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The Long Decline of the Hotel Minibar

Once lauded as a perk, today the tiny fridge is disdained as a cash grab

Ernie Smith
Apr 13, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo by John Greim/LightRocket/Getty

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More than 20 years ago, a reporter for the New Republic took a sharp stab at a famous conservative conference by implying nefarious activity that involved a minibar.

“The minibar is open and empty little bottles of booze are scattered on the carpet,” the reporter wrote of the 1997 Conservative Political Action Conference. “On the bed, a Gideon Bible, used earlier in the night to resolve an argument, is open to Exodus.”

The minibar was a great scene-setter for a reporter whose scene-setting skills made for great fiction. As determined by by a Forbes reporter two decades ago, the writer of that article, Stephen Glass, was lying.

However untruthful, Glass’ CPAC tale may be among the most prominent uses of a minibar in popular culture. (Thank you, Shattered Glass.) Here’s a more fact-based analysis of this hotel mainstay for the desperate.

The technology that makes minibars possible

Modern refrigeration was invented in the late 19th century by Carl von Linde, a German man who devised a portable machine that ran on methyl ether and eventually discovered a process of liquefying gases en masse. Von Linde’s work, which originally found success with German breweries, expanded far beyond the refrigerator, however. His still-active company, The Linde Group, is the world’s largest industrial gas company with nearly $20 billion in revenue in 2017.

A drawing included with the German patent for the original refrigerated minibar.

The genesis of the modern refrigerated minibar is commonly attributed to a Hong Kong Hilton that in the mid-1970s saw success by adding liquor to its mini-fridges.

Per the South China Morning Post, the Hilton minibar gained tiny bottles of liquor thanks to Robert Arnold, the food and beverage director of the hotel chain at the time. Inspired by a mini-bottle of liquor he got on a flight over the South China Sea, Arnold decided to stock the mini-fridges the hotel chain had just acquired. Room-service drink purchases reportedly surged by 500 percent.

While the Hong Kong Hilton likely kicked off the trend at luxury hotels worldwide, it may not have been the first to recognize the minibar’s profit potential. A 1971 Associated Press story featuring the then-head of New Jersey’s Alcoholic Beverage Control bureau noted that the state was eyeing putting tiny liquor bottles in hotel and motel fridges — a full three years before the Hong Kong Hilton got around to stocking its own.

Going even further back, we can trace evidence of the minibar’s creation to a 1963 patent from Siegas Metallwarenfabrik, a German manufacturing firm that specialized in industrial products, including refrigeration technologies.

The 1963 patent is in German (and I’m therefore relying on Google Translate to make it clear) but the gist is this: the refrigerator was designed to cool glass bottles at a consistent temperature, while allowing hotel guests to grab a bottle without disturbing other bottles in the fridge. Examples of refrigerators or food storage mechanisms designed for hotel rooms had surfaced prior to 1963, but it appears Siegas was first to build a fridge around beverages, including alcohol and soft drinks.

In Washington, D.C., the minibar evolved into a common element of luxury hotels of the era, showing up at modestly historic moments. A post-Pentagon Papers New York Times profile of leaker Daniel Ellsberg briefly touches on the “soft drinks and cheese” Ellsberg and his interviewer grabbed from a lounge minibar. Minibars became a symbol of power and luxury.

Despite the fact that minibars are infamous for charging $9 for a bottle of beer and $8 for a can of soda, they represent a downright tiny share of the hotel industry’s revenue.

And the Madison Hotel’s minibars even played a small role in the ending of the Cold War. Historian Martin McCauley’s book The Cold War 1949–2016 notes that during the 1987 Washington Summit, in which Mikhail Gorbachev met with Ronald Reagan at the White House amid a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations, the Madison’s minibars were heavily used — perhaps too heavily.

“The Soviet delegation stayed at the Madison Hotel where the minibar was replete with wines and spirits,” McCauley wrote. “They imbibed so heavily that the head of mission had to ask the hotel to replace alcohol with soft drinks! Outside, they gorged on Big Macs and Cola.”

Colin Powell also recalled the incident in his 1995 book My American Journey, noting that the Soviets racked up a $1,400 bill on minibar alcohol in a single night.

This was the image top Russians had of our country: a place where you could get spirits inside a tiny fridge in a snazzy hotel room.

“It always surprises people that, as much as we charge at the minibar, we actually don’t make money in the minibar.”

Arne M. Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, in a comment tweeted (and since deleted) by CNBC reporter Carl Quintanilla in 2014.

Despite the fact that minibars are infamous for charging $9 for a bottle of beer and $8 for a can of soda, they represent a minuscule share of the hotel industry’s revenue. A 2017 report from CBRE Hotels found that minibar revenue makes up just 0.4 percent of total food and beverage income. Why are they so unprofitable? There’s a lot of overhead. Think of all the workers needed to restock those tiny fridges.

