Consider the free hotel breakfast: The cereals, the eggs, the coffee, the child creating a disaster zone in the waffle iron area. Once a novelty, it’s now offered by many big hotel chains, and it’s easy to take for granted.

But you shouldn’t do that. A lot of thought goes into that breakfast, and for some major chains, it’s a key sales point. It’s also the last interaction with the hotel many travelers have before checking out. In an era where any guest can be an online critic, a bad breakfast equals bad experience equals bad TripAdvisor review.

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Putting together a hotel breakfast can be a delicate dance between cost and quality, executives say, and the big chains also have to deal with franchisees that ultimately are responsible for making it all work. Suddenly, that collection of breakfast items doesn’t seem so random.

“Breakfast is critical for our guests, whether they are families on a vacation or business travelers. It’s one of the most important parts of their hotel stay,” said Greg Giordano, vice president of operations for Baymont Inn and Suites. He noted that a recent Google survey listed breakfast as second to free wi-fi among preferred amenities for consumers.

Hotel chains know this and have incorporated free breakfasts into their advertising efforts. For example, La Quinta Inns & Suites has trademarked the term “Bright Side Breakfast” as part of a larger ad campaign. Holiday Inn Express calls its offering the “Express Start Breakfast Bar,” and you’ll see matching, themed signage at many of its locations. Other chains make similar efforts to market their breakfast offerings.

Hotels remain under pressure to improve and expand their breakfasts, trade publication Hotel Management recently noted. Sometimes, this approach starts to look like a losing business proposition.

“We’ve added so much to the continental breakfast that it becomes cost prohibitive to the owner and we find guests are not eating all of it.” Keri Putera, vice president of brand operations for Travelodge Hotels, told the publication.

Still, the chains know perfectly well that guests compare and contrast free breakfast offerings. That has led to changes.

“This past year, we added new items including Greek yogurt, some healthier cereal and healthy and hearty toppings like nuts, dried berries and granola to complement current offerings,” said Anne Smith, vice president of brand strategy for Choice Hotels.

Giordano noted similar changes. “Demand for healthy options isn’t going away any time soon,” he said.

Breakfast bar attendants have taken on a more active role at some chains. Baymont has added what it refers to as a Hometown Host – “a breakfast attendant who ensures guests are feeling right at home in whatever neighborhood they visit, and that our free breakfast is always flowing,” Giordano said. It also uses those hosts to “keep us updated with trends they’re seeing at their hotels.”

Comfort used feedback from more than 10,000 guests and franchisees to develop its free breakfast, and it continues to use it to make new choices. It puts a particular emphasis on its waffle, offering both a regular and flavored option at every hotel, Smith said.

The chain’s waffle push doesn’t stop there. Last year on National Waffle Day (Aug. 24, the day the first U.S. patent for a waffle iron was issued), Comfort donated 100,000 waffles to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for breakfast programs. The chain even runs a website.

So the next time you’re mulling your muffin choices at a hotel buffet, consider this: Those offerings weren’t made by chance, and you’re getting a hefty dose of marketing with your side of oatmeal.

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