Free breakfast has been a standard amenity offered to guests at select-service and extended-stay hotels for more than 30 years. Consumer surveys consistently show it is an expected part of a hotel stay, especially for leisure guests, but also to a lesser extent for business travelers.
“We as a hotel industry have done a great job of training guests to expect that breakfast is part of the hotel experience, and they expect it to be free,” said Mark Hemmer, COO of Vesta Hospitality. “We operate hotels where it is not free—not limited-service brands—and you hear about it from those guests. They, too, expect breakfast to be free.”
In 1984, when Hampton Inn pioneered the concept of free continental breakfast as a brand standard, it typically consisted of donuts, juice, coffee and not much else. Today, as consumer tastes have changed, and competition between brands intensifies, so too have the menus at select-service hotel breakfasts evolved.
“It’s two extremes in what guess want,” said Peter Marino, SVP of operations for Paramount Hotel Group. “The trends are either going toward items like bacon or to Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. There isn’t much demand anymore for sweet breads, such as donuts and Danish, and guests aren’t eating as much cereal. It’s either the artery-clogging bacon or the good-for-you-fruit.”
In general, sources said trends in hotel breakfast menus mirror how people’s diets have changed. Some guests ask for gluten-free pancakes and donuts, and breakfast meats often include turkey and soy items in addition to pork bacon and sausage.
“Another trend is clean-label foods, which I define as those that have mostly natural ingredients but don’t have any chemical additives and minimal or no processing,” said Richie Mata, regional director of operations for HP Hotels. “Ethnic food items are also trending.”
Quality over quantity of available breakfast items is a direction many brand companies and operators are taking as they build their menus.
“People are willing to take less if what is available is really good: high quality and flavorful,” Hemmer said. “And when you’re offering things that come in pre-packaged containers they’ve got to be brands they recognize. Don’t give them something that’s branded from your food distributors; that’s not going to fly.”
Hemmer said guests also want to create their own breakfast combinations.
“They want to be able to individualize their breakfasts,” he said. “They say, ‘I don’t want you to make it for me; I want to be able to create my own options, whether it is breakfast sandwiches, or fresh oatmeal with all kinds of toppings I get to choose from.’ The guests want all that, and of course, they want it free.”
Taking the pulse of trends
Hotel operators have a number of tools available to keep track of changing guest preferences in breakfast service. The most common approach is simply to ask them.
“The brands provide us with a lot of tools, such as comment cards and other things, and while we analyze that information, it’s also important to ask the guest directly,” said Mark Zipperer, president and CEO of Pride Hospitality. “Occasionally, we put out comment cards on the breakfast tables that ask ‘a penny for your thoughts.’ We analyze them carefully and find most comments are service-related, while some guests say we should have items with fewer carbs or that are healthier.”
While the brand companies prefer hotels within their systems stick as closely as possible to standardized breakfast menus and presentations, operators sometimes go off-script to satisfy specific guest needs.
“For us, it’s mostly special event-driven,” Marino said. “During reunion weekend at Princeton University, we serve special omelets to guests at our Residence Inn. These folks are there for three nights paying $500 a night, so it’s important to provide them with a great breakfast. We only do it for a very special event like this.”
Other operators of hotels that attract international visitors adjust their menus to reflect their tastes.
“Obviously, we follow brand standards first and provide those offerings, but based on the clientele and the local market, we occasionally revise the program based on customer feedback,” said Chuck Powell, SVP of operations of Hotel Equities.
He said the company’s Residence Inn Miami Beach Surfside attracts lots of guests from Latin America, so managers sourced traditional South American pastry items from a local Miami bakery to serve at the hotel.
While guests place a premium on free breakfasts at hotels, F&B service can be cost-effective for owners and operators. Limited-service properties in 2016 spent on average $2.11 per occupied room on complimentary food and beverage, services and gifts, according to data from CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research.
“In the limited-service category, nearly 100% of that cost is for the complimentary breakfast,” said Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services at CBRE.
Still, executives at operating companies said they employ a number of techniques to keep breakfast costs in check.
“Inventory control is an important element,” Powell said. “We make sure we have enough product to satisfy the guests, but we avoid inventory sitting on the shelves that could go bad. This is especially important now since the menus are directed more at fresh items, such as fruit. We’re much more cautious in how we buy and as a result find ourselves buying product more frequently.”
Mata said it’s important to have effective pricing contracts, often through the brand companies.
“It’s also very important to forecast occupancy and usage accurately so your kitchen production is efficient and you avoid over-ordering and waste,” he said.
The executives agreed the secret weapon in a successful hotel breakfast program is the employee who prepares and services the breakfast program.
“It’s one of the most important positions in a hotel as it is a major touchpoint to guests,” Powell said. “We work very hard at making sure we have the right person or persons in those positions, as well as management presence at the breakfast area, where they’re talking to the guest about their stays. It’s also a great source for our sales teams to get leads.”
Zipperer likened the breakfast attendant to a concierge.
“They need to know what’s happening in the area where the hotel is located because they probably get more questions than just about any other associate in the hotel,” he said. “It’s like the guy sweeping up the park at Disney World; he’s the one who gets all the questions. The breakfast attendant is that person in a hotel.”