You’d think the past two years might have left travellers feeling timid and reluctant to dive back into crowded dining-rooms and buffet lineups, but that’s not the case, according to hotel operators across North America. Most are reporting that the pandemic has only intensified enthusiasm for trends that were already developing before it struck.

Complex and spicy international cuisines; local and authentic ingredients with a story; and menus that nurture the planet as well as the palate are all enticing hotel guests back into dining-rooms – along with a longing to socialize again, and to taste drinks and dishes that aren’t easy to replicate at home.

LA-based hospitality entrepreneurs Noble 33 are among those banking on diners’ hunger for the experiences they’ve been missing. In April it opened Canada’s first Casa Madera, adjacent to 1 Hotel Toronto. Its kitchen specializes in creative takes on traditional Mexican cuisine, crafted with local, house-made and sustainable ingredients that accommodate special dietary requirements (vegan, gluten-free, keto). The dining-room is designed for full-on post-COVID indoor seating, and some dishes will be dramatically finished tableside.

Less Comfort, More Fun
“While many countries were locked down, people found comfort in tasting the world from home, and, as people are beginning to travel again, we’re seeing an increased demand for unique culinary experiences and trips,” says Adam Crocini, senior vice-president and global head, Food and Beverage Brands with Hilton. “Our guests are interested in immersive culinary experiences, and travellers are booking trips based on these types of programs.”

A recent Hilton survey shows that health and sustainability awareness are leading travellers to pay more attention to ingredients, preparation and food sourcing, and that they crave “unique culinary experiences beyond the traditional white-tablecloth dining room,” says Crocini. Drinks from local breweries, wineries and distilleries; rooftop gardens; solar ovens, and rainwater harvesting are hallmarks of this approach.

“We’re seeing a very real pent-up demand for dining from guests and local customers,” says Rob Hood, corporate Food and Beverage manager for Atlific Hotels. He says that buffets, communal breaks and bar service are all returning to normal, but with a “demand for innovative and more exciting food experiences.”

Likewise at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, “people want to enjoy shared plates and shared tables,” says assistant general manager Aileen Hetherington. “People have really missed the opportunity to go into a restaurant, and they’re ready to enjoy a convivial evening.”

Therefore, the Drake is “offering more elevated, curated, chef-focused menu offerings” such as steak tartare, sushi, sous-vide cooking or baking in salt, and luxe cocktails such as the Queen Street Dawa (Kenyan honey and scented tea) or Rust and Bone (cedar-infused bourbon). For guests who may still be avoiding indoor spaces, fortuitously, the hotel’s rooftop Sky Yard offers an enclosed section and an outdoor walkout, “so it’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Hetherington says.

Lunch in the Lobby
Outside of the dining-rooms and bars, there have been changes. “The products sold within lobby and mini-markets have undergone the most radical and accelerated innovation process over the last two years, with retail products crossing over into the hospitality world like never before,” says Hood.

Although it was planned pre-pandemic, Groupe Hôtelier Grand Château’s brand-new Comptoir Gourmand La Spesa in the Sheraton Laval – part café, part grab-and-go – is perfectly poised for the current mood. Linking the lobby and the Convention Centre, it accommodates both hotel guests and convention coffee breaks around the clock. Event organizers can use the dining space and customize the available offerings. La Spesa also carries retail food products for purchase as gifts and souvenirs.

Hallway Hospitality
Room service is another area that has been changed by COVID. “At our brands Signia by Hilton, Curio Collection by Hilton, DoubleTree by Hilton and Tapestry Collection by Hilton, we have adjusted the delivery system for room service with the goal of minimizing physical contact while maintaining efficiency and ensuring freshness,” says Crocini.

“Traditional room service is becoming a more experiential, multi-choice food option,” says Hood. QR-code ordering, eco-friendly packaging and “knock and drop” service are among COVID innovations that will continue be part of the room-service roster.

“Guests want unique food-and-beverage service experiences every time; they want to record, capture, remember and create memories and form that emotional fragment of time with those they choose to share it with,” he says. “In the hotel world, post-pandemic, our challenge as food and beverage purveyors is to provide a guest experience that enables diners toget there.”

By Sarah B. Hood


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