There’s more to hotel event spaces than just a pretty face. And a property’s food-and-beverage staff often have much more on their plates than manning onsite restaurants. Today’s events and catering managers have their hands full filling their hotels’ meeting rooms and ballrooms with groups of all sizes, bolstering the hotel’s bottom line.
At the Westin Ottawa, the Catering and Events team is kept busy year round. According to Patrice McMillian, director of Catering and Event Management, each season brings its own specialty/focus, with conferences making up the majority of its spring and fall business. Weddings are the bulk of summer bookings and holiday functions close out the year. McMillian estimates banquet and catering operations account for just under $12 million of the hotel’s annual income. “We do everything from small meetings of 10 to 20 people to large conferences of 1,000, as well as gala dinners and weddings,” she explains.
The Westin Ottawa boasts a total of 27 meeting rooms, including an executive meeting centre with six meeting rooms. The fourth floor — the property’s main meeting floor — also features large ballrooms such as the Governor General Ballroom, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Rideau Canal and the Parliament Building. This room is particularly popular due to the amount of natural light it offers. “It also includes LED lighting [in the ceiling], so we have the ability to create more of an atmosphere using any colours a client could think of to highlight some of the decor aspects in the room,” McMillian adds.
According to McMillian, planning events at a hotel has its advantages. “One of the benefits of being at a hotel is when you [book] a meeting room, we provide the tables, the chairs, staging, dance floor — all of that is coordinated with the hotel directly,” she explains. Audio-visual elements and additional decor are the only other considerations.
Choosing a hotel as an event venue also gives attendees the option of on-site accommodations. In fact, McMillian and her team consider the number of guestrooms that will be booked as a result of an event when determining pricing. “Obviously the priority is to fill the guestrooms as well as the meeting space,” she says.
In recent years, McMillian has noticed a shortening of lead times on event bookings. “Ten years ago, a client would be calling us a year or two years out for small meetings and large conferences,” she explains. “Now we’re getting conferences wanting to book in a three-month window and meetings booking in a two-week window.”
The trend appears to be affecting the Canadian hotel industry on a broad scale. In Saskatoon, Ruth Klassen, sales and catering manager at the Saskatoon Inn & Conference Centre, is noticing similar booking patterns. “Right now, we’re booking about 25 to 30 per cent of our monthly revenues [for this department] in the month, for the month…It comes down to the economic conditions of the province,” she adds.
Klassen notes corporate clients, in particular, are booking increasingly last-minute and same-day bookings for meeting rooms are not uncommon. Though last-minute events may appear to throw a wrench in the works, the Saskatoon Inn’s team of approximately 60 banquet staff is happy to make it happen. And with most of the hotel’s 18 meeting and event spaces permanently set, Klassen says “If somebody walks through the door and needs that meeting room in an hour, I can do that.”
However, these smaller meetings take significantly less planning than the conferences and weddings the hotel hosts — of which they book approximately 10 and 35 per year respectively. As Klassen explains, “Weddings are one of the most important days in [our clients’] lives, so we try and spend a lot of time working with them.”
In total, the hotel’s banquets and catering division generates an income of approximately $3.2 million per year, a figure which has been steadily increasing since the property’s renovation three years ago.
The Drake Hotel in downtown Toronto offers a deviation from typical event spaces. The art-focused property offers six unique venues across three floors — The Drake Underground, Sky Yard, The Drake Café, Room 222, North Lounge and South Lounge.
According to Dave Elliott, the property’s senior sales manager, Corporate Events, these spaces require very little set-up to be event ready. “We are very blessed that our spaces are designed as is,” he explains. “We are a boutique art-and-culture hub, so we are lucky enough to have an in-house art curator who chooses our rotating displays throughout our spaces.”
The hotel’s recently redesigned Sky Yard rooftop patio is a prime example. The space boasts a mid-century, poolside chic vibe, complete with vintage photos, an indoor diving board, a Prince-inspired mural by artist Insa and an art installation by Jason Peters. “We are very happy to partner with people [such as] outside providers and florists,” Elliott adds. “We find 19 times out of 20, people don’t actually want anything [extra] — they choose us specifically for the aesthetic.”
The way The Drake Hotel prices its event bookings also deviates from the norm. “We don’t have a landmark fee or renting fee for any of our spaces,” Elliott explains. “We have a minimum spend we ask our clients to meet in hosting, catering and beverage,” which is calculated based on the average sales associated with the chosen space for the same day of the week in the same month of the previous year.
The hotel is food-focused, offering a wide variety of menu options. including traditional plated meals, finger foods, sushi and groaning boards (a popular and whimsical take on a buffet). “Outside of that, we are very flexible with working with clients, especially if someone has a specific item they want,” says Elliott. “I had a wedding last year where the groom said the only thing he really liked to eat was chicken fingers and fries. So, we made baskets of chicken fingers and fries for the whole party,” he recalls with a chuckle.
A key point of customization that Elliott and the Drake team encounter are requests for menus that accommodate dietary restrictions. “We created our menus in such a way that we are able to tweak them to match up with those preferences and allergies without deviating too far from our catering philosophy,” he notes.
Drake Hotel Properties’ six-person booking and execution team will soon be able to offer their clients a wider variety of venues, as the company is in the process of introducing its offsite catering initiative, which Elliott characterizes as “a twist on the classic Drake that we are able to take on the road.”
The Westin Ottawa also offers offsite catering, the majority of which takes place at the city’s many museums. McMillian notes the hotel’s event spaces can hold up to 2,000 guests, but offsite venues allow it to accommodate even larger groups.
For its menu planning, The Westin Ottawa utilizes Starwood’s eMenu! tool, which catalogues the menus offered at the company’s individual properties. McMillian uses this to walk clients through the hotel’s offerings. “If we need to go above and beyond what’s standard, we will have the chef get involved and put together a menu to suit,” she notes.
Menus are also a key way the hotel manages costs for these functions. The events team works with the kitchen to identify and promote low-cost menus that are high in profit. For clients on a budget, the team will also recommend using a menu already being produced on the day of their event. “Because we are adding more people on that same menu we are able to save costs,” McMillian explains.
The Saskatoon Inn’s Klassen also identifies an event’s F&B as a key way to save on costs, specifically regarding the number of staff required for particular menu, offerings. “When it comes down to meetings and conferences, our staff on a breakfast is about 50 guests per person, about 40 guests per person at lunch and about 30 at dinner,” she explains. “So the more coffee breaks and things like that we can muster up, the better off we are.”
Volume 28, Number 6