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Minibar Tech Maximizing Profits and Reducing Labor

Modern minibar technology is flexible enough to virtually eliminate guest complaints while also providing valuable decision-making metrics.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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Bartech Systems

This is the second of a two-part look at minibar trends. The first part, published on Monday, addressed new minibar offerings.

The days of minibar chit sheets, guest disputes and concerns regarding the labor-intensive activity of checking inventory in every guest room daily are over.

At least for the tech-savvy hotels.

Although the automated minibar concept isn't new, the technology is more sophisticated than ever and is catching on at hotels everywhere. The technology helps hotels eliminate traditional minibar headaches, while adding profit-producing features such as product performance analyzation, and helping to overcome employee theft and even laziness.

Bartech Systems International is an automated minibar company serving mostly four- and five-star properties such as Disney's Grand Californian. Bartech began its product line in 1991, developing it in Europe before moving into the U.S. market.

"It's a concept that we believe in," said Gerry Toumasis, Bartech’s vice president of sales.

Toumasis said the best attributes are its efficiency and metrics that aide hoteliers in resolving guest disputes. The technology provides specific information about products guests were charged for, including the exact time and date a product was removed from the minibar. Giving guests that information could jog their memory about purchases, avoiding insulting or embarrassing confrontations.

"Hotels can resolve issues effectively, efficiently and politely," he said.

Its software shows a two-dimensional view of each room's minibar. When a guest picks up an item, it appears in yellow; items picked up and returned are marked in blue. Those that the hotel charged guests for are in green.

The customer service aspect is one of the best features of automated minibars, according to Scott Smith, an instructor at the University of Central Florida Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

"Customers used to say, 'I didn't do it. It must have been the maid,'" he said. "With this information, you can sit down and deal with a guest and say, 'Well, somebody picked up can of soda at 2:43 in the afternoon. Our maid cleaned your room at 9 in the morning." Staff can then ask if there are any children or teenagers staying in the room who may have consumed something without their parents knowing, he said, and try to resolve the matter.

It's also a vast improvement compared to the old system that relied on guests tracking their own usage on a chit sheet, he said. Those tallies would be compared with a minibar attendant's inventory, sometimes causing confusion over what actually was marked. A computerized tally is "infinitely more accurate," Smith said.

"What we find is, when you automate, accuracy goes up," Smith said. "It's good for everybody. I would highly recommend for any hotel looking to put minibars in to go with the technology. It's going to help you save labor and track what's being used."

Some hotels with automated systems immediately charge guests when they pick up an item, while others give a grace period of 30, 60 or 90 seconds for a guest to examine the product and replace it before incurring the fee.

One valuable tip: hotels can install minibar sensors and be upfront with guests about the policy. Guests checking into the newly opened Wynn Encore in Las Vegas are instructed at the front desk about the hotel's minibar protocol. After picking up an item from the minibar, guests have 60 seconds to inspect it before their room bill is charged.

Club Minibar is another company with automated technology. The company, which started in 1994, serves more than 25 hotels in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, DC. Its GEMs door detection system, used at Kimpton hotels, records each time someone opens the minibar door with a time and date stamp. Employees who check the room communicate with a server to record their presence and reset the system for that room. The data can often point to issues with employees.

"We sometimes find we have sales of minibar items in vacant rooms," CEO Tom Magowan said. "Then we can connect the time and date stamp to lock-read time and date stamp. If there is internal theft issue, we can take steps to correct it."

Sometimes the problem isn't theft, just incompetence.

"My conclusion is that 98 percent of guests are honest, two percent are dishonest. If you have revenue shrinkage beyond two percent, it's because the job isn't being done properly," Magowan said. In a hotel that has revenue shrinkage of eight percent, for example, he suggests switching an employee to another hotel with a good record. Often the problem follows the employee, he said.

Also important is managing storeroom contents, Magowan said. He multiplies everything that leaves the minibar cart by list price, then compares that number to actual sales. The goal is to make the gap between the two as small as possible.

Labor savings are no small thing, Smith said.

Smith gave the example of a 343-room hotel he worked at during the late 1990s in which one of the highest-paid employees was the minibar attendant. It was his full-time job 40 hours a week to do inventory.

"I think they were just breaking even, just because of the intensity of the labor," he said.

With Bartech's software, hotel managers can send staff to restock only the rooms in which guests consumed something. About 25 percent of rooms use the minibar, Toumasis said. So, a hotel that assigns one minibar attendant per 100 rooms on a manual system could downsize to one attendant per 400 rooms with an automated system.

It also can evaluate the performance of minibar attendants. The attendants have a remote control that is identified with an employee so it's clear that a staff member is opening the minibar as opposed to a guest. The program records whether they refilled every room, and if not, which rooms need service. It calculates a percentage of the products that were rotated.

Staff know what they need to refill before they reach a guest's door, and if there is a malfunction in the minibar, it can be easily identified and resolved before the guest realizes there was an issue. Another benefit is the ability to aggregate product data. The system tells managers the best-selling products, the highest-revenue products and other critical decision-making data.

"It's a perfect control for the operator," Toumasis said. "You get all the information you need to do a great job."

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