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The Critical Points: Is Hotel Elite Breakfast What It Used to Be?

Aug. 09, 2019
11 min read
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Each week in his column "The Critical Points," TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn't agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Whether you're a business traveler, a solo road warrior or part of a family, being able to enjoy free breakfast in your hotel can save you money and provide a convenient way to fuel up for the day ahead. However, hotels are aware of this convenience factor, and resorts know they have a captive audience, so many properties can — and do — charge steep prices for breakfast. Elite status is often a solid answer to combat this out-of-pocket cost, but there's a problem: It seems that complimentary breakfast for hotel elite members is not what it once was — and is still on the decline.

To put a spotlight on the importance of free breakfast as an elite status benefit, I think you'll find many savvy road warriors avoid IHG because even top-tier, Spire Elite members don't receive free breakfast at IHG properties. Put simply, free breakfast is a big deal to a lot people.

Related: The Best Hotel Credit Cards of 2019

I had an interesting conversation with longtime TPG reader David earlier this week, where he shared that the DoubleTree Hilton San Antonio Airport — a hotel he has frequented for business — just instituted a new policy along these lines. If Hilton Honors Gold or Diamond members would like hot breakfast items instead of just the cold buffet, they're now subject to a daily up-charge of $4 per person. This led me to a larger conversation with many readers, road warriors and friends who shared their recent stories of hotel elite breakfast being diminished at many properties across all the major chains.

In today's column, I want to highlight how properties are diluting the complimentary breakfast benefit for elite members.

Breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Columbia-I-26 @ Harbison Blvd. Photo by JT Genter/TPG.
Breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Columbia-I-26 @ Harbison Blvd. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Tactics to Diminish Elite Breakfasts

The Upcharge

According to the TPG readers who shared their experiences with breakfast upcharging, this seems to be most predominant across Hilton hotels, but all chains are guilty to some degree. The Hyatt Regency Tulsa charges Globalists extra for orange juice and espresso. The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago charges $5 for Diamond members to get hot buffet. The St. Kitts Marriott charges $9.90 per person to upgrade to the full buffet, while the Hilton Puerto Rico upcharges a reported $30. Most full-service Hiltons in the Orlando area are charging between $5–$10 per person to upgrade to a full breakfast buffet.

Westin Princeville charges extra for the full buffet instead of continental plate (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

The Low Dollar Limit

Many hotels are giving elites a flat breakfast credit, but the credit doesn't exactly match the prices on the menu. The Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills gives $25 per person, but the menu looks like this:

The Hilton Chicago gives a $10 food credit, not nearly enough to cover the $29.99 breakfast buffet. The argument typically made is you can spend the food credit anytime, but in reality, we all need breakfast, and the amounts given at several properties don't cut it for even modest orders.

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The Minimalist Offering

This tactic is simply properties cutting food costs by not offering much of anything. Generally speaking, this is now most prevalent in hotel lounges. Last week, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point had eggs as the only hot item in the Regency Club. The Sheraton Universal Hotel in California had a very meager Sheraton Club offering. It's now common to see people walk into a lounge, look at the offering and turn right back around.

The Refusal

I actually hadn't heard of this one until TPG's Summer Hull ran head-first into it at the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort. I was under the impression — like brand's website states — that all US Fairfield Inns provided free breakfast, but that's not the case at the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort. This property does not offer free breakfast to guests — which is actually stated on its website — but as Summer found out during her stay, it is not available to Platinum Elite members as a check-in amenity either.

The Marriott Bonvoy terms and conditions say Platinum Elite members should be given a welcome gift of either 500 points per stay or a food and beverage item. The language here can be confusing and can mean whatever the property wants it to mean. Apparently, the Fairfield Inn can refuse breakfast to anyone and is within the program's policies, even if it's contrary to the Fairfield brand website.

Food court at the Fairfield Anaheim (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

America vs. The World

If you've traveled internationally, it is pretty well known that breakfast at international properties — whether in the lounge or in the property restaurant — puts the typical offering at a domestic US property to shame. The Le Meridien in Kuala Lumpur has as live kitchen in the lounge where you can watch breakfast being made, and there is more staff taking care of you than I've ever seen. Meanwhile, a typical Hyatt Regency in the US will frequently have one hot option available and a single, (often) overly-stressed lounge attendant trying to clear tables and keep the line replenished.

