At the Homewood Suites by Hilton in Carlsbad, Calif., guests were piling trash and dirty towels in the hallway, and by the looks of things you’d think the staff had gone on strike. In fact, it was business as usual on a weekend, when housekeeping shuts down and guests are reminded that cutbacks initiated as a presumably temporary response to COVID have now become the hospitality industry’s permanent pandemic.
Many hotels — along with airlines, restaurants and other hospitality services — struggled during the pandemic. Customers, for the most part, accepted curtailed service on the assumption that things would return to normal once the crisis ended. Instead, many operators have seized the opportunity to reduce or eliminate things that patrons took for granted.
Services vary widely among hotels and even across multiple brands within large chains. Like many travelers I try to book within a single corporate group, in my case Hilton, because I’m hostage to its loyalty program.
At the Carlsbad property, what was once routine daily housekeeping is now only “by request” and not at all on weekends. Gone are modest amenities such as body lotion and mouthwash. The evening social hour, previously offered Monday through Thursday, now exists only on Wednesday.
For frequent travelers who achieve Hilton’s Diamond status, the changes are more annoying. At the company’s flagship Hilton brand, as well as at the Doubletree and Garden Inn properties, many executive lounges remain shuttered or have cut back dramatically on food and drink. The free breakfast for Hilton’s best customers has been replaced by ten- or fifteen-dollar vouchers — which don’t cover the price of even a simple buffet breakfast.
My point isn’t to single out Hilton, only to cite my own experience in underscoring what is happening across the hospitality spectrum, where services have been reduced in the wake of the pandemic, while prices remain high.
Marriott, which operates 30 hotel brands and more than 8,000 properties worldwide, has adjusted housekeeping so the more you pay the cleaner your surroundings. Its high-end properties, like the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis, provide free daily cleanings. At the next level, including Sheraton and Le Méridien, rooms get a daily touch-up. Guests at lower level properties, such as Courtyard by Marriott, get their rooms cleaned every other day.
Restaurants don’t find it quite so easy to reduce service, so they’re finding ways to raise prices.
On my Carlsbad trip, dinner at the acclaimed restaurant Campfire included a 4% service charge in addition to tax and tip — a fairly new wrinkle in post-pandemic nickel and diming. The fine print said it was “to help ensure competitive compensation and benefits for our team,” adding that the charge would be removed upon request.
In my view, if a restaurant wants to raise prices it should. But a service charge earmarked for employee benefits seems no different than, say, a 3% charge to make sure the electric bill is paid promptly, or a 6% fee to guarantee tablecloths are properly laundered.
Marketing people refer to this as “price partitioning,” where the actual cost of a meal is disguised by splitting it into smaller pieces (for example, charging for bread, which at Campfire is $9). This prompted the Chicago Tribune to editorialize the other day, “Message to the restaurant industry: Sympathy is giving way to frustration and customers are feeling gouged.”
The hospitality business is difficult, and the pandemic along with rising costs of goods and a labor shortage, have only made it tougher. But loyal customers haven’t removed only their COVID masks. They’re taking off their blindfolds and seeing the post-pandemic service cop-out for the greedy ploy it really is.
Copyright 2023 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Peter Funt’s latest book is “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s Acting Presidents,” about comedians who impersonated presidents.