The buffet is closed: How coronavirus forever changed a longtime travel luxury
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Back in March, before travel came to a complete halt, MGM Resorts in Las Vegas temporarily closed the sprawling buffets at ARIA, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Luxor and Excalibur — and that's just a small sampling.
As the world -- including Las Vegas -- begins to cautiously reopen, will unlimited shrimp cocktails, Alaskan king crab, bread pudding, prime rib or soft-serve ice cream be back on the all-you-can-eat buffet menu? Or has the buffet, synonymous with travel indulgence, met its untimely end?
Related: When will international travel resume? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery
TPG spoke to major travel brands and industry analysts to determine what the future may look like for buffets in hotels, airport lounges, hotel clubs, cruise ships and more as we inch toward a new normal.
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What hotels are doing
When travelers return to hotels, they may still see reductions in food in lounges and dining halls. The change, however, might have as much to do with economics as health. With occupancy at a shocking low — about 20% of rooms were occupied in the U.S. last month, according to Hotel News Now — hotels might keep lounges closed, and possibly even some restaurants, because there simply isn't enough demand.
"In a focus group about dining, several of the people mentioned they no longer feel comfortable going to buffets," Henry H. Harteveldt, an airline, hotel and travel industry analyst, told TPG in March. "They don't feel comfortable in the current environment that the hygiene is as safe as it needs to be. So, it's understandable why we are seeing buffet options being closed down. The question is: Once health conditions return to a more normal state, will people feel more comfortable going to buffets in the future, or will these concerns be longer lasting?"
He added that it will also be interesting to see if countries around the world implement improved hygiene at buffets, such as sneeze guards.
In addition to lounges and restaurants, many U.S. hotels such as Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, SpringHill Suites and Hyatt Place offer free breakfasts — typically a self-service minibuffet — to their guests. That too could change.
Many hotel companies aren't yet providing clear answers, but are trying to remind guests that they're doing everything in their power to maintain cleanliness.
For instance, a Marriott spokesperson told TPG the "planned changes in food and beverage operations include the [spacing] of furniture to facilitate social distancing, signage and food preparation and distribution. These would work hand in hand with other operational changes being implemented now and in the future throughout our properties."
As for Hilton? As part of their new CleanStay initiative, expect "enhanced cleaning and other changes to buffets, in-room dining and meeting spaces." That rollout will begin worldwide in June, although it's not clear what exactly guests can expect. A spokesperson said some interim changes are in place and more permanent changes are coming, but those plans are still in development.
Related: Hilton is waiving all cancellation fees in response to coronavirus concerns
A spokesperson for Hyatt told TPG that at "full-service hotel restaurants with a buffet, hotels have temporarily shifted to à-la-carte menus and made-to-order options. For select-service hotels with a breakfast buffet, hotels have shifted to individually prepackaged items." Of course, there are sure to be more changes.
IHG hotels said that, as part of their new safety protocols, hotels will move to "assisted-serve instead of self-serve buffets," and that beverage stations will be replaced with beverage service. Guests will also find disposable or laminated menus for sanitizing and disinfecting, and staff will sanitize all tables and chairs between each guest. Social distancing will also be practiced through the placement of tables.
MGM released a 12-point safety plan and will suspend buffet service in table games areas as well as self-service buffet-style food service in its hotels. Employees will be required to serve guests, and guests can expect a lot more prepackaged food items.
Over at Caesar's Palace, Bacchanal Buffet (a 25,000-square-foot, 600-seat buffet in the heart of Las Vegas) recently revised plans for a $2.4 million makeover, Eater reported. Existing food counters and service equipment will be amended, although the hotel has not released plans on how the buffet will enforce social distancing or protect food from guest contamination.
Related: Getting to Las Vegas on points and miles
What about airport lounges?
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines all closed many of their lounges and clubs around the world back in mid-March, although some are beginning to reopen with limited operations.
