Hotel occupancy and revenue plummeted to all-time lows in 2020. But in spite of this downturn, the industry has been quick to develop other revenue streams, particularly in food and beverage (F&B) — from online food delivery to grab-and-go programs to contactless room service.
Although many hotel restaurants and bars have re-opened indoor dining-rooms in recent months, it’s likely that alternative options will be here to stay post-pandemic. Preparing for this hybrid trend, hotel F&B departments are refining service once again to provide memorable experiences for guests.
For many chefs and food-and-beverage directors in the hotel space, four key ingredients are important considerations for any winning F&B strategy: critical attention to food safety, hygiene and packaging; promoting at-home dining experiences; and leveraging social media.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, higher disposable incomes, the rise of the experience economy and advancements in technology were among the key factors driving the hotel F&B segment. Now, rising vaccination rates are driving the demand for leisure travel and local culinary experiences, offering a return to normalcy. While hotel restaurants and bars are thrilled to welcome back visitors, many kitchens are battling staff and supply shortages behind the scenes.
“Staffing shortages and supply-chain issues are the biggest challenges facing our operations,” says JW Foster, executive chef at Fairmont Royal York. “Now that we’ve re-opened, there’s a lot of supply-chain issues within the industry, from availability of products to receiving products on time to increasing costs. It puts a lot of stress on us when we’re trying to deliver a product and experience to our guests.”
“The industry at large is going through a bit of a reckoning in terms of recruiting staff, training them and retaining them long term. We need to start paying people better, figuring out benefits programs and offering full-time work that people can build lives around,” says Ned Bell, co-owner and executive chef at Naramata Inn in B.C.
On the bright side, creating and implementing a sustainable F&B strategy will continue to drive overall revenue in the coming months.
First, as is the case with guestrooms and public spaces, cleanliness and sanitation will continue to be at the forefront of F&B services post-pandemic in order to build trust and re-assure diners that staff are achieving the highest food-safety standards.
“The health and safety of our guests is of the utmost priority. At Shangri-La, it’s in our nature to look after people, to anticipate their needs and to go above and beyond to ensure they have a memorable experience,” says Marc Lamontagne, F&B manager at Shangri-La Hotel Toronto. “With this in mind, new experiences have to be considered creatively and what was typically not something we would consider in the past, is actually the best foot forward.”
To avoid cases of food poisoning, spoilage or waste due to contamination, in addition to limiting COVID-19 exposure, restaurants are adopting the sous-vide cooking method in which vacuum-sealed food is cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath.
“[Sous vide provides] a level of safety that is superior to any other cooking method. [It] can [help operators] dealing with other F&B issues like tight labour, disruption of the supply chain for basic ingredients and swings in customer demands,” says Gabriela Pool, National Restaurant Chains (NRC) representative at Cuisine Solutions.
In fact, Marriott and Hilton have already partnered with Cuisine Solutions, bringing an array of sous-vide products to their hotel kitchens.
“The need for high-quality, consistent food that is easily scalable and free of any artificial preservatives has been in high demand for a long time now. The pandemic brought about a unique set of circumstances that heightened that need. A lot of uncertainty around the workforce’s sudden peak and valley in customer demand and the need to control waste and cost made our offerings a perfect solution to complex problems that hotel’s F&B face,” says Pool. “Additionally, the fact that Cuisine Solutions products are vacuum sealed and fully pasteurized significantly reduces the opportunity for contamination. There is an important safety component build into using our products.”
Gourmet to Go
Since hotel restaurants and bars can’t yet operate at full capacity, Shangri-La, Fairmont Royal York and Naramata Inn are keeping up with creative to-go/at-home experiences. Offering similar dining experiences at home is essential to retain customers.
“We launched our Naramata Inn At-Home program last March where people could order from our curated menu and come pick it up,” says Bell. For less than $100, customers received a three-course meal for two people. It kept the wheels of the operation turning.”
“Our staycation experiences allow guests to order a to-go picnic created by our expert chefs and explore the city on our Shangri-La bicycles,” says Lamontagne. “Afternoon tea has always been a signature offering at Shangri-La Toronto, so we offer the experience in-room or for takeaway so that our guests could enjoy Shangri-La at home. This experience comes with a buildable tea stand to make the experience as authentic as possible at home.”
“At-home experiences, such as our afternoon tea program, has been a new way to reach out to our customers,” says Foster. “Customers get dressed up and send us pictures of what they’re doing at home. It has been fun and interactive, and they get to be a part of it in a different way. That’s what helps us grow and bring them back. It’s also been interesting to see how guests would plate it at home on their china compared to how we serve it at the hotel.”
The final ingredient for a successful F&B strategy is social media, which goes hand-in-hand with at-home offerings. Building a social-media presence allows hotels to understand their customers and attracts both local and international visitors. Implementing to-go/at-home programs drives user-generated content, establishing hotel restaurants and bars as their own brands and ultimately boosting the bottom line.
“We’re always checking social media to make sure we’re heading in the right direction and see if there’s anything we can tweak along the way,” says Foster.
“Throughout the pandemic, social media has been a major asset for marketing, in particular F&B. Utilizing key opinion leaders and influencers to experience what is on offer at the hotel has also helped market our initiatives,” says Lamontagne.
“We directly market through our online platforms and speak to our guests all the time. We pride ourselves on a pretty strong online presence but we also take constructive criticism seriously,” says Bell.
If planned and executed well, hotel F&B service will be well positioned to meet changing consumer needs once more services, such as catering for weddings and banquets, come back in full swing.
“Driving innovation and keeping your finger on the pulse in the market is very important. We must constantly be aware of new trends globally, as well as locally,” says Lamontagne.
Written by Nicole DiTommasso