May 23, 2014 7:08 pm

Au revoir to the minibar

‘A good minibar ought to resemble a Christmas stocking, ripe with thoughtful treats’

I hate change and change feels the same way about me. We avoid each other, give or take the occasional stand-off. I may indulge in a new blue and white striped, frilled-edge Oxford pillowslip now and then, or scoop a lovely old Marcella bedspread in a French market but, on the whole, I say to myself sternly, “You have made your bed . . . just make the best of the situation as it stands. Accept things, and people. Try to get what you have to work rather than looking to pastures new.” If you take the expression, “you have made your bed and now you must lie in it” literally, it is really very comforting.

So it was with sadness that I recently read of the demise of the hotel minibar. With a steep decline in sales in recent years, some hotel chains are doing away with them.

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Susie Boyt

Now, a hotel minibar ought to resemble a spree in a box, a treasure trove of the longed for and forbidden. A fridge in the bedroom is the height of high-end squalor. Stolen pleasures! Why, you might reach for a whisky without getting out of bed. A good minibar ought to resemble a Christmas stocking, ripe with thoughtful treats, nods to childhood and wicked indulgences, all to be consumed secretly, theatrically or even at the happy end of shame. But not so any more. Paying $19 for a 50cl miniature of brandy or 500 per cent extra for a chocolate bar has lost its lustre. Everyone knows that minibars are really fools’ gold. They have Fleece Street tattooed on their little brown tin chests. Even in hotels that operate a minibar happy hour (yes, that is a thing), they smack of an expense account existence almost no one has any more.

If you are romantic about hotels, you may believe that, in the best ones, people treat you extremely well, perhaps a shade better than you deserve. There might be some heightened ancient human exchange going on that hovers above the gross transaction of money paid for services. It isn’t quite love but it is something almost as good, a mix of care, attention, thoughtfulness, kindness, consideration. There exists in the best hotels a bit of magic, and when they are very good indeed, something almost biblical in the meeting of need and plenty, of weary traveller and comfortable resting place that touches the human soul.

The minibar plays havoc with all this. It lurks in the corner to remind you that genuine care, affection and succour cannot really be bought. Mephistopheles can give Faust almost everything he desires but he cannot give him a wife.

The minibar works against the fantasy of loving care that great hotels encourage. Minibars are blunt and unambiguous, a metal reminder of what can go wrong if we take sweets from strangers – we will be cheated or duped, punished at great cost. Does the presence of the minibar prove what we always hoped wasn’t true: that the great bustling body of the hotel is a conspiracy to get us much money out of us as possible, a mask of care suspended over cash registers? If it breaks the spell, punctures this magic, no wonder it needs to go.

. . .

Once, in the south of France when I was 23, a minibar took centre stage for me. I was in Saint-Paul-de-Vence with my sister and we had been to a party and it was late and our dresses and hair-dos had softened in the evening heat, and we were talking to some art dealers. The next thing we knew they had challenged us to a game of pool and they were incautiously crowing, in advance, about their victory. They bet us a bottle of champagne that they would win. What they did not know was that my sister, when it comes to pool, cannot be beaten. I raised my game for her, in the way that you suddenly dance very well if you dance with someone good. We won. It went to double or quits. We won again and then again. In the end, they bet us the contents of their minibars. We gasped. We won again.

We imagined the little kiosk we could set up on the hillside with the FFr150 chocolate raisins, the miniatures of Courvoisier and Chivas Regal, the tin of jelly beans. Who knows, we could have had a chain of department stores to call our own by now, Les Galeries Boyt, say, or Boyt Marché. We would clank all the way to the bank. Yet, even in our impecunious state, something told us to waive the prize with a “Simply couldn’t possibly”. I think they would have despised us had we had made them honour the bet. We would have been made to feel like urchins. And – perhaps this was the clincher – we would have had to go into their rooms.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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