The Caterer Hotel F&B Summit: how to attract non-guests and the buffet is back

24 November 2021 by

The best hotels offer not just a place to sleep but a compelling food and beverage experience that makes guests and non-residents alike want to spend time there. Kathleen Hall reports from The Caterer's Hotel F&B Summit on how operators are maximising F&B revenue.

Post-pandemic, hotels have had to rethink their food offering, from ensuring service is Covid-compliant to being able to meet changing customer expectations – and all while grappling with the ongoing staffing crisis. For Adam Bateman, culinary director at the Grand Hotel Birmingham, which has just completed a £46m refurbishment, one key recent change has been a move away from a plated offering back to the buffet breakfast.

The plated breakfast worked well when the hotel initially reopened, operating five days a week and running at 80% capacity, he says. It also made navigating restrictions easier. "But as we've got busier and moved into newer times, we've switched back to a full buffet-style breakfast." Once the facility openings started to scale up, he says the expectations around offering a plated breakfast "were really challenging for us to try and meet with the room rate that we were offering and charging".

But it's not just a case of putting everything out and letting guests get on with it. Ensuring front of house staff are properly trained to assist guests, as well as planning around the flow of the buffet is important. He points out: "You need to make sure the three areas – cereals, hot breakfast and juices – are separate, so when it really is busy, people aren't standing around queueing in the same area. Because queues are what drive people mad."

Greg Harvey, sales controller of out of home at Taylors of Harrogate, agrees there are definite pinch points around a breakfast buffet. "One of the frustrating things for guests is having to wait for tea and coffee. So particularly in environments where you might be short of staff, it's a bit more of a challenge to provide the quality of service." He says that hotels can make it easier for themselves by allowing guests to make their own tea and coffee and installing several conveniently placed drinks stations to help avoid queues.

Novotel London Canary Wharf
Novotel London Canary Wharf

Less is more

Breakfast isn't the only dining option to consider, of course. Lorraine Sinclair, executive chef at Pan Pacific London, says the key to a successful F&B operation is bringing in new concepts and ensuring there is a point of difference from competitors. The hotel's Asian-influenced Straits Kitchen achieves authentic flavours by working in partnership with a company in the UK to grow specific herbs and spices normally found in Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China.

Sinclair adds that it's important to do a few things well rather than constantly making changes for the sake of it. "I think if your food is fantastic and authentic, and you're bringing in the clientele, they're coming in for something. Yes, I would put some specials on but I wouldn't be doing a monthly pop-up."

Bringing in new menus on a monthly basis would have a negative impact on the number of hours that staff need to put in, she explains. "It's hard enough as it is just now to get people to come and work in kitchens." The same ‘less is more' approach can be applied to in-room dining, according to Jacqui McMillan, general manager at Novotel London Canary Wharf and its Bokan restaurant. "Providing you have the right in-room dining offer, which is simple, which is comfort food, which suits the market you are in, you will see fewer delivery drivers in the lobby."

The hotel did find a positive side to having delivery drivers drop by, though. "We actually recruited delivery drivers for housekeeping, which I thought was an innovative way of managing to get some housekeepers recently! As they were dropping the stuff off, my housekeeper said, have you got any experience? They said yes and they started the next day. Anything to get staff at the moment!"

But for guests who want to eat in the hotel bar or restaurant, it is all about creating a memorable experience for them. It is equally crucial in attracting non-residents, too.

McMillan points out that the location of the Bokan restaurant and bar, on the top floor of Novotel London Canary Wharf, makes it a destination in its own right and a popular place for people to come and post pictures on Insta­gram. Since Bokan reopened in May, 80% of its business has been from non-residents. McMillan says: "The views are stunning, and we understand that people do sometimes come for the view. And then, of course, it's backed up with the amazing foods that Guillaume Gillan, our executive chef, delivers."

She believes it's important to treat Bokan as a separate business. "I think in the past, hotels have never done that, because restaurants have been a bit more of an add-on. We market Bokan as an individual product – as a brand of Accor – but not as part of the hotel."

The same principle applies to the virtual space too: Bokan has a separate Instagram account and website. "I think that's really what brings in non-residents, and we built it to compete with the high street, and five years on we are truly doing that," McMillan says.

Sometimes competing with the high street also means offering customers a similar environment inside the hotel to what's available in a busy shopping street, says Richard Raven, regional director of F&B operations at the Hilton, UK, Ireland and Israel. For example, his hotel chain recently opened an all-day café offering, Tyburn Market, at its central London Metropole property.

"That was really about meeting customer demand. Just outside the door, there are hundreds of grab and go places. You've got Pret literally 10 metres away. And in that environment where you've got business guests, which that hotel gets a huge amount of, we want to appeal to that person who just wants to get on their laptop and sit in a café environment, still within the hotel space." He says it can take several years of planning for big extensive refurbishments to create those types of spaces. "But it is definitely a big opportunity for us at the moment at a number of our hotels."