A spokesperson for Delta confirmed to TPG the airline "has temporarily consolidated ... Delta Sky Club operations, discontinued shower service and scaled back ... food and beverage options."
As of May 4, all employees and guests are required to wear face coverings, according to a statement from the airline. Open lounges include New York-JFK (T4), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (A17, D27 and F) and Los Angeles-LAX (T2), among others.
Buffets in United Clubs are shut down, but the airline is serving prepackaged meals and drinks to visitors, a spokesperson for the airline said. They're also installing protective sneeze guards at credentialing and customer service desks, aimed to minimize contact between guests and staff. Employees will also be required to use personal protective equipment, and high-touch services will be disinfected more frequently. Prepackaged food and beverages will only be available at the bar area so customer touchpoints can be reduced.
Related: Complete guide to traveling during the coronavirus outbreak
Perhaps one of the most sought-after perks of premium travel cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express is access to Centurion Lounges. As you might imagine, once we do start traveling again, the Centurion Lounge you know and love is likely going to look quite different.
An American Express spokesperson confirmed to TPG that they're "exploring a number of enhancements around cleaning protocols, food and beverage service and more."
"While we know many people are not ready to travel today, we’ll be there to ensure our lounges provide a clean and welcoming environment when it is safe for our colleagues and cardmembers to return," the spokesperson added.
While they're tight-lipped about what exactly that entails, it's safe to say you can expect plenty of plexiglass. In the meantime, you can enjoy some of your favorite Centurion Lounge recipes at home.
What cruise lines are doing
The days of the free-for-all, self-service buffet may be over for cruise ships, too — at least for a while.
While cruise buffets won't disappear completely, executives at several lines suggested that staffing will be increased so crew members — not passengers — are serving food.
"The idea that you're going to have a buffet that everybody reaches in and everybody touches the same tong, I think it's very likely that you're not going to see that on land or sea," Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman and CEO Richard Fain said during a recent call with travel agents and analysts. "But that doesn't mean that you don't have a buffet."
In the past, cruise ships have restricted passengers from serving themselves at buffets during onboard outbreaks of common illnesses such as norovirus. In such situations, they’ll also place crew at self-serve drink stations to hand out drinks, so passengers don’t touch the machines. Cruisers might also notice salt and pepper shakers disappearing from dining tables.
Already, two Asia-based cruise lines, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, said they would suspend self-serve food service when cruising resumes. Both lines said all food and beverage on vessels would be served by crew members wearing masks and disposable gloves.
What restaurants are doing
Perhaps the most telling sign, though, is what buffet restaurants are doing in the face of coronavirus.
Take, for example, buffet restaurant Golden Corral. Restaurant Business reported the chain is gradually reopening some locations, although they're turning the old business model on its head: Diners will now experience cafeteria-style dining, and employees will serve customers instead of allowing customers to serve themselves.
While that's true for most locations, others will shift to a family-style table service model.
Sadly, other restaurants weren't able to weather the storm. Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat chain known for buffet soups, salad and desserts, will be shutting down all of its locations, Restaurant Business also reported. In light of new FDA regulations, they said there was "no way to stop the accrual."
Even buffets and self-serve stations at supermarkets around the country have been replaced by prepackaged items. You can forget the bag-your-own nuts and box-your-own olives for a while.
Let's face it: Having the luxury of filling your plate at the buffet with ... whatever you want, as many times as you want, has a certain type of appeal. Naturally, some buffets were more appealing than others, but the good buffets (looking at you, Conrad Tokyo), were an experience unto themselves.
The good news for those who look forward to the pick and choose nature of the buffet is that while the self-service buffet as we knew it may be dead, the opportunity to fill your plate with a little of this and a little of that may live on by leaning on a counter-service style approach.
But, like almost everything else in travel, there's no doubt your next buffet experience is going to look quite different in the weeks and months to come.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski, Carissa Rawson and Gene Sloan.
Feature photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.