BITAC F&B Panel Focuses On Reigniting The Guest Experience
As the use of technology has accelerated in the wake of the pandemic and the hotel experience has been altered, hoteliers are increasingly seeking ways to reconnect with their guests and the dining experience may represent the best opportunity to do just that, according to executives at the recent BITAC Food & Beverage Live 2022.
Nick Bellini, chief sales & marketing officer, No Brick, LLC, moderated a panel entitled “Critical Connection: Is F&B The Touchpoint To Reignite The Guest Experience Amid Increased Automation?” during the event, which was held at Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor, FL.
Mark Weiss, SVP, food & beverage, Loews Hotels, maintained that the pandemic was “really a bitter pill to swallow for food and beverage, specifically.”
Weiss acknowledge the financial challenges faced by many hoteliers as he detailed the luxury brand’s focus on returning to the basics.
“For us it’s all about getting back to full strength and delivering the service aspect of the job, as well as delivering to the guest and bringing those experiences back. That’s a really tough tightrope to walk because you’re balancing profits, you’re balancing getting the hotel into the black or getting a hotel out of a lock box and dealing with debt service. So you have so many responsibilities in that journey, but I think the ultimate goal is bring back those services and experiences for the guest,” he said.
John Speers, VP, operations, Salamander Hotels & Resorts—which operates Innisbrook, as well as handful of other luxury resorts—emphasized the importance of the people delivering the service.
“When we came out of COVID training was the first thing I focused on saying ‘we have to get beyond the protocols’ because they became so regimented. We’re in the business of creating memories and human connection and so we started training that right from the beginning. Have the protocols run like software in the back where you don’t even think about it, it just happens and let’s remember even with a mask on our face that we are still engaging. They’ve got to see the smile through your eyes. We’re still anticipatory. While we might not be able to hug people and we might be six feet away, we’re still greeting people with open arms and that was our approach,” he said.
Stephen Kilroy, SVP, hospitality & marketing, Connell Hospitality—a New Jersey-based, family run company with a variety of assets—talked about how the nascent company pivoted.
“We really took the approach of being more innovative with designing our spaces. We had a lot of outdoor spaces and parks, and outdoor dining areas, but we wanted to be able to put a lid on them. So we’re working with a group that has a really cool shade structure that has louvers that open and sides that drop so that we can create a better outdoor dining experience. We’re thinking maybe this [COVID] doesn’t go away, but we also realize that people really enjoy dining outdoors and it’s working, it’s bringing a lot of people back. So we’re incorporating it into our designs for future expansion,” he said.
Speers, meanwhile, acknowledged the role of technology, but he emphasized it only represents part of the experience.
“We’ve spent years cultivating loyalty and connection and meaningful conversation with our customer base and I don’t necessarily want to be completely removed from all that. While technology is important from an efficiency standpoint and so forth, people don’t want to lose that human connection. In food and beverage, we’re the gathering place, that’s where people come to laugh and share ideas or maybe mourn. They want to be together and be energized and be inspired. So it’s nice to see it come back in full force,” he noted.
Weiss, however, further touted the evolution of technology, particularly behind the scenes.
“I think all this technology is settling and it’s finding its way into our systems quite easily. We’ll be able to pull data from it and that’s going to lead to decisions. I think the next big evolution, if you really look forward, is truly robotics and automation. It’s not necessarily from a front-of-house perspective, but really when it comes to the kitchen, food prep, machinery robotics, and three-meal lines that can execute on plates in a timely matter. It’s just a matter of time before that finds its way into a hotel,” he asserted.
When it comes to guest-facing technology, the consensus from the panelists was that there is a diverse range of guests, and what is offered remains a bit of a balancing act.
“I think people are eager and ready to get a menu again. If they want to pay through the app, great then pay through the app. Or if you want to access the menu through your phone, and make choices great, have it available. I think it’s creeping into our organizations whether we like it or not,” said Speers.
Kilroy insisted there are plenty of applications and venues for advanced technology, but that the restaurant should remain a bit of different experience.
“I don’t want them to come over and tell me to swipe my card in front of the guests. There’s an elegance to going out, even if it’s an upper casual restaurant. I think the lines need to be drawn, everybody needs to figure out how they can take advantage of this, but where we still have to create this atmosphere of elegance and an approach, as well as humanity,” he concluded.