Forget the Rubber Chicken Dinners: Hotel Catering is Now More Innovative than Ever
Crowne Plaza White Plains, New York
When you used to think of catering in the hotel industry, you didn’t necessarily get excited. After all, it has always been a challenge to create exciting and festive dishes for large meeting groups. But, all that has dramatically changed and will continue to evolve in the future, as innovative ways of preparing and presenting food keep emerging. And, this emphasis on creative catering will ultimately result in higher F&B revenues and more satisfied clients.
"It's important to really customize the experience for a meeting group, to look at what they are wanting to do and provide something different and special that meets their needs and wants," said Monika Henry, general manager of the 402-room Crowne Plaza Hotel White Plains, New York, which derives 30 percent of its business from groups.
Meeting groups are looking to do functions and events more and more in different kinds of space, such as poolside, Henry noted. "They want hotels to be innovative and clever in their space planning and provide more of an oasis for them; we will see this happening more and more in the future."
For instance, one of the new spaces the hotel plans to turn into a function area next year is the rooftop of its parking garage.
Meetings groups also want a hotel to provide more of a variety of new and interesting food items and food experiences - well beyond what is typically seen, Henry added. Some of food stations that the Crowne Plaza has created for groups include a fresh mozzarella station with an attendant stretching cheese, boiling and serving it; a lobster fritter station, with a mixed batter and lobster to fry onsite during an event; and a house-made ice cream station with ice cream spun right at the buffet table and served with mini cones and an assortment of toppings.
Innovative ways of presenting food, which has traditionally been difficult to do at buffets, are also emerging and being used more frequently in hotel group business, said Steve Goodman, Goodman, founder and managing partner at Meeting Advice, an Atlanta full-service meetings and event management company. For instance, Goodman worked with an Atlanta hotel for a 200-person event that featured a giant salad bar divided among six tables for a buffet lunch. One table offered attendees a choice of different types of lettuce, another featured a table with nothing but various breads, another had all kinds of dressings, another had various meats, and so on.
"This was such a creative way of presenting a salad bar, allowing for so many choices in an unusual format. It really stuck out in my mind," Goodman noted.
Along with the creative food choices is a growing trend that will continue into the future: innovative seating at group events. Instead of seeing 60-72-inch banquet tables, hotels are experimenting now with more seating that is more comfortable and has more of a "boutique" feel.
"You are seeing smaller cocktail tables mixed with sofa-type seating, for instance," Goodman added.
In addition to the way the food is prepared, how it is presented and how quickly rooms and tables are turned over for the next event are also very critical to having successful group events. For instance, one of the biggest time-consuming and costly aspects, labor-wise, of group business is setting up tables. The 1,200-room Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile Chicago started using special linen-less tables this year, said James Samson, director of F&B. No tablecloths or table skirts are needed for these setups. The cost savings of doing this is a whopping $60,000-$80,000 a year for this property, which has 80,000 square feet of meeting space.
In addition, this reduces liability to the hotel. "You don't have to worry about someone tripping over a tablecloth or throwing their back out setting up a table," Samson noted.