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Buffet breakfast

Is hope on the horizon for hotel breakfast?

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postedJune 13, 2022

Hotel breakfasts are in the news. Details about buffets, grab-and-go’s, and veggie options aren’t exactly pushing inflated gas prices and the war in Ukraine off the front page, but two recent news stories show that breakfast is a hot topic in travel.

A couple of weeks after The Washington Post ran an article about the change in early morning offerings at hotels—downsized menus and upsized costs—Travel Weekly told readers that hot, comped breakfasts are back.

The Post story cites research saying that 35 percent of all U.S. hotels offer complimentary breakfast, 31 percent charge for breakfast, and the other 34 percent offer no on-site breakfast options. When asked about their experiences and opinions, NTA tour operators grabbed and ran with the topic.

Rolland Graham, owner of Mountain Outin Tours in Mission Viejo, California, provides a brief history of hotel breakfasts. He explains that, years ago, full-service hotels typically offered either dining room breakfast, with guests ordering on their own, or a buffet set up for the group in a conference room. The first option usually took too long, and the second was too expensive. And then limited-service hotels stepped in with a new approach.

“Over the years, competition forced the addition of, initially, a free continental breakfast, then hot items were added and the menu expanded,” Graham says. “And with these changes, I gradually shifted our tours to those brands that offered the most substantial breakfast selections.”

As long as the hotel staff continually refreshed the items, the free breakfasts fit the schedule—and lessened the cost—for Graham’s groups. But recently, he says, his options have diminished.

“Some limited-service hotels have gone full circle, back to offering either no breakfast or a grab-and-go breakfast,” he says. “Breakfast availability has once again become an issue for us.”

Other operators are feeling the pinch.

“Breakfast is a meal that we have always included on our tours, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage,” says Kelly Cooke, owner of New Hampshire-based Terrapin Tours. “We are known for having a higher-end product, and skimping on breakfast seems like a change that clients will notice, and we’re not able to explain in a brochure that we aren’t including breakfast because it’s $40 per person, per day. But, not including meals, especially breakfast, seems like we are opting to function like a budget tour operator.”

Cooke says that rising food costs, changes in policies, staffing issues, availability of buffets, and the charges and minimums to host a private banquet make breakfast “a train wreck and something that’s taking up way too much time.”

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Buffet at hotel
Photo: ©kanpisut/Adobe Stock 

Mark Hoffmann agrees. “The problem for us isn't so much the quick-serve breakfasts; those have come back fairly well,” says the owner of Sacramento-based Sports Leisure Vacations. “The problem is the full-service breakfasts. Prices have gone up, service levels have gone down, and the whole hotel ‘sorry, we aren’t back to pre-COVID service’ is getting old.”

The lack of an efficient and affordable breakfast option at the hotel can wreak havoc with an operator’s timetable and costs, says Jason Murray, owner of Utah-based Southwest Adventure Tours.

“If a hotel doesn’t have breakfast service, you have to load the coach, move to another location for the meal, unload, order, eat, and then load the coach again to move on. You could add up to two hours of time to your morning routine,” Murray says. “And consider the cost factor. A breakfast meal will add anywhere from $15 to $30 per person, per day, onto the cost of the tour if it is not included at the hotel. Some groups will pay for plated-breakfast service and not bat an eye, but in a lot of situations, that makes your tour overpriced compared to your competition.”

And the morning meal means more than sweet or savory selections, says Cathy Greteman, president of Iowa-based Star Destinations. “It gives group participants the opportunity to have a little ‘me time’ in the morning,” she says. “Go get breakfast, a cup or two of coffee or tea, and then head back to the room for bags out, restroom break, and recharge.”

Greteman says that a few chains have done a good job with restarting their breakfast programs, and while the meal doesn’t have to be big, it needs to be more than grab-and-go. “Hotels that are opting out of breakfasts are off our list,” she says.

There is hope on the daybreak horizon, though.

I will say 2022 is better than 2021, which was better than 2020,” says Steve Uelner, president of Wisconsin-based Country Travel Discoveries. “Hopefully, increased demand will lead to competition driving the return to a sensible breakfast at most hotels.”

Uelner says that because his tours often stop in rural destinations off the beaten path, he doesn’t always have a choice when selecting a hotel property, which can lead the hotel staff to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

Still, if a hotel has sufficient leadership in its management, we are finding that they will come through—with the extra bit of hand-holding from our side,” he says. “The best suggestion I can give to hoteliers is to listen to the group leaders, be creative, and encourage their staff to have fun and interact with their clientele. It’s not rocket science ... but there has to be the desire to make it work.”

Mountain Outin Tours’ Rolland Graham is another operator who will direct business to hotels with managers who recognize that including a “decent” breakfast is an essential part of the hospitality package.

“It may take some time for all hotels to recognize this,” Graham says, “but competition will bring back breakfasts.”

Top photo: ©K.Pornsatid/Adobe Stock