Space is a vacuum

Robbie Bargh
Robbie Bargh

Robbie Bargh, founder of hospitality concept agency Gorgeous Group, has worked with Harrods, Dishoom and Hilton. He thinks big restaurants in hotels can be off-putting for guests. Historically, he says, hoteliers have got obsessed about offering breakfast in a "monstrous room" which might double up as a great space for things like Mother's Day but just feels empty the rest of the time.

"What we need to do is create smaller spaces which are energetic," he says. "Once you get through the door, then that whole 360-degree immersive experience has to deliver. As soon as you sit down, you should have been hit by so many parts of the story coming to life."

During the discovery phase of an F&B concept, it's important to survey spaces to "see how much energy can you generate and then create a business plan around that", Bargh says. "They need to look and feel and sound and smell and eat and taste differently than anything else in the hotel. But there has to be a connection."

Marie Da Silva, director of F&B marketing at the Doyle Collection – which has hotels in a number of central London locations, Dublin and Washington DC – agrees that a property's surroundings can be a key selling point.

"We've got the Dalloway Terrace within the Bloomsbury hotel, which is a very visually-led destination. It has a very floral, subtle garden feel. Also within the Bloomsbury, we've got the Coral Room, which is a bright coral-orange bar that has amazing cocktails and is a really different offering to the Dalloway Terrace. "And within the same hotel, we've got the Bloomsbury Club Bar, which has a speakeasy vibe; it is reopening later this month. We offer late-night drinking and live bands, meaning our guests can experience something different under one roof. But it also means that externally we have these strong brand identities, which compete with the high street and the wider F&B market."

Pan Pacific's Sinclair is also a fan of changing the ambience throughout the day to inject the same space with different energy. At breakfast, the Pan Pacific restaurant is divided into four areas so that it doesn't feel so big. "At lunchtime we take the buffet away and set up a wine bar [the offer includes Champagnes and Chinese wines]. We keep people to the first two quarters, which makes the restaurant not look as big. And then in the evening we open up, dim the lights and change the music, so there's a different ambience." The Pan Pacific also offers afternoon tea in its Orchid Lounge, as well as cocktails in its Ginger Lily Ramen Bar. "You've got to keep individual spaces for different things rather than trying to shove every­thing into the one space, because you lose that journey," Sinclair says.

Ultimately, she believes everyone can benefit when they stay true to their concepts. "I don't think there should be competition between the different hotels and restaurants. At the end of the day, if you can bring more people over to this side of the city, then that's fantastic. I feel like we don't want to compete with Mr Smith down the road, because he has his unique concept as well."

Having the confidence to really know your market seems one of the keys to F&B success.

The final touch: leave them wanting to return

It's often the last meal guests will have before they check out, so getting the breakfast offer right is essential to leaving them with a positive lasting impression of the hotel.

Thomas Ferrante, hotel director of the Grove of Narberth in Pembrokeshire, says: "Breakfast should be a joyful experience. If it can be – if you're on holiday especially – it should be as joyful as having lunch or dinner."

Ferrante says it's not just about offering amazing food, but making sure that staff have built up a rapport with guests over their stay. "For me, it's knowing that it's your guest's last breakfast, and being able to say goodbye and thank you for supporting the business," he says. "We have four people on at breakfast and that's made a huge difference to being able to know if this is the guest's first or second breakfast, and do we need to explain the menu again and do we know your coffee by the second day?"

Bateman at the Grand Hotel Birmingham, emphasises the need for quality rather than quantity, with top-notch bacon and sausages and branded items a must. "Orange juice, believe it or not, can be quite emotive for people: bits in or no bits? But most people know what good, fresh, squeezed, orange juice is." He agrees the breakfast experience has to be enjoyable. "It's very intrinsic to where you are, but for us in the Isaacs brasserie, which is a New York, Birmingham-style venue, I think it's giving something to the guest which is casual and fun."

Harvey at Taylors of Harrogate says breakfast also represents an opportunity for hotels to offer guests a memento of their stay. "I think it's really nice to give people something to take away, so they've got a little reminder perhaps just to enjoy later that day. So imagine giving your guests a beautifully branded teacup, with some envelope tea bags and perhaps even a little chocolate brownie to enjoy later in the afternoon."

The Hilton's Raven agrees that little touches can make all the difference. "In our Oxbo restaurant in Heathrow Terminal 4, we've got plantable postcards you can take as you leave. And then before you get on the plane, you can write postcards and they get sent to a loved one and can be planted. That ties in nicely with the Oxbo concept, which is all about nature, and it creates that story and that little memory."

Photo: Ksenija Toyechkina/

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