Personal Finance

Butler service? Here's a peek inside those exclusive hotel lounges

World's most luxurious hotel?
World's most luxurious hotel?

Splurging on a luxury hotel stay is one thing, ponying up for access to a club lounge is another.

For example, the club lounge at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans is marketed as "a boutique hotel within a hotel." There is a buffet-style, staffed restaurant that serves full meals, champagne, wine, beer and cocktails all day, private areas for conducting meetings with comfortable seating, complimentary newspapers and a private concierge service.

Hotels are investing in private lounges for guests more than ever as demand for hotel lodging flattens globally, said John Hach, senior industry analyst for TravelClick, which provides e-commerce services to hotels.

Bookings are down about 1 percent from last year, though room rates are up nearly 2 percent. The lounges are a way for properties to attract more direct bookings on their websites and differentiate themselves in a competitive industry, especially for millennials who "will buy up more easily to a super-premium experience," he said.

Private club or concierge lounge access is typically offered with an upgraded room, for a day-use fee, or as a bonus for loyalty. Whether they are worth the extra scratch depends on how much you plan to eat and drink at the hotel, and if so, how that compares to what you'd spend anyway on those items outside the hotel. It also depends on the value of its exclusivity and convenience to you.

To gain access to the Ritz-Carlton lounge, you have to book a club-level room, which can run $75 to $300 more per night than a similar room without lounge access, depending on the day of the week and the season.

Amenities differ

Amenities vary greatly from property to property; international and higher-end hotels often offer all-day buffet food and alcoholic beverages, while many domestic properties often include complimentary Wi-Fi, mobile offices, snacks and breakfast.

The Langham Hotel Chicago offers butler service and private check-in and check-out with its club-level lounge, along with a full premium bar, complimentary pressing and swanky computer workstations.

Zack Bates compares the appeal of hotel club lounges to golf or country clubs. "I think you cannot quantify the experience," said Bates, CEO of consulting firm Private Club Marketing in Newport Beach, California. "There's almost no way a member of a golf club can justify the hundreds or thousands of dollars per month to play golf. [Travelers] enjoy the exclusivity and elevated service."

Andrew Marshall, principal of Andrew Marshall Financial, who travels regularly for work as a platinum Marriott member, said: "On our trips to Asia the club lounge has saved us money, but also eliminated the hassle of trying to find somewhere to eat each morning. It makes a big difference when everything outside your hotel is unfamiliar." He said drinks are free at Asia properties, as are full buffets three meals a day, though there's often a cash bar at U.S. properties.

Average food?

"At average-level hotels, the quality of food and drinks on offer are not worth the cost," Marshall said.

Ken Kanara agrees. The longtime management consultant with Ex-Consultants Agency, says he's underwhelmed with many lounge beverage and food offerings.

"The worst part about the food is that people perceive it as 'free' or 'already paid for' so they are more inclined to eat and drink," he said. "Generally speaking, these lounges do not have interesting wines or cocktails."

The tipping point of cost versus value for travelers is a premium of about $20 a night, TravelClick's Hach said. Guest passes at the new M Club lounge at the San Antonio Marriott Northwest, for example, can be purchased for $20 but are also included for all Marriott rewards gold and platinum elite members.

It includes large screen televisions, technology data ports and charging stations, Wi-Fi printing, evening bar service with appetizers on weekdays, daily breakfast, snacks and nonalcoholic drinks.

Club lounges that are more popular can "complicate a hotel's operating structure" so that there could be too many people in the lounge at peak hours if not managed closely, Hach said.

Convenience matters

"It's not a matter of getting access to better food or drink than other customers at the hotel," said Bruce Wallin, editorial director of Robb Report magazine, which covers luxury hotels.

"It's about convenience. If you're a foodie and want to explore everything a city has to offer, it doesn't make sense to [pay for] a hotel club lounge. But if you're a family on a divergent schedule, and some people are at the beach while others are out golfing … it's really worth the extra money," Wallin said.

Wallin said he is often able to use the hotel club lounges as quiet mobile offices with wait staff who bring him food or drinks.

Whether or not a someone chooses to pay for club service, travelers may be treated better than ever before.

"There's a changing demographic at the hotels to reward the guest at their first visit as opposed to after 50 nights," Hach said.