Free breakfast is the new battleground at hotels

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but at a growing number of mid-scale hotels — and even some upscale properties, too — there’s certainly a free breakfast. Today, some of the world’s largest hotel chains are literally giving away the farm every morning, with vastly expanded menus that include bacon, sausages, eggs, breakfast sandwiches, waffles, pancakes, fruit, yogurt, juice and coffee.

Whether this trend was born by consumer demand or by a loss-leader pitch for room nights is essentially irrelevant. With so many companies falling over one another to provide guests a morning’s meal, and with many of them bidding to outdo the hostelry equivalent of the Jones,’ the free breakfast appears to be yet another cost of doing business, particularly in the ultra-competitive mid-market.

“There’s a one-upmanship competition going on to see who can give away the most for free,” says Irwin Prince, president and COO, of the Torontobased, Realstar Hospitality, master franchisor of Studio 6, Motel 6 and Days Inn properties across Canada.

While two of Realstar’s brands do not offer a breakfast option — and are happy to make that a competitive distinction when it comes to rate — the challenge comes in bridging the gap between franchisee and guest. “At Days Inn, we try and find a balance. The challenge is keeping up with the competition, while also providing a product that can be produced consistently across the country and is responsible and respectful of our owners, too.”

Adding a complimentary breakfast option, particularly in a period of climbing occupancy and continued rate depression, is a tough pill for any owner, let alone a brand, to swallow. But, according to Prince, it’s achievable, as long as guests are provided the products they want and owners have the appropriate autonomy to make that call. At Days Inn, the solution is to offer guests recognizable national brands, along with regionally and seasonally specific selections — such as oatmeal with Saskatoon berries in the prairies — that are left to the discretion of owners. “It’s important we give guests the types of products and brands they choose to have at home,” he says. “It’s Kellogg cereals, Nabob coffee, Minute Maid orange juice, along with a fresh selection of muffins, bagels and fruit. Individua owners also have the flexibility to offer other products in response to competitive factors in their market, such as waffles, eggs and bacon.”

At Best Western, Ron Pohl, senior vice-president, Brand Management and Member Services, agrees respecting budgets and autonomy of individual owners — or members — is vital. “We don’t dictate what you have to serve, or tell our members they can only serve these items,” says Pohl. “We like to capitalize on our diversity as much as we can. So, when you’re in Texas, we want members to serve what people have for breakfast in Texas.”

The brand also capitalizes on its recently minted descriptor strategy, which divides the former hotel monolith into three distinct categories, each with its own brand standards, in which breakfast options play a role. “All three descriptor categories have a very competitive breakfast offering,” says Pohl. Two to three hot items such as eggs, bacon, sausage, et cetera, along with a variety of cold items such as cereal, fresh fruit and danishes, are standard. What’s different with Best Western, is now we’ve launched our descriptors, and, so instead of a one breakfast fits all model, we’re figuring out how breakfast needs to look at three categories, with a premium placed on our top two— plus and premier.”

But, while there is an array of options, given the realities of mid-scale hotel foodservice, any new food offering has to hit all the right notes for not only flavour, but logistics, too.

Eggs and bacon, or even a simple fast-food sandwich, may seem like basic brekkie staples, but keeping the program consistent, and achievable, is important to the market segment, especially when offering breakfast at a property with no kitchen facilities and a staff trained for customer service instead of foodservice. “Homewood Suites by Hilton now offers a more robust set of breakfast options, with new recipe cards,” says Dawn Koenig, vice-president, Branding and Support, Homewood Suites and Home2. And, because Homewood is an upscale extended-stay brand, the product has to reflect the higher positioning. “Homewood properties have an oven and a heating oven, so it’s more complex fare, but we’re also not hiring professional chefs to cook the food. So, we have all of our training materials and recipes created assuming no culinary background. With the right training, and product, we’re able to offer a high-quality breakfast, every time.”

The brass at IHG is faced with the same logistical and human resource challenge every morning since the complimentary breakfast option is fundamental to their Holiday Inn Express product. “In looking at the Holiday Inn Express, complimentary breakfast is clearly part of the guest expectation,” says Sue Morgan, vice-president, Food and Beverage, IHG North America. So, operators are constantly challenged to produce a tasty, healthy and upscale product, regardless of foodservice background or facilities. As a result, corporate staff in Atlanta is always on the lookout for ways to systemize, streamline or educate. “It’s a highly scripted program,” Morgan says of the brand’s breakfast offering that includes the bacon and egg standbys but also a new pancake maker and the brand’s signature cinnamon rolls. “We’re very rigorous in the selection of the vendors we choose for our breakfast program and regard them as partners in our business. For our properties, that means we’re able to say: “Here is the egg SKU, here is the convection oven, here’s the way you need to prepare and serve it.” It’s consistency, ease of execution. We’re also always reviewing, and we conduct continual in-market workshops to optimize that breakfast offering and the personnel.”

But then comes the pesky ROI question. Is all the effort, cost and logistical headache worth it in the long run? Do guests today choose one property over another because of a breakfast option, and, more importantly, can you fold that into a bump in rate? Well, as with many questions today, the jury is still out. When Best Western struggled with the answer, the question was changed. “We measure the effectiveness of our breakfast program, not as a direct return on investment, but rather on intent to recommend,” Pohl says. “We’ve found a direct correlation, and as Best Western hotels achieve increasingly high breakfast satisfaction scores, we’re also seeing increasingly high reports of intent to recommend. That’s a meaningful dollar amount.”

And, a final word of warning: though mid-scale players are busting their budgets to find the next great breakfast option for guests, from pork-packed egg sandwiches to hot oatmeal with local berries and even made-to-order pancakes, the importance of one breakfast addiction can never be overstated. “Great coffee is a must,” says Best Western’s Pohl. “It’s extra important, and is driven by your local market. The coffee you’re serving has to be on par with what guests get at home or from the local retail outlet. The only thing worse than no coffee, is bad coffee.”


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