How the Pandemic Destroyed a Business Travelers’ Perk

Being on the road for work can be tiresome but until recently you could at least look forward to a great restaurant meal at the end of the day.

A friend of mine is a private investigator whose work requires person-to-person contact in small cities in the western U.S. He was in the early wave of business travelers getting back on the road during the pandemic, and one big issue was the dearth of dine-in restaurants that were open.

Consequently, he joined the growing multitude of travelers using online services that deliver meals to hotels, which have often shuttered their own restaurants. “You see us clustered at the lobby entrance like we’re waiting for a bus,” he says. “But we’re waiting for the DoorDash or Uber Eats guy. I used to enjoy a nice dinner with a glass of wine in a decent restaurant when I traveled. Now dinner usually comes in a box that I take up to my room with a can of beer.”

At least takeout has improved. For travelers, it used to be largely a matter of consulting a one-sheet flier in the room and picking up the phone to order pizza, enchiladas, chicken wings, or pork lo mein from a local joint that might get the order to you within two hours, depending on how busy the driver is. 

That’s no longer the case. You now have more options, and the meal typically arrives faster. That’s primarily because changes in behavior caused by the pandemic have turned food delivery into a huge business. In 2020, revenue in this service sector was $26.5 billion, up from $8.7 billion five years earlier, according to Business of Apps, an industry newsletter and data analysis firm.

That’s a lot of money, and the market’s growth has predictably sparked competition. Grubhub was the leading mobile-app food delivery company until 2018, when a newbie, DoorDash, barreled in. That company stunned investors last December with an initial public offering that rocketed its value on paper to $72 billion.

After market analysts scoffed, DoorDash stock settled down by some billions. “This business model has no brand loyalty, as the consumer just picks who will deliver their food for the cheapest price. Yet Dash is valued at over $50 billion?” said a skeptical report by Citron Research soon after the IPO.

Whatever, that market is a huge sprawl, including internationally. In the U.S., DoorDash operates in 4,000 cities and has 50 percent of the market, ahead of Uber Eats and Grubhub. Each company claims affiliation with thousands of restaurants that offer a wide range of boxed meals, from burgers and fries to haute cuisine.

One bit of bad news: a lot of grub in deliveries translates to a lot more trash—boxes, wrappers, bags, and other solid-waste packaging bound for landfills—at a time when the hotel industry assiduously stakes out whatever claims it can manage in sustainability and green sensibilities.

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Speaking of trash, it is not uncommon these days to find yourself in a hotel room where your option to ditch takeout debris is limited. Guest room waste bins have shrunk in many hotels, which brag about environmental initiatives to reduce waste. One industry standard is an eight-quart half-moon trash can that’s 26 inches high with a six-inch-wide opening.

“These tiny trash cans drive me nuts,” said my friend, the private investigator. “There is really no place to throw the food boxes away. I hate to do it, but I sometimes put the stuff in the hallway outside my door, and looking down the hall you see that so do lots of other people.” (Many hotels, incidentally, have eliminated larger trash bins in lobbies, citing aesthetics.)

Some hotel staff seem no happier about this situation than my friend. Take this complaint on an online forum for hotel employees: “Why do guests put their often-stinky trash in the hallway? OK, fine, they don't want their rooms to end up stinking—but the hallway? It's like they want to know that someone had to bend down in front of their door as a salute or something.”