The minibar menace

Raise the bar: Paying for every can of cola can be more than a mini nuisance
Raise the bar: Paying for every can of cola can be more than a mini nuisance

The minibar: I know this sounds like a Seinfeld episode but it is in fact a rant. The one thing that really irritates me at hotels is the minibar. I think it is an outdated relic that ought to be abolished. Hoteliers should simply price those cookie bars and cans of Coke into the room. Perhaps they do already. Five-star hotels in India are hardly cheap. I was at The Leela Goa recently and was informed that their room rate for the next season was going to be Rs28,000 ($700) a night. And this wasn’t the Maharajah’s suite. It was the Deluxe Premier or some such.

Hotels all over the world are charging these rates nowadays. And then they nickel-and-dime over a Rs40 can of soda. Ridiculous, isn’t it? At checkout, when the cashier solicitously enquires, “Did you take anything from the minibar, madam?” it is all I can do to contain myself from launching into a lecture about the absurdity of minibars.

At this very moment, after I wrote the last sentence, I thought: I should probably call a five-star hotel and question them over whether they actually make money from minibars. But what if they said yes? Then my whole rant would come to naught. The advantage of being a columnist and not a journalist is that you can opine unfettered by reporting obligations. Objectivity is the purview of journalists; a rant on the other hand doesn’t need to be objective.

In the end, I did email a few hotel managers in my usual bald fashion: Dear manager, I am a columnist who writes for Mint. Do hotels make money from minibars?

While we await responses, let’s assume that hotels do make money from minibars. They buy Coke and Pepsi in bulk and sell it for four times more. I still believe that the margins are not high enough, considering the manpower involved in the endless checking and refilling of the minibar; the storage and inventory; the ordering of items; the cashier’s time that is spent wrangling with guests who deny taking stuff from the minibar; the printed stationery listing every single petty item inside; keeping track of trends in terms of what ought to be inside minibars; and keeping track of customers who fill their suitcases with the free stuff and repeatedly instructing staff to replenish. Is it worth it?

Akira Moreno, resident manager of The Leela Goa, seems to think so. I emailed Moreno because his first name matches the name of my favourite Japanese film director. Plus, I have written about the Taj and the Oberoi group in these pages and felt duty-bound to interview someone in the Leela group. Moreno seemed like a straightforward guy who would say things as they were, instead of feeding me the party line. During a recent trip to Goa, he was generous with suggestions on matters unrelated to his hotel without pushing their own services.

Like other managers, Moreno said that minibars were not so much about making money as they were about “offering a convenience to guests so that they may enjoy a drink or a snack in the privacy and comfort of their own rooms.” Sure, but why not offer the convenience for free, especially if as Moreno says, “the minibar bill is the one most often contested by guests during checkout.”

I’ve seen it myself. People arguing ad nauseam with the cashier over whether they actually consumed a can of Coke or a bag of chips.

“This happens even with guests paying in excess of $2,000 a night,” says Moreno.

My point exactly: When you pay $2000 a night, you expect not to have to pay $2 for a drink and be charged for it. You think you are owed that drink. Hell, I am paying a ton of money for this room, you think. They owe me a few freebies. And not just fruit.

Most big hotels leave a fruit basket in the room. The Taj Holiday Village leaves a packet of salted cashews: a nice touch. Cashews are local to Goa and are more snack-y than bananas. Fruits somehow don’t cut it in the area of freebies. They are healthy. You are on vacation; you want to indulge, to be decadent. Chocolate or champagne or at least a packet of potato chips is more like it. Better yet, something more ethnic and local like the gourmet tapioca chips that the Caribbean hotels do so well. South India and in particular Kerala could just as easily do a gourmet banana chips version—not the ones that we get in Hot Chips all over India but something more subtly spiced and cleverly packaged—with handmade recycled paper perhaps; not plastic. The luxury version if you will. Mumbai hotels could do gourmet chaklis made at local women’s cooperatives, served with a note explaining their source, the history, the tradition of eating chaklis for an afternoon snack, and the whole women’s self-help group movement in India. High-flying guests will lap it up. For once, they don’t have to feel guilty about taking something from the minibar. They could eat a chakli and save the world. Any of our snacks, even the humble masala peanut could be packaged for luxury. After all, gourmet is just a matter of subtlety, sourcing, and nuance. The icing on the cake would be that it is offered for free. When you are on holiday, you don’t want to sit in front of a minibar and calculate whether the hotel is ripping you off on the price of a packet of peanuts.

I think there is a space for a type of hotel that throws in the minibar for free and fills it with inexpensive but fun items: local specialities plus standard issue Lays that the overseas guest may crave. Since minibars are standard in most hotels, going against the grain and throwing it in would be a good brand-building exercise. Then foolish guests like me would chew on a packet of Kurkure and exult in the notion that I didn’t have to pay for it. Loyalty for Rs20? It may be the cheapest way to win over a customer.

Shoba Narayan is willing to pay for gourmet Kurkure if it is stocked in minibars. Write to her at [email protected] 

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