises