Everything is on the table as hoteliers re-evaluate F&B

Even before COVID-19, many hoteliers were scrambling to figure out how to drive top- and bottom-line F&B. In pandemic hindsight, those were halcyon days. Faced with the push-pull of people’s near-desperation to dine and drink with their friends (not just pixels) and their lingering fear about contracting coronavirus in social settings, hoteliers now to have reinvent their F&B offers in a way that sells safety as much as satiety.

Whether you agree with the pundits who say COVID-19 simply accelerated inevitable changes in hotel F&B operations or with those who see a post-pandemic paradigm shift, it’s clear that things will look different going forward. How different and for how long is still open to debate. Here’s some food for thought:

For now, there’s no free lunch — or breakfast. “F&B is off the table,” said Michael Bellisario, director, equity research, senior analyst, Baird. Obviously, buffets are out of the question and may be for some time. Various industry watchers speculate that, even when business starts to recover, hotel foodservice may be more grab and go or knock and drop than serve-yourself. Conference attendees may be served elevated versions of gourmet boxed lunches instead of customizable soup-to-dessert presentations. While all that may limit guests’ choices, it has the side benefit of helping control costs for operators and better manage labor costs.

F&B will have to deliver value for money, not can-you-top this pricing. “In the past F&B was pricing done wrong,” said Ali Kasikci, founder and CEO, Bentley Management. “It was all about cost-driven pricing. Managers worked forward from the costs. Now it will be more price-driven, with managers working backward to bring costs back in line and see how they can make money from that point.” 

Likewise, hotels could leverage their buying power. “I’m asking for a 30% reduction in food costs from my suppliers,” says Sloan Dean, CEO & president, Remington Hotels.

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Contributed by Mary Scoviak

Hotels may need to re-evaluate whether it’s time to cut the cord. Upscale and even some luxury hotels may be rethinking the up- and downsides of dedicated restaurants. “We could see some higher-end hotels eliminating restaurants,” said Jon Bortz, chairman, president and CEO, Pebblebrook Hotel Trust.

COVID-19 may be the driver, but it’s not the sole cause. “People’s habits were already changing as online meal offers improved in quality and became easier to use,” he said. He sees hoteliers supporting that new reality by providing areas for curbside meal pickup for guests’ convenience.

Alfred Pisani, chairman, Corinthia Group, has a different perspective. “Not having had a chance to dine out, local residents and business people will frequent local restaurants as soon as they can,” he said, “and that will contribute in no small way to regaining much-needed lost confidence and a communal experience [not to mention growth in revenue].”

In the short term, dining out will be a different experience. Some options being explored include: requiring reservations to ensure compliance with governmental capacity maximums;

assigned meal times, with hard stops to allow for more extensive cleaning/sanitation and to better control capacity levels; reconfigured layouts to allow for social distancing for those dining together at tables and between tables; redesigns that include space for patrons to remain physically distanced while waiting for tables; hygienic dividers between tables; masks and gloves for servers and even on-table hand sanitizer.

Some of the more extreme solutions eliminate table service altogether. Patrons pick up even gourmet fare at a counter with a safety guard that keeps them a safe distance from masked/gloved employees who bring the food from the kitchen.

Another change: the move toward eliminating cash payments, says Andrea Kracht, owner, Baur au Lac, and chairman, The Leading Hotels of the World.

Sharing menus and chef’s tables could be things of the past. Cozy communal tables, small private dining rooms and family-style meal service no longer seem so appetizing. The focus is likely to shift to fare that is cooked to order, plated and served against a backdrop of optimal hygiene. In fact, some hoteliers haven’t ruled out repurposing empty function space as a new kind of restaurant with ample elbow room.

While creativity and quality won’t be compromised, aesthetics might. “The canton of Zurich (where Baur au Lac is located), already had strict hygiene laws. We had to have glass guards in certain areas,” said Kracht. “That doesn’t look good; it’s not luxury. But I’m seeing more measures like this around the world.”

Other precautions being taken by hotels across price categories range from online or disposable menus, wrapped, disposable cutlery and disposable containers for meals to single-use plates and glasses. Design is also being impacted as hoteliers with enough cap ex for renovation work with designers to incorporate antimicrobial elements and easy-to-sanitize surfaces before restaurants and bars reopen.

In-room, F&B may take a high-tech direction. “I expect we will see a rapid adoption of new technologies in the coming months, especially those focused on air purification, cleaning, sanitizing, reducing the number of people entering a guest room during a stay, food service delivery and more. Let’s just say, robots may finally get their big break,” says Chad Crandell, CEO and managing director, CHMWarnick.

However, at the luxury level, Martin Smura, CEO, Kempinski Hotels, views room service as more of a near-term expedient than a long-haul revenue solution.

“Unless the hotel has a large room count, room service is not a profit center,” he said. “Of course, at a time when restaurants are closed by government order, there are no other options. So, naturally, revenues go up. Is this a general trend? I doubt it. In-room dining is a necessity if you operate as a quality, 5-star hotel. But it’s just an option or a convenience. Human beings like to be close to each other; they want conversation.”

How many of these new F&B developments become reality depends on a number of factors, ranging from pure cost-to-revenue considerations to whether there is a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks. The consensus: Check back in about 12 months.