From buffets, to welcome drinks, overly standardized offerings and no sense of space utilization, hotel restaurant and bar design remains a highly institutionalized vanilla-flavored train wreck. You can already tell how the story is going to play out, when you premise that hotel operators lump what should be brand opportunities into a sorry, sad basket called outlets.
I’m a hotelier by trade, but am man enough to know how we get things wrong and it’s time to change. Let’s start at the beginning of the disaster about to happen, as the hotel technical service group and others issue out an area program, brand standards and outlet concepts. The disconnect starts here as those doing the work will unlikely ever be involved in the actual operation, have little direct market knowledge nor have a financial stake in the hotel aside from being an employee of a greater entity. Bingo, the recipe for disaster starts here.
I often draw the comparison between freestanding restaurants and bars, who in many cases pay rent and as such look to invest in what their customers feel, see or pay for, versus non-revenue generating space. Essentially, they look at real estate yields, while hotels have their own behemoth metrics of RevPar, GOP, NOI etc. No apples to apples here and that’s a problem.
So, of course hotel owners end up developing massive cavernous back of house areas, kitchens, offices, bulk storage areas that drive up their investment under the doctrine of brand standards versus financial sense or returns. Go into a freestanding restaurant and see the chef in an off-meal period sitting at a table doing their paperwork or the manager doing the same. Hotel operators seemingly didn’t get the memo about hot desks and love the cocoon in the back of house which is as remote an outpost from customers as say, North Korea.
Go next into the hierarchy or bureaucracy of a food and beverage department versus again bars and restaurants. Direct accountability, massive infrastructure and again the focus on the bigger machine versus the customers. All of this is simply set up to fail and one of the key accelerating trends of Covid-19 is that hotel outlets will suffer from considerably lower numbers, and cannot hide under the larger hotel profit and loss statement. Their day of accountability has come.
Over the past few years on a number of hotel projects I have advised on I have recommend separating bar and restaurant designers from rooms and public areas. The entire concept of a certain look for a hotel across all the areas has gone the way of the Titanic. It has sunk to the bottom in no uncertain terms. The smartphone changed hotels forever from budget to luxury travels as everyone knows what’s outside on offer in every possible eating of drinking niche. You need specialists, best in class designers and concept, not a bland one size fits all approach.
Flexible space is another problem especially in resorts where breakfast can be full to the brim and the restaurant then mimics Zombieland the rest of the day and night. If you were paying rent for this space like a freestanding bar or restaurant you’d never even consider this model, so why is it hotel operators expect owners to deliver the massive white elephant of an all-day dining outlet that is a one-trick pony? Instead, these days I look to tell clients to deconstruct spaces, they can shift use for lunch or dinner and alternate uses. Learn from retail, where space planning can be so much more flexible.
Another missed opportunity is the lifecycle of hotel outlets that can only change every four or five years. In retail, you can change space by the time of day, season or special periods. There is space to be creative on a recurring basis and not just rely on a one time design that can and will grow boring and redundant. Again, hotels give little regard for the customer experience that offers so little imagination toward ambience, atmosphere or special occasions. Wonder why Uber Eat or FoodPanda now rule the space?
There are truly so many more examples of how hotels do little service for their owners or fail as restaurants and bars that my rant really has to wrap up or it will be as redundant as hotel outlets have become. In symbolic terms, the sheer silliness of hotels putting their brands on nametags into places of eating and drinking makes me think I’m at a McDonalds. Which, if I want cheap eats after some hard drinking is not bad thing, but if you want more, expect every little detail, every little space to matter more than it does now.
During this ongoing crisis and times to follow hotel eating and dining has to change or else it is as doomed as the Titanic. Now is the time to man the torpedos and change the thinking behind what’s important and what’s not.
Let me tell you a story. Growing up in what is now becoming a distant memory, but one key omission from my adolescence is that we did not have the internet. It did not exist. As a boy, my best set of friends would gather and talk in the schoolyard about what we had watched on television the night before. It ended up being a form of collective trending in an age before twitter hashtags.
As there were just three major TV networks to choose from, the options were rather limited. Today, there is no niche too small, no fetish left unturned or wiki too wacky. My mind spins out just trying to say that last line. Anyway, choice is everywhere, except sadly the hotel business did not get the memo.
My mood today is somewhat one of a pent-up agitated soul who needs to rant, roll and stomp out of the room in near violent disarray. Someone misplaced the door so I can’t even properly slam it. At the root of my current neurosis, sitting on two plates in a nameless hotel somewhere out there is a croissant and a club sandwich. Seemingly innocent fare you might think, but let’s turn the page and jump over to the dark side.
Despite hoteldom these days packaging themselves in shabby chic, slightly rustic new clothes, that shout about being local, authentic, experiential and part of the neighborhood, the reality is they treat their guests like idiots. Take out a menu in most hotels and yes, you will indeed find the two C’s at certain times of the day – the breakfast croissant and later in the day the club sandwich. These are two staple hotel food items but what they represent is malevolent worship of what have become food factories. Back of the house, shelves are stacked with institutional dried food or giant tins of liquid goo. Kitchens resemble factory lines. It’s ugly, tasteless and makes absolutely no sense. Choice went out the back door and never came back.
Fast forward into the present movement of farm-to-table hotels. Yes, I’m not quite sure what term best to use as a buzz saw grinds in the back of my head, be it food-to-fork, or plant-to-plate. What this exciting space acknowledges is that every hotel menu does not have to sport the same items. Be it by the season, location, culture or day of the week, foods can come and go. The menu is not something you print by the year, but by the day or by the meal.
I’ve recently been consulting on a farm-to-food resort hotel and was stressing over a huge back of house bakery that of course included machinery for making croissants. Suddenly, the heavens parted and the realization came to convert the pizza making wood fired oven into a morning bakery. Fresh breads, local-styles rolls, after all who needs croissants? Anyone who has met me understands I am a man of a somewhat largish size and indeed love a good French style croissant, but the drastic plastic deflated miniature footballs you find at a Marriott or Hilton breakie buffet is something I can live without.
The same can be said for a club sandwich. Again, when well done it’s a thing of beauty or else totally necessary with a 3 am call to room service to soak up a late night bender. But again, why can’t hotels simply use local ingredients, create their own menu and not try to mass produce the same menu time and time again in a nasty rendition of Groundhog Day. If it’s fresh, or local, I’m in.
Today, we are seeing a brave new world of farm-to-table hotels not relying on imported or shipped from far food items, but sourcing close to home. Acting sustainably and buying from smaller suppliers. The underlying connection back to the earth from where the food is coming from and the ultimate product is astonishing. It is giving diners the chance to appreciate the craft of cooking.
While it’s unlikely that many large hotels will join the revolution and celebrate the culture of individualism in food, the current crisis and reduced numbers certainly gives the industry an opportunity to view what a better model this could be going forward. Farm-to-table hotels are indeed here to stay and given a choice of a croissant, a club sandwich or a menu that changes each time I’m there, well the latter wins hands down.
It’s been said that farming is a profession of hope and I’m hopeful more hotels start understanding their customers can think for themselves and actually choose a unique menu item instead of a croissant or club sandwich.