As hotel guests’ hunger for unique and convenient dining experiences grows, a panel of experts speaking at the recent Hotel Data Conference said the hotel industry needs to do more to react to guests’ desires.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee—Gone are the days that hotels can rely on simply having a captive audience of guests to feed performance at their restaurants and other food-and-beverage outlets.
A panel of experts speaking during the “Perfect recipe for F&B success” at the recent Hotel Data Conference said guests now have higher standards for food in hotels, and living up to or even surpassing those standards can help hotels drive F&B profitability.
Fernando Salazar, SVP of food & beverage at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, said making that change will require a shift in thinking across the hotel industry.
“I hate hotel restaurants,” he said. “I like restaurants that happen to be in a hotel, that have their own concept.”
Josh Mayo, VP of restaurants and bars, West at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, said it’s not just quality that guests want; it’s also convenience.
“There’s a demand for things at your fingertips, things like grab-and-go or alternatives to roomservice,” he said.
The future of roomservice
A lot of time has been dedicated in the hotel industry about the future of roomservice, as its usage drops and many hoteliers are looking for more profitable alternatives. But experts speaking on the panel noted roomservice is unlikely to fully disappear, and at least some of the drop-off in interest seems to have been self-inflicted.
Bob Puccini, president and CEO of the Puccini Group, said key aspects of hotel roomservice like breakfast suffered because the industry seemed to think that guests had no other options.
“What was overlooked was the trends outside the hotel,” he said. “As things like Starbucks became ubiquitous, hotels charged $20 for bacon, eggs and a coffee. The enemy was offering coffee and a roll for $5.”
He said making breakfast less appealing is particularly harmful to a hotel because that’s when roomservice is in most demand.
Mayo said it’s important for hotels to avoid taking a one-size-fits-all approach to roomservice if they want to be profitable and please guests.
“I think what we’re learning is you have to be careful and know who your clientele is,” he said. “You have to offer alternatives and make sure if they’re looking for something different or if they have expectations of the old school, traditional full-service roomservice that comes on a tray. I don’t know if that will ever go away, because it’s still popular and necessary in some places.”
Puccini agreed that different kinds of hotels and guests require different F&B offerings, and at least some of those will prefer the more traditional way of doing things.
“So many of these things depend on the level of hotel,” he said. “You have to have roomservice in ultra-luxury, but otherwise it might wither away.”
Mayo noted that dining for guests—and hopefully even locals lured to the property by a restaurant—needs to be viewed as a holistic experience in order to keep them from venturing elsewhere.
“For a long time, it was only about food and beverage,” he said. “It’s so much more than that today compared to what it used to be. It’s about the design and ambient lighting and music selection and curation of entertainment if entertainment is involved.”
Puccini said those other factors are important because for most people they can’t “taste above good” when it comes to judging food quality, so what they’re looking for is that overall experience.
“If there’s not a discernible difference in the quality of product, but you have good service, good food and a remarkably nice place that is coherent and consistent with its concept, it’s almost like a little mini-vacation,” he said.
Mayo said Kimpton purposefully brands all its restaurants differently and resists adopting any sort of brand standards around F&B to preserve unique experiences at each outlet. He said it also lends a restaurant a more local feel and makes locals more inclined to visit it because there is more say on-property as well as in the community about what the restaurant is.
“There are a lot of people involved in creating a great restaurant,” he said. “In my experience, (hotels) are not really involving all the disciplines and players and people in the community to have insight into what it takes to create a local restaurant.”
Salazar said that line of thinking means hotels can’t simply do what’s easiest for them, and things like breakfast buffets should not be an option unless truly necessary.
“That’s the worst way to serve food,” he said. “I understand if it’s a conference and you have to serve 1,000 people, but to have it just because (is a bad choice).”
Finding the right people
Sometimes success in hotel F&B, like all restaurants, comes down to service at least as much as quality, Salazar said.
“If you think you’re in the F&B business you’re wrong,” he said. “You’re in the human-relations business, and you have to connect with people and make them feel special. That food has to be good but the service has to be superior.”
The challenge, panelists said, is finding and training the right types of people in those roles. To that end, Salazar said he prioritizes personality over experience in the interview process.
“Don’t hire a server just because they have 10 years of experience … You can train a person who is engaging and (has) passion on the menu,” he said. “You can never train a person to be hospitable and engaging.”
Mayo agreed that personality is key.
“I always ask people … what’s the difference between saying you care about (people) or you genuinely care about them?” he said. “The genuine there is very important. It’s a big difference.”
Puccini said it’s also important to have someone in charge of F&B who has knowledge and passion for F&B and not someone who looks at the position as a stepping stone.
“Sometimes the biggest problem is that what you have is an F&B director as opposed to the manager of a restaurant,” he said. “Hotels put people (in director positions) who don’t understand or don’t care (about food) so they can move on to the next position.”