Conrad Tokyo (Photo by Samantha Rosen / The Points Guy)

Complimentary elite breakfast overseas tends to be incredibly enjoyable compared to the usual US offering.

Why Is This Happening?

The simple and obvious answer to the diminishing elite breakfast experience is likely connected to hotels' bottom lines, but I believe there's a little more involved. Here are some other factors that I believe are leading properties down this path along with the repercussions — which ultimately self-perpetuate the problem.

Continental breakfast (a.k.a. refined sugar) is what the people want

If you're familiar with the American-style, continental breakfast, it's what is expected at economy properties. I always think of this amazing Key & Peele sketch about continental breakfast if I walk into a hotel club lounge or hotel restaurant and see only cold offerings:

Many Americans enjoy this kind of breakfast offering, see it as normal and don't consciously see the downside. If a property receives little customer complaints and is looking for a cheap out to give elites breakfast, it is likely to be made up of pastries, bread, yogurt and cereal. If it's cheap and the people like it, why not give it to them?

Complex terms and conditions

Hotels want to minimize expenses but are bound by loyalty program terms and conditions defining the breakfast benefit. However, if this verbiage is complex or otherwise unclear, there will either be confusion on what a property has to offer or a loophole a property can exploit in the language to cut costs and offer less.

We had to write an entire guide to Marriott Bonvoy's breakfast benefit, simply because it is so confusing. The problem of what Marriott properties are supposed to give still confuses longtime elite members, and I've referred to this confusion many times specifically at Courtyard properties. The benefit for Courtyard guests is $10 per person, per day plus the same benefit for one additional guest. That's $20 per day for a room with two people. Despite this apparently unambiguous language, I still frequently find myself in a lengthy discussion with front desk staff and need to convince them that this is the benefit.

Hilton's terms and conditions say continental breakfast is to be provided for Gold and Diamond members at the following brands:

  • Conrad Hotels & Resorts
  • Curio - A Collection by Hilton
  • DoubleTree by Hilton
  • Hilton Hotels & Resorts
  • LXR Hotels & Resorts
  • Tapestry Collection by Hilton
  • Canopy by Hilton

As a result, up-charges are technically within the program's terms and conditions. On the other hand, Hilton Garden Inns offer these elite travelers a hot, cooked-to-order breakfast, so no up-charge for hot items should be allowed.

You can already see how complicated this gets, and hotels may be taking advantage of what the terms say.

What Should Hotels Do?

The quarterly earnings reports for Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt show that hotels (in general) are doing well. Reimbursing member hotels to cover costs for providing elite members with a legitimate breakfast seems like an easy win to keep loyal guests happy. If you want to define "legitimate breakfast," anyone deemed capable enough to be GM of a hotel should be able to recognize and know what this entails for their market. And no Wailea Beach Resort (Marriott), a small coffee, pastry and small fruit cup is not a "legitimate breakfast" for a Hawaiian resort where elite members are paying $500/night:

Next, hotels need to simplify the breakfast benefit for elites. For example, Ambassador, Titanium and Platinum Elites should get breakfast at every Marriott worldwide. Hilton Diamond and Gold Elites should get hot breakfast at every Hilton worldwide. Globalists should get breakfast at every Hyatt worldwide. There is no side menu, coupon, upcharge or "gotcha" for top elites to get a breakfast that adequately fuels them for the day. While Hyatt already does this pretty well (in my experience), there's always room for improvement.

Hotels are in the hospitality business and should welcome top elites with a message like this: "Come stay at our hotel. We will feed you a legitimate breakfast in our on-site restaurant. No, you can't order $200 worth of food at no charge, but we know what an entree or buffet costs, plus coffee/juice, and you can have that." No games and a consistent experience across full-service properties within a brand is a key to earning my repeat business.

Bottom Line

If I'm a top-tier elite staying at a full-service property but can get better breakfast at a Holiday Inn Express, Best Western, Hampton Inn or Hyatt Place, the full-service property needs to re-evaluate its offerings. If it's going to cost a hotel more to provide this benefit, it should raise room rates a small amount across the board and divert those funds to cover elite breakfast. Making a breakfast experience seamless for your most loyal guests should be the preferred approach — not nickel-and-diming them.

Complimentary breakfast is a big deal to elites, but it's not what it once was.

Featured Image (Photo by Nicholas du Pont / The Points Guy)

Featured image by Meats, cheeses, yogurt, salads - whatever tickles your breakfast fancy!