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By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Soon, the black-uniformed waiters wheeling trolleys of food will disappear from the halls of the Hilton Midtown. Will visitors to New York City's largest hotel mind having to leave their rooms for sustenance?
For some, a hotel without room service made no sense.
"You're on holiday, you're away, you like being waited on," said Claire Avery, a prison clerk from New South Wales, Australia, who was staying at the Hilton with her boyfriend. "Sometimes you don't even have to move."
If she returns later in the summer, she will have to move at least as far as the lobby, where the hotel is building a self-service food market to replace room service.
The New York Hilton Midtown, a 2,000-room hotel in Manhattan's commercial district filled with business travelers, tourists and conference-goers, confirmed this week that it would end room service. A Hilton spokesman, Mark Ricci, said up to 55 employees could lose their jobs.
Hilton officials said the move - which is highly unusual for a full-service hotel - was prompted by cutbacks in spending by business travelers, many of whom face tight expense-account rules, and the changing tastes of leisure travelers, who already pay rates at the Hilton that start at about $240 per night before taxes, going up to more than twice that.
The change appealed to Aakriti Gupta, a recent college graduate from New Delhi visiting New York with her mother, who pointed out that the idea of room service doesn't always match the reality.
"The existing room service isn't great," she said. "If you ordered it once, I don't think you would order it again. We ordered a pizza that was $55." She added, unhappily, that it was delivered in a box.
Ricci said pizza was listed on the Hilton's room-service menu for $24, with $3 for each topping, but could not give the final cost once service charges, an in-room dining charge and taxes were added.
WALKING OUT THE DOOR
Beth Scott, vice president of restaurant concepts at Hilton Worldwide Inc, conceded that room-service prices were high, as they tend to be at most hotels, in part because providing the service 24 hours a day is labor-intensive. The cost is magnified in New York City, where a strong union has secured higher wages for hotel employees compared to other hospitality industry workers and building cleaners.
As a result, Scott said in an interview, guests have been heading out to diners and food carts in the neighborhood.
"We were watching guests walk out the door to get those things at a much more reasonable price," she said. "I'm sure we got more complaints about the price of bringing the hamburger up to the room than we will for not bringing it up to the room at all."
The new lobby food outlet, called Herb n' Kitchen, will be cheaper and will allow guests to get their food more quickly, she said.
The decline in room service is not confined to the Hilton. Revenue from room service declined from 1.3 percent of total hotel revenue in 2011 to 1.2 percent last year, according to an annual survey of U.S. hotels by PKF Hospitality.
As hotel occupancy rates have returned to pre-recession levels, hotels have been able to charge more for rooms, forcing business travelers to save elsewhere, which can include skipping room service, said Robert Mandelbaum, a PKF analyst.
The reasons are not only economic, he added. Guests are more inclined to roam beyond their rooms, with executives increasingly taking their laptops to coffee shops to work rather than spreading out papers on their hotel room desk.
"Being caged in your room waiting an hour for a tray to arrive, it's just not what people do," Mandelbaum said.
PAPER BAGS AND A KNOCK
Ian Schrager, who helped pioneer the idea of boutique hotels, said people's idea of luxury had changed, with a greater emphasis on value than on appearances.
"They don't care about getting coffee served in the finest bone china and sterling silver with waiters with white gloves on," he said, describing the classic idea of room service as "dysfunctional and antiquated."
At the PUBLIC hotel in Chicago, which Schrager opened in 2011, food by the French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is delivered unceremoniously in brown paper bags, left outside guests' doors with a knock.
The waiters, trolleys and silver cloches are not likely to disappear entirely, however, even from the Hilton-owned Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Luxury hotels say their guests expect such service and are willing to pay a premium for fine food, flowers, candles and tablecloths in their room.
It would be virtually impossible for a hotel to hang on to a high rating in the influential AAA hotel guide if it ditched room service, said AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter.
Fairmont Hotels and Resorts (which runs the Plaza in New York), Marriott International Inc and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group all said they had no plans to discontinue room service at their full-service hotels.
But Scott, the Hilton vice president, said the company may expand the idea elsewhere if it works in New York, and believes competitors were studying the move.
"It's not a secret guest habits have changed these days, it's not like we've figured out something that nobody else knows," she said. "We've just decided to take action."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Douglas Royalty)