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More partake in buffets, complimentary meals

Hotel guests seek out free food

More guests are flocking to free hotel breakfasts and buffets, bypassing pricier restaurants, according to a research group that tracks the restaurant industry. According to USA TODAY, the number of free meals or snacks eaten at hotels this year inched up 1% as of Sept. 30 over the same period in 2008, even as the number of people staying at hotels dropped significantly. That’s in sharp contrast to the number of paid meals eaten in hotel restaurants, which saw a double-digit dip of 14%.

“To be up 1% … is pretty remarkable, especially in these days and times,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. “Those hotels offering up a free breakfast along with the cost of their room are holding up relatively well compared to everyone else.”

Hotels have struggled like the rest of the travel industry during the economic downturn, as companies slashed travel budgets and cash-strapped Americans postponed vacations.

Riggs says the increased popularity of free hotel meals likely signals that more people are switching from higher-end hotels to those where they can get more bang for their buck, such as free coffee or a complimentary breakfast. “At your higher end, it’s very expensive. And when travel budgets are being cut, there’s a trade-down,” she says.

The trend, Riggs adds, is visible throughout the restaurant industry. “We see trade-down from full-service restaurants to fast food. We even see trade-down in menus, so when people do go to a full-service restaurant, they’re ordering a sandwich instead of a steak. This seems to be happening everywhere.”

Choice Hotels International, which includes brands Comfort Inn and Econo Lodge, has gotten a boost this year from bargain-seeking travelers. “We’ve seen … share gains,” Choice Hotels spokesman David Peikin says. “Certainly, we feel the great value we offer everyday including the free breakfast is a big part of it. … People are still traveling but maybe not as much to the high-end properties (where) they may once have stayed.”

Orders of restaurant meals at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts in North America “experienced a slight dip” this year compared with 2008, spokeswoman Lori Alexander says. Now, the company is exploring what deals it can offer to woo guests back to their on-site eateries.

For Christian Amama and son Raphael, who traveled to New York from Belgium for the holidays, the free breakfast at a Manhattan Comfort Inn was welcome. The breakfast selection was limited, Raphael added, but he wasn’t complaining. “If we can save money where we can, why not?”.

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