The future of hotel food and beverage

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This was just one of the questions under discussion at a recent lively HMA Panel discussion about food and beverage marketing held at the Intercontinental London Westminster Hotel.

The panel of three speakers - Simon Wright, TGP Consulting; Giles Gibbons, the Sustainable Restaurant Association and Rosie Akenhead of Yelp UK; discussed a number of issues and challenges that marketers faced in the increasingly competitive world of restaurants and food service, and whether there is still a stigma surrounding restaurants and food outlets in hotels.

Giles Gibbons commented: "I think there is still a stigma about restaurants in hotels but it is better than it was." He explained however that some of the blame could be laid at the door of hotel marketers who came up with a restaurant first and a concept second, when it should be the other way round. "A concept needs to come through people and be authentic," he said. He cited The Pig Hotel in the New Forest as being a good example of how the food exhibited the values of the hotel and 'felt real'. Similarly the Blue Boar Smokehouse in London's Westminster had successfully identified a local theme to carry through the restaurant.

Chairing the panel, Ed Purnell, Intercontinental Hotels, asked how in the increasingly influential arena of online reviews a hotelier or restaurateur could distinguish between 'blaggers' and bloggers. "What should you do when someone rings up and asks if they can come and review your restaurant?" he said.

"It is very unlikely that a blogger will ever do this", said Rosie Akenhead. Genuine reviewers preferred the 'secret agent' approach and would review undercover, posting their comments after a visit. She said companies like Yelp recognised their responsibility to protect businesses and the consumer by filtering reviews on an ongoing basis. With the huge amount of reviews posted online "it's all about social engagement - has the online review taken over from the restaurant critic?" Akenhead asked. The general consensus was that diners are more knowledgeable and influenced by (engaging with) a much wider spectrum of information to refine their choice.

The panel was also quizzed about the strategic value of placing offers with online 'flash sale' booking agencies to fill restaurants in quiet periods.

"If a hotel is only 50% occupied, nobody knows - if diners find a restaurant is empty, it's a killer" said Simon Wright. "Marketers need to think about whether an offer is simply to drive money or to drive atmosphere in a restaurant. What's the strategy? Is it for the long term or simply based around panic. A short term approach is not the way to go, particularly when it's low margin business after there's been a 20% payment to the sales driver" he added.

Giles Gibbons described such offers as 'marketers heroin.' "When they get to the end of the year and they realise they have made no margin at all, they have to put it down. The question they have to ask themselves is whether that person who has got the deal is going to come back," he added.

The panel was asked for their views on whether the phrase 'seasonal British produce' had become a cliché and whether sustainability was a key decision maker for the consumer choosing a dining option.

"We find the most used phrase when people search Yelp on line, is customer service," said Rosie Akenhead.

"When we are recruiting chefs, sustainability is unlikely to be top of the list in terms of the qualities that we are looking for. It is more about the chef who has a passion for what they are going to do," said Simon Wright.

"Sustainability does not make a good restaurant. A good restaurant that is sustainable is a great restaurant," said Giles Gibbon.

After a closing question and answer with the audience that highlighted the growing urban hotel trend of not necessarily offering food and beverage in one's boutique hotel eg. The Nadler Soho, if the restaurant offering is so strong in the surrounding area. And the recent removal of room service to a 'grab and go' concept or similar in some mid market hotels, there was a lot for attendees to ponder over drinks after the session finished.

Here are some other tips from the panelists:

·      Make sure your hotel restaurant has a good enough profile on line and is not buried within your main website

·      Always respond to reviews posted on line whether they are positive or negative

·      Customer service does not end when a diner leaves the restaurant, do not forget the power of social media

·      Do not compare restaurant critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren with 'citizen' reviewers, they both have a role to play

·      Design your concept around the local market and people will visit

·      Think about creating a pop-up restaurant, it is a good way of testing the market and attracting interest and publicity.

- Consider (profitable) seats at the restaurant table to be as important as heads on beds. 

- There's a different skillset required to manage a hotel, and run a successful restaurant.

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