The Caterer interview: Emma Banks, vice-president of F&B strategy, Hilton

04 May 2023 by

The vice-president of F&B strategy and development EMEA at Hilton is tasked with safeguarding and reinventing a food reputation on a massive scale. She talks to Jungmin Seo

Tell us about your hospitality career.

I've been in hospitality for more than 20 years. I spent more than half my career in the UK, working in all the big pub groups and independent restaurants, such as G1 Hospitality in Scotland. I've been in the Middle East for 11 years, moving from Kuwait to Dubai to head up the independent restaurant group at Jumeirah.

For five years, I was looking after all the signature and destination bars within the Jumeirah group and then I had the privilege of joining Hilton four years ago, and I don't say that lightly because it has been an absolutely brilliant career move. It was a bit scary at first. You think "how can we manage that sort of scale?" but you learn to work within the matrix. The first thing I did, very much with the support of our president, was spend four months travelling, learning the business and putting together a strategy.

What does your day-to-day job involve?

I have one of those jobs where no two days are ever the same. I cover everything from concept creation to development, operations and all our third-party relationships –it's such a broad spectrum. Most of my team are based in Dubai, but we cover 77 countries.

I support the senior vice-presidents (SVP) of MEA and Turkey, the SVP for the UK, Steve Cassidy, and the SVP of Europe, David Kelly, each of whom have a global Hilton alignment, as well as specific requirements for their markets. For the last few weeks, I've been really busy supporting our Green Ramadan initiatives and I'm getting us ready for trade show the Arabian Travel Market. I also travel around markets where we've got key openings or strategic work going on, such as Saudi, which has a big development pipeline, or Egypt, where we've got a lot of repositioning. I'll be in Amsterdam later in the year because we've got a key repositioning of one of our top performing rooftop bars.

What are your aims for Hilton's F&B offering?

When I joined Hilton in 2019, it was celebrating its 100th birthday, and in all the storytelling about that, food and drink was at the cutting edge. They talked about the piña colada [the cocktail was invented at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1954] and the chocolate brownie [invented at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago in 1893].

Hilton took a lot of what we now know as absolute classics: it was the first adopter and first to market. It's not about doing food and drink well, the vision is for Hilton to be a world-class food and drink operator and for it to be the differentiator of the business. The tip of our three-pronged strategy is about reigniting our mojo, so having signature restaurants and destination bars that are alongside the world's best. We'll not do it in 1,000 restaurants and bars; we'll do it in the 60 or 70 of our best F&B outlets in EMEA.

How do you plan to enhance F&B revenue across Hilton EMEA?

Our top 30 hotels across EMEA deliver our greatest revenues. We have a programme to support our top hotels to make sure they are doing everything they can to raise the tide and drive the commercial performance, the revenue opportunities, the guest experience and thus be the differentiator in food and drink. In addition, our signature destination bar programme, which includes 68 venues, receives exclusive one-on-one support from the regional team and individual PRs.

What are the expectations for food and beverage at your ‘tip of the iceberg' properties?

In luxury lifestyle and full service, there's a real movement that believes food and drink is the differentiator of the property. F&B can contribute to trevpar, which is total revenue per available room, rather than just revenue per available room. Food and drink revenue can be up to 30% in luxury lifestyle hotels, and in some it can be even more.

When we came to reposition the signature restaurant, the Pem, at the Conrad St James in London, the first thing we did was look at the history of that beautiful building. It was where the suffragettes used to meet, including Emily Wilding Davison, the most famous suffragette. We wanted to tell the female chef story with Sally and we went down the whole route of the Pem, which is actually Davison's nickname. That's why we wanted a restaurant full of female empowerment, showcasing a top UK female chef with a female brigade.

We know food and drink is all about storytelling. Everything starts with the plate, and then we ask what's going to be in that glass, and how does it all work in terms of the design, music, lighting, atmosphere and uniform? Where I think hotels have gone wrong in the past is they design this beautiful hotel and they all the restaurants and bars and they go: "Right, this is going to be an Indian, this is going to be a Chinese and this is going to be French." It's all wrong. You've got to start with what is the culinary journey?

How are you tackling food waste?

Hilton has committed to halve its food waste by 2030 and it is now a brand standard for all our hotels to record food waste. We also did a trial with food waste reporting system Winnow in 21 hotels across 10 different countries in EMEA, which resulted in an annualised saving of 600,000 meals and subsequently 100,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. Moreover, in three pilot sites – the Conrad in Dubai, the Waldorf Astoria Lusail, and the Hilton Riyadh – we've collaborated with the United Nations Environment Programme and display polite messaging about being more mindful about food waste during buffets. We've also been working with local food suppliers and local companies to take any food that has to go to landfills.

How are you engaging with local suppliers?

