Skift Take

Hotels would be wise to ditch the powdered dairy and differentiate themselves by aligning with local roasters for artisanal coffee programs. While that might come with a dip in immediate profits, cross-branding and foot traffic could ultimately enhance properties’ bottom line.

It’s no surprise that coffee culture brings people together. But can it bring people back to a hotel? 

Tom Sullivan certainly hopes so. The general manager of The Blake Hotel in New Haven, Conn., offers what he calls “a complimentary wake-up call” to each of its 108 rooms daily” fresh-brewed Cuban-style caffeine from the brand Pilon is delivered just outside the door. 

In the long list of guest pet peeves, for many nothing is more off-putting than not having a coffee machine in their rooms, allowing for that immediate jolt to life. Sullivan understands that.

“Throughout my career, I always thought this was something that would have a huge ‘wow’ factor,” said Sullivan, who has worked for boutique and large international brands. “My philosophy is, if you’re a non-branded hotel, you have to work twice as hard to get Mr. or Mrs. Smith to stay here. What can we do to be different, that no one else does, to make guests give up their 200 points from a Marriott or a Hilton?”

The coffee delivery program made The Blake well positioned to enter the pandemic in several ways, said Sullivan. Not only did they trim down lobby traffic to high-touch areas like the coffee bar (where only staff are allowed to touch equipment), but the service reduces in-room use — and maintenance of — Nespresso machines. 

The general manager added The Blake didn’t have to change sanitation protocols, since they were already using Ecolab products after the SARS outbreak. Properties like Hard Rock Hotels, Nobu Hotels, and The Thayer at West Point have flooded the internet since the onset of the pandemic by publishing their sanitation guidelines, which prominently feature hotel cafes and coffee machines.

Guest expectations are already high, as most visitors to the area – which looms in the shadows of Ivy League Yale University – would stay in five-star properties if they were available in New Haven, Sullivan said. But several glowing hotel reviews mention the wake-up call program in particular, with one Parisian traveler calling her time at The Blake “one of best service experiences of my travel life.”

The Graduate Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, went so far as to remove in-room brewing machines after the property closed temporarily during the onset of the pandemic. Offering guests tokens for their morning pick-me-up at the on-site Poindexter Cafe removed some cleaning and maintenance tasks while also helping address the greater hospitality industry’s labor shortage crisis

The design-forward, cheekily named coffeehouse appeals universally to Ivy Leaguers from nearby Brown University, art students from Rhode Island School of Design, and guests alike. The hotel lobby opens directly to the shop, which is also accessible from the street, contributing to the spirit of the community while also increasing brand recognition.

The number of boutique hotels with niche coffee bars that are designed as part of the lobby or accessible from it still continues to rise like grounds in a French press. These include High Line Hotel’s partnership with Intelligensia, Ace’s team-up with Stumptown, and the Louisville Omni’s pairing with local favorite, Heine Brothers. The Guild House Hotel in Philadelphia pours coffee from Sip & Sonder, a Black women-owned coffee house and roastery in California that sources its beans from countries like Ethiopia, Burundi, Colombia, Rwanda, and Papua New Guinea.

But the potential advantage that properties offering artisanal blends have over hotels with big-box beans is still untapped in many regions, said Derek Bromley, founder of Ohm Coffee Roasters. Incredibly, he said, one of those markets is in one of the country’s preeminent food and drink regions: Napa, California. 

“You have some of the world’s best wine here. And Michelin-starred restaurants all over the valley. You’ve got great coffee roasters nearby in the Bay Area,” he said. “But the coffee world is notably lacking here in Napa.” 

Bromley, a former wine marketing executive and sommelier, set out to change that as the “Johnny Appleseed” of the region. He is active on the local farmers market scene, which is how he first networked with The Archer Hotel. His blends are featured in the lobby there, along with its on-site Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant.  

Part of his role as what he calls a “coffee crusader” is making guests feel at home while offering a high-end experience. 

“I used to travel a lot for the wine business. I know that feeling about being in a foreign place, asking yourself where you’re going to find a good cup of coffee and having to do internet research,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than a bad hotel coffee. It doesn’t start the day off right.”

While his brews will run guests a reasonable $3.50 per fair-trade cup, the cost of the beans – up to four times more than what a hotel supplier might charge – does dissuade some properties from offering artisanal blends in their lobby or F&B outlets, said Bromley. 

“Some (hotels) say, ‘I make a lot  of money on my coffee program, why would I pay more per pound?’ But if you’re in a restaurant where people are paying $80 for kobe beef, does your fridge have mayonnaise from Costco?” he said. 

Ultimately, a hotel’s return on investment may be more of a slow-burn than the 60 seconds it takes for a K-cup to brew, Bromley believes. 

“A good coffee program is really more about elevating your brand image,” he said. 

In terms of repeat customers, Bromley doesn’t have access to the Archer’s metrics, but many customers that are part of his coffee subscription service have been hotel guests, he said. 

As olfactory functioning is the sense most closely linked to memory, even just the smell of beans brewing in the morning might be enough of a prompt to book a repeat trip, though. 

“Like wine, bringing back something from their local roaster is enough to evoke the overall experience of that magical trip to Napa Valley,” Bromley opined.

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Tags: boutique hotels, coffee, coronavirus recovery, food and beverage

Photo credit: Artisanal coffee offerings lead to higher guest satisfaction scores at some hotels (pictured: a coffee service at The Blake Hotel in New Haven, Conn.). The Blake Hotel

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