Odds are that you may not find a minibar with an actual fridge on your next trip. Photo: russellstreet via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Modernizing the minibar experience

In an effort to break the minibar back from the brink, hotels are making some changes:

  • Pulling snacks out of the fridge: Per the Wall Street Journal, the move to keep snacks at room temperature is about making it that much easier for guests to satisfy cravings with a $4 Kit Kat. “It may be harder to resist that chocolate bar if it’s staring at you from the TV stand,” Journal reported Andrea Petersen explained.
  • Adding technology: Hotel News Now reports that some hotel chains have added digital tablets to minibar displays in an attempt to revamp the experience. This also extends to the products sold in minibars — with USB drives and charging cables made easily accessible in room.
  • Introducing automation: In recent years, hotels have started to use fridges that can automatically detect when an object has been moved from a minibar. This is less because they’re trying to screw their customers and more because of inventory control. A major reason why minibars are so hard to make money from is because they’re difficult to restock. Automated minibars solve this problem, and make minibars more profitable by making it easier to automatically track inventory. Of course, this is no fun for hotel guests who get charged for merely moving a Snickers bar.
  • Getting rid of the fridges entirely: Bartech, perhaps the most prominent company in the minibar space, has been selling a concept called the wireless eTray. Designed to be placed anywhere in a room, the eTray only sells goods intended to be consumed at room temperature (like bottled water, cookies, or wine).
  • Bringing in the bots: Perhaps the future of the minibar won’t look like a minibar at all. It’s been suggested that robot bartenders could one day usurp minibars, and we’re already starting to see it. The Plum Wine dispenser allows hotels to “pour” one of two bottles of wine for guests. The technology was built for hotels, but they sell it at Williams-Sonoma if you want to spend a lot of money on being lazy.

“I’ve stayed in a bunch of hotels from a small boutique hotel on Easter Island, to a luxury suite overlooking the Bangkok skyline, to a two-bedroom villa on Koh Samui, and never come across this kind of fee.”

Travel blogger Keri Anderson of Heels First Travel, lamenting to the Daily Mail how a Las Vegas hotel charged her for putting her own stuff in the minibar

Does the minibar have a future?

Though the New York Times dedicated an entire article to it last year, the paper was probably late to the trend. HuffPost write about it back in 2014, noting that some chains were dropping the feature or paring it down, in part because of a 28 percent drop in sales between 2007 and 2012.

It makes sense for some to predict minibars are dying. There’s only so much you can fit in a tiny fridge. A built-in convenience store (ubiquitous today) gives hotel customers a broader array of options than a dedicated room fridge.

But perhaps the problem has less to do with the minibar concept itself and more with what you can get out of that minibar. While chatter around the decline of refrigerated minibars has increased in the past few years, some boutique hotels have responded by improving the quality of the goods within them.

In other words, the reason minibars suck is because Diet Coke and Jack Daniel’s suck.

In a piece for GQ last year, writer Mark Byrne made the case that minibars were secretly in a renaissance, doing things like premixing cocktails, embracing local liquor scenes, and improving the quality of the mixing equipment. Having a shaker in the room is a nice perk.

Is the problem that we simply find the idea of prepackaged food and drinks in a box in your bedroom…kind of boring?

Another example of a minibar resurgence recently surfaced in the Los Angeles Times. After covering the minibar’s decline back in 2013, the paper wrote in March about the hotel chain Standard International’s plans to stock its minibars with a cannabidiol-laced lotion and gumdrop snack. Cannabidiol is a key compound of marijuana that generally isn’t as psychoactive as actual marijuana. (Standard, interestingly, is teaming with Lord Jones, a cannabis company that plans to open a dispensary at one of the chain’s locations.)

That’s a left-field turn, sure, but the hotel industry could use a little left field right now.

Of course, this approach is more common with boutique hotels than national chains. But those boutiques are the ones that often set the stage for innovations that show up at larger chains — they’re the pacesetters, the idea labs, the petri dishes of the hotel industry. Sure, it gets watered down by the time it gets to the Sioux City Hilton, but the idea could have legs in the right context.

The evolving perception of the minibar is a fascinating case study in the meaning of luxury, convenience, and hospitality.

The 1971 Associated Press story about New Jersey’s research into adding minibars to the state’s hotels — three years before the Hong Kong Hilton had the same idea — centered around an argument for “convenience and comfort for the public.” Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times noted in a 1985 article that the minibar “unburdens room service” from small, annoying requests. So, the minibar was originally convenient both for business and consumers.

These days, however, the minibar is seen as less of a perk than an expensive cash grab. Many hoteliers view minibars as something more actively burdensome than convenient.

Is the problem that we simply find the idea of prepackaged food and drinks in a box in your bedroom…kind of boring? Admittedly, other parts of the hotel experience suffer from this as well. Room service, for example, can be a repetitive affair when you’re stuck ordering the burger and fries because it’s the only thing on the menu that seems like an actual meal and doesn’t cost $35.

Of course, technology can fix or minimize some of these problems. But what if the real problem is just a lack of new ideas?

Ernie Smith

Written by

Editor of @readtedium, the dull side of the internet. You may know me from @ShortFormBlog. Subscribe to my thought machine: http://tedium.co/

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