Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A mystery explained

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I travel a lot for work.  As a result, I stay in a lot of hotels.  I tend to stay in nicer places when I'm traveling on the client's dime, but that is mainly because I am pretty proficient at Priceline.  For example, as I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel room at a mid-level resort in the Phoenix area (Priceline rates it at 3-and-a-half stars out of five) that regularly charges as much as $179 per night.  I paid $40.  Because I come to Phoenix fairly often, I stay here regularly, I don't think I've ever paid more than $85 even in the peak season.  One of these days I will share my secrets.

A lot of the places I stay in have room service, as does this one.  It is rare for me to order from room service.  If I want something delivered to the room, I am much more likely to order a pizza or Chinese.  Even more likely, I'll just pick something up before I retire for the evening.  This is true even though I'm not paying for it personally and I should not care, in theory, about the one thing that makes me skip the room service:  the price.

(I am pretty conscientious about how I spend my clients' money, just for the record.)

If you have ever spent time looking over the room service menu, as I do (if only to remind me of why I don't order from it), you're no doubt aware of the ridiculous prices they charge.  Sometimes I play a game where I try to guess the price of a hamburger (which almost every room service menu features), and even though I guess an outlandishly high number I have never, not even once, "overbid the burger."  It's not unreasonable to pay perhaps $10 for a burger (with sides) at a casual dining restaurant.  I simply cannot make myself pay the $19 demanded by one hotel I recently stayed at.  Cheese?  Add $4.

And then there is the "service charge" (18% to 25%) and the delivery fee ($6 per person).  And the tip.  And tax.

Bill Cosby had a stand-up bit, years ago, riffing on this theme.  For breakfast, one egg, $1.35. Two eggs, $1.65.  (Even though this bit is from 42 years ago, the prices are still amazing to me.)  That arrangement caused him to wonder "what's wrong with second egg?"

So, as I peruse menus I know I will never order from (not even if I had the money), I have to ask...why is it so freaking expensive?  (And who's the moneybags who's paying $23 plus service charge, delivery fee, tip, and tax for a cheeseburger?)

The answer, it seems, is that it's expensive because it has to be.  In this New York Times article about a hotel that's ending room service, one manager is quoted as saying that nearly every hotel in New York loses money on room service, because it is apparently pretty expensive to maintain the staff necessary to provide the service. I'm not sure I buy that reasoning, especially for hotels that have an in-house restaurant.  But it does make sense that they aren't exactly raking it in on room service, because otherwise they would not believe they could charge prices that are so beyond the norm of what things cost in the world.

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