Hotels and resorts are bringing in more repeat guests by offering unique back-of-house food-and-beverage experiences.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—When class is in session at these hotels and resorts, it’s the property—not the pupils—that’s trying to make the grade.
In this scenario, an “A” means repeat guests.
“There are some people who don’t like to travel to the same hotel twice. They feel, ‘been there, done that,’” said Rachel Zamora, director of e-commerce and marketing communications at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples, Florida. “But here, people like the idea of coming back because they can have a new experience every time.”
Beyond the usual resort amenities, those experiences include classes that are less about learning than making lasting impressions.
A popular one at the Naples Grande is Little Chefs, a pizza-making class that targets young guests but also has been a hit with their parents. It pairs participants with Executive Chef Bader Ali and kitchen staff to knead and toss pizza dough and pile on their own toppings before cooking and serving it family-style in the hotel restaurant.
“Every Saturday morning, (the staff) take all of the kids into the heart of the kitchen; they get their aprons and little chef’s hats,” Zamora said. “The kids are excited because they get to go in the back-of-house. That makes them feel very special.”
Giving guests exclusive access
Inviting guests behind the scenes also can foster loyalty, sources said.
“It’s about creating experiences, creating relationships; that’s what we strive for,” said Christopher Reid, general manager of the restaurant 1500 Ocean and wine director of the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado, California. “For the staff, it’s building a loyal fan base. We’ve got generations of people who have come to the hotel, and still we have people who are experiencing it for the first time.”
Hotel Del Coronado offers guest such programs including a pizza class that is popular with all ages, as well as a mixology class that is strictly for adults. Both tie in back-of-house experiences, which are essential, Reid said.
“When guests can have real time with the people behind the scenes, making their food or drinks, it allows them to really have a very unique experience—and one probably regarded as very exclusive, that not everyone can partake in all the time,” he said.
With cooking classes, the guests get to “come into the chef’s home, so to speak—to the heart of their home, which is the kitchen,” he said. “For the chef, too, it always adds a layer of comfort to welcome them into their own home, rather than transfer to a meeting space, which is not conducive to having (the guests) experience how it goes every other day.”
The Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, Florida, utilizes a 40-seat, stadium-style show kitchen, which was a big part of the design of the hotel that opened in December 2013. The Epicurean Theatre offers a live, reality-TV-like experience and is equipped with cameras and monitors.
“With the appeal of cooking shows, celebrity chefs and reality TV, there is a broad interest in live food-and-beverage entertainment,” Epicurean Hotel GM Tom Haines said. “Most people sit at home, eat chips and soda and watch someone cook a gourmet meal, never being able to touch, smell or taste the finished product … or ask questions of the expert that is preparing it. In the Epicurean Theatre, you get to do all of this. It’s like being part of a live studio audience.”
Classes are taught by local chefs, winemakers, brewers and distillers—including Chad Johnson, executive chef of the Epicurean Hotel’s two restaurants, Élevage and Haven.
“In the beginning, we considered hiring a single chef instructor to conduct the classes in the theater, but we were concerned that this would make the classes very one-dimensional,” Haines said. “This approach has kept our theater schedule fresh and ever-changing. Also, we wanted to be sure that potential guests didn’t feel like they had to be expert chefs to participate in classes.”
Seasonality and adaptability
Such partnerships with F&B professionals not only offer variety, but also can ease the workload of putting on classes.
For a mixology class over the summer, Hotel Del Coronado’s Sunset Bar partnered with Nolet Gin, which helped to keep down costs as well as show loyalty to a major supplier.
“We catch all the revenue; they get to promote their brand. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Reid said.
The event also featured small bites prepared by the hotel chef and fresh herbs harvested from the hotel garden for flavoring and garnishes.
Like the garden, classes depend on seasonality.
“We’re not going to feature something that wouldn’t make sense growing in October,” Reid said, just like “we won’t do whiskey tasting in the middle of summer.”
The Naples Grande also tailors events to the season and guest needs, Zamora said.
“A lot of our programming is pop-ups,” she said, “because we’re cognizant not everyone wants to schedule their vacation. We roll a lot of things down to the pool deck when we can.”
One example is a lemonade lab—inspired by the success of the Little Chefs classes—which is “like a nonalcoholic mixology course for kids,” she said.
Popular and successful classes, of course, lead hotels to offer more.
“Word is getting out on our classes, and we now have presenters calling us to schedule classes,” The Epicurean’s Haines said. “This past year, we hosted a few celebrity chefs. Our goal is to expand on that, as well as continue pushing the envelope with creative programming that can’t be found anywhere else.”
Setting yourself up for success
Planning and putting on the classes is a team effort, which involves a lot of trial and error, Zamora said.
“A lot of it is listening to guest feedback, and from there, you have to be open to making changes,” she said. “Some ideas for programming come straight from the servers. … They are the ones who are most guest-facing, and have the best feel for what the guests are wanting. … We have a lot of staff who have been here for 10-plus years, and the guests who come back ask for them by name. … Once you create that, forge that relationship, the guests are very honest in telling you what you can do better, what you can change.”
Reid agreed that proper planning is critical to making a class successful. Staff meetings should focus on setting clear goals and guidelines, and ensuring that there are enough helping hands available, he said.
“You have to loop in all your different departments,” he said. “If your marketing team knows, but your front-desk staff doesn’t, you’re losing ability to capture more guests.”
Scheduling classes at the Epicurean Theatre is the job of the culinary team, Haines said.
“The Epicurean chefs prepare the demonstrating mise en place and have everything portioned and waiting in the theater refrigerator for the presenting chef” he said. “The food served to the audience is prepared in the hotel kitchen by our chefs and served by our wait staff.”
While it can be difficult to measure the direct benefits of any one program to the property, Zamora said there’s a positive chain reaction.
With a class like Little Chefs, she said, “the kids love it. ... And when the kids are happy, that’s all mom and dad care about. … They go home and talk with their friends about what a great vacation they had.”
And that word of mouth brings more guests to the hotel, she said.
“We’re not really a resort that you come to because you need a place to sleep,” she said. “The guests want to make memories that they can talk about when they get home. We try to cater to that.”
The Epicurean Theatre classes actually attract more locals than hotel guests, “which is a positive for us,” Haines said.
“We really built the hotel with locals in mind, as we knew they would be the ones to take multiple classes, shop in our wine shop and patisserie, frequent our rooftop lounge and come back again and again to our signature restaurant, Élevage,” he said. “Many of our hotel guests are in town for other purposes and do not always have time to fit in a class. Once they discover the classes, they make it part of their experience the next time they return.”