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Travel and You

Hotel Mini-Bars Provide Instant Room Service

September 20, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

U.S. hotels are increasing their use of mini-bars in guest rooms, using both the "honor" and computerized systems to keep track of consumption.

These in-room refrigerators/refreshment centers are stocked with assorted soft drinks, small bottles of liquor (where local laws permit) and snack foods such as peanuts, cheeses and candies.

Sometimes the mini-bar can be in two sections, with the refrigerator unit used for items that have to be kept cold and a separate drawer for non-refrigerated foods.

With the automated version you're charged whenever you take something out of the mini-bar, not just for opening it.

"The charge is automatically transmitted when you remove something, not when the door of the mini-bar is opened," says Linda O'Toole, general manager of the Hyatt-Los Angeles Airport.

"There is information posted both outside and inside the mini-bar which explains how and when charges are incurred."

The automated version also permits easier billing on the part of the hotel, says O'Toole. "These units are also more efficient as far as use of labor as the units don't have to be checked, other than for cleaning, unless they've been used."

Cans and Bottles

However, the automated version only permits use of canned and bottled items, says Patricia Engfer, general manager of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles, a property using the honor version. "Once you lift the latch and the item pops out, you're charged for it. The non-automated type allows you to use a greater variety of items."

At check-in you may get a key which opens the unit. Automated units may be activated upon check-in. If you're traveling with children and concerned about access to liquor in the mini-bar, ask about methods of control. "There is a lock we can provide parents so they can manually close these units," says another spokesman from the Hyatt-LAX.

Some hotels may deactivate the electronic units upon request of parents traveling with children. Holiday Inns, which is introducing mini-bars, is using a computerized version activated on check-in that affords three options for guests with children.

"You get a key at check-in so you can lock the unit," says a Holiday Inn spokeswoman. "Or you can call the front desk and ask that the unit be deactivated during certain time periods, or you can ask that just the liquor section be deactivated--which would still leave access for the non-alcoholic sections."

Keeping Records

A checklist is usually found at or inside the mini-bar indicating prices of the various items, perhaps with adjoining columns where you can keep your own record of what you used. Information may be in a second language. For example, Hilton hotels print their folders in English and the second language most often used by guests visiting that property (Japanese at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Spanish at the Miami Airport Hilton, etc.).

There's no charge for looking, but items you use may reflect a considerable markup over what the same things generally cost. While the mini-bars can be profit centers for hotels, some properties contend that this issue may be hard to call.

"We're not sure if the mini-bar isn't really replacing revenue from room service," says the Hyatt Regency's Engfer.

Similarly, a Hilton Hotel spokeswoman says: "Mini-bar prices are nearly comparable to the cost of the same item in a hotel food and beverage outlet. And, in the case of liquor, the mini-bottle portions are greater than a standard industry pour."

To illustrate some prices, a cola may cost $1 to $1.50, a bottle of beer $2.75 to $3.25, wine from $3 to $3.50. A chocolate bar can cost $2 or $3, with cheeses and cookies not likely to be less than $3. Liquor tends to run $3.50 and up.

Convenience Factor

But there is always the convenience factor. Not all properties have room service, vending machines may not be available and any stores in the lobby carrying snack items aren't open around the clock. Another advantage, when comparing costs in getting items in cocktail lounges and through room service, is that you don't have to tip.

With some properties using the honor bars, guests are supposed to leave their bill for the previous day on top of the mini-bar, which is checked by a hotel staff member who also replenishes the bar. This person will check usage against the guest's record. Regardless of whether you leave a daily record (which most guests probably don't bother doing, though you should keep a record for yourself), the results of this inventory process are turned in to the hotel's accounting department.

Mistakes may be made. On two recent experiences, one in a hotel in Palm Desert and another in Munich, I was told during the check-out process that I had incurred mini-bar costs, though I had never used any of the items in these units. On both occasions, when I disputed the charges, the hotels quickly dismissed the costs and said they may have been a carry-over from a previous guest.

The Guest's Word

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