In the UK, we source 50% of our produce locally, but in the GCC, where half a per cent of the land is arable, food security is so important. So in 2022 we aligned with agri-tech company Fresh On Table, which is a conduit between thousands of local farms and Hilton. We signed a contract to secure 350 tonnes of local produce that would previously have been imported and we actually smashed it last year and secured 446 tonnes.

This year, we've signed a contract to procure 900 tonnes locally. We're currently doubling down on our local supply in Egypt and continuing to work towards a net-zero future. There's nothing greater than telling a guest in Abu Dhabi that the tomatoes they're eating have come from just down the road. We also have our own vertical farm on site at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers.

What diversity and inclusion initiatives have you introduced?

Last year, my team engaged with UK-based diversity and inclusion experts who carried out some research for us. They did anonymous surveys of approximately 1,000 of our female chefs across EMEA, and produced a set of results, which myself and the team reviewed. We've since set up cross-party working group across EMEA which includes HR, recruitment, talent acquisition but also culinary operations, communication, and finance.

We have a business, North Star, which aims to achieve gender parity across our senior leadership positions in the kitchen. We are a long way off from that at the moment, as is the industry, but it's an ambition of my team to work towards it because we know that it makes business sense.

How do you encourage more women to pursue leadership positions in the kitchen?

We know that women are an untapped reservoir of talent in hospitality and no more so than in restaurants and bars. We're actually doing a lot of hard yards internally to pull together a three- to five-year strategy. It's not going to be an overnight fix, because this is about fixing an industry where we still talk about brigades and manning.

At the same time, the recruitment challenges faced by the industry have really made us think how can we attract more women into working in food and beverage? We've started working with chef Sally Abé, who we've engaged with at the Pem in the Conrad London St James. We've also recently recruited Florence Cornish to my corporate team in the culinary side, who is heading up culinary development in the UK. Nicole Zima has worked her way up through the ranks and is now a regional UK chef and goes travelling around the country supporting kitchens.

We are also starting to shine a spotlight more widely across EMEA. I was absolutely delighted to see so many female chefs in our Hilton Riyadh. We're also working with chef Leyla Fathallah, who is the United Nations Environment Programme chef advocate on food waste for West Asia. I've been taking her to Dubai, Saudi and Qatar as part of our work on Green Ramadan and she's been meeting female chefs in this part of the world and it's been really inspirational for them.

What work have you been doing to support female sommeliers?

We put together a long-term programme around wine training because we want to make wine accessible for all. We spent a year working on everything from how we store wine, how we buy it, how we source it and how we go to market. We're also then moving onto the wine by the glass programme and our conference and banqueting offer.

We've engaged with Helen McGinn, drinks expert and the author of Knackered Mother's Wine Club, and she is supporting us internally on training materials, such as bite-sized videos. We're also doing some external customer-facing work with her, such as Hilton Tasting and Hilton Tastemakers, as we believe she can really champion female sommeliers.

We are slowly putting together a circle of top female soms and we're also engaging with them, such as Rudina Arapi at Galvin at Windows at the London Hilton on Park Lane. She is an incredible sommelier and now part of our wine programme. She's delivered two Wine & Spirit Education Training sessions to team members in the UK.

How do you view opportunities for collaboration beyond Hilton?

We've got some incredible talent within Hilton and my team and we see ourselves as a specialist. But I'm also a true believer in "you don't have to do it all yourself", and this is very much in my strategy. I've got just under 1,000 restaurants and bars in EMEA and a portfolio that's growing. Sometimes a hotel is crying out for a chef collaboration or there's an opportunity to bring in restaurants such as Roka or Sushisamba. For example, we've just recently brought José Pizarro into Abu Dhabi. We had a perfect space in that in Conrad, which actually has so many great restaurants in its own right, but it really did add something special.

How does Hilton intend to innovate its food and beverage staples?

As a global hospitality business, our 19 brands have their signature little brand moments. We're going into hallowed territory here talking about the chocolate chip cookie [Hilton gives each guest a chocolate cookie when they arrive], but there will be a time when we have to look at that – but I'm not saying now. We'll consider it in the future, in the context of the nuts and calories and veganism. In short, F&B will support emerging trends, but there will always be a DoubleTree chocolate chip cookie. We repositioned our Hampton breakfast two years ago and we're just doing a launch of our Doubletree at Hilton breakfast.

What would you like your legacy in hospitality to be?

After more than 20 years in hospitality, I have two aspirations for my legacy. One would be to be part of the team that positions Hilton as a global leader in food and drink, but secondly and more importantly, I would love to leave a legacy of somebody who paved the way for a lot more women to come into food and drink, especially culinary, and have the opportunity to develop a really fulfilling career in hospitality. I would love to be part of the team that actually made a difference here at Hilton.

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