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Does Your F&B Operation Amplify or Detract From Your Brand?

Photo: Dustin Leader for Segovia Tapas Bar and Restaurant

By LAURENCE BERNSTEIN, Managing Partner, Protean Strategies

At the end of the day there are three main areas in which the hotel has an opportunity to trigger meaningful and memorable brand experience; service (especially the arrival/departure experience), physicality (especially the guest room experience) or tactile (especially the food and beverage experience). Yet many hotels pay little or no attention to the F&B operation as a brand amplifier. In fact, increasingly hotels are giving up on F&B and outsourcing the foodservice operation in one way or another. This article discusses how to develop experiential operationalization programs for F&B that leverage and amplify the brand at the same time.

Brand, Brand, Brand: Doesn't Anybody Break the Eggs, Anymore?
It seems the only thing anybody talks about these day is "brand." And not just the marketers, but everybody: housekeeping directors talk about the brand; rooms division directors talk about the service being on-brand; maintenance directors talk about keeping the facility running smoothly to reinforce the brand. Of course, social media and digital marketing directors never shut-up about the brand. Managers talk about the brand; regional managers talk about nothing else; owners obsess about brand. Brands only ever think of brands.
Being on Trend is Brand Destroying
The only people who don't seem to obsess about "brand" are the F&B leaders who cheerfully believe that whatever they offer the customers, if it's good, or great, or healthy, or whatever, will work. It's not often that the chef contemplates whether the items on the menu are on-brand. There is always the driving need to be "on trend", which is obviously a good thing, and which results in hotel restaurants focusing on local foods, or health or raw or salads or small dishes. But being on trend is not being on brand - in fact, being on trend is brand destroying because, in it's simplest form, it's what everybody else is doing ("trend" - get it?) and therefore not differentiating.
The reason for F&B's lack of brand focus is based on the perceptions that the hotel brand is for hotel guests, and probably not of much interest to the local community, and the empirically proven fact that hotel restaurants cannot survive on hotel guests alone. Therefore, it is incumbent on the restaurant managers to do everything possible to attract local customers, which precludes focusing on the hotel brand; it is not a stretch to say that the brand image of most hotels is not an attractive alternative to locals seeking a dining experience.
Many hotels solved this by outsourcing the restaurant. In fact, this became so popular in the 1980s that it spawned an entire category of hotels (limited service); and is so popular now that it is supporting an entire generation of star chefs.
But, while this approach may result in predictable cash flow for the outlets, it does very little for the hotel or the hotel guests. The final proof of this, of course, is the fact that Nobu has totally usurped the brands of the hotels in which they have restaurants to the point where they now have Nobu branded guest rooms in a hotel. Great for Nobu, sort of good for hotel owners, not great for management companies and disastrous for the hotel itself (brand-wise).
Hotels as Shopping Malls
The current trend in fashion and other department stores is "brand distinction," where individual brands occupy their own space, designed to reflect the fashion brand itself (but within the overall context of the store brand - an important imperative) and merchandising items that appeal to the target market of the store. The store itself becomes, in effect, a shell in which a whole lot of mini-stores are located, giving the shopper a variety of different shopping experience alternatives. The critical point in a well structured department store, is that the overall experience reflects the positioning of the store brand…not the individual brands that have a presence in the store. Every department, every mini-store is controlled by the department store and contributes directly to the store brand.
Sort of like a shopping mall?
Yes and no - while shopping malls are also shells in which individual brands occupy their own space (increasingly the same brands that are present in department stores), the individual stores are not designed within any overall brand, and hence the mall itself is just a mall. It might have a vague position (fashion mall, high end mall, discount mall) based on the kinds of stores in the mall; but other than that, the mix of stores does not support the mall brand (which may be why malls don't actually have brands).
Is Your Hotel a Department Store or a Mall?
Traditionally hotels have been more like department stores, where each department supported the hotel brand (for better or worse and with more or less success). However, this paradigm is changing.
The mega properties in Las Vegas are more like malls - they are built as malls and operate very successfully as such. This is why the leased restaurant system works so profitably: the restaurant owners are not required to support the hotel brand because, other than as a mega-mall, the hotel has no brand. Caesars Palace, for instance, is not a brand; it is the sum of the huge variety of individual, unrelated, experiences available in the physical structure. And this is why a concept such as Nobu's hotel within a hotel works so well.
But for most hotels this may not be such a good idea. Without the vast range of offerings that a Caesars can offer, a hotel needs to be a strong brand in and of itself. Splitting that brand with a third party restaurant might destroy the hotels ability to build its own brand.
Building a Hotel Brand
Without belabouring the point, hotel brands are the sum of the experiences before, during and after the hotel visit. And unlike consumer brands like Coke, hotels just do not have the resources to build their brand through advertising and marketing communications (and, no, social media does not build brands!!). Hotel brands are built by experiencing the hotel either through the service (especially the arrival/departure experience), or the physicality (especially the guest room experience) or the tactile (especially the food and beverage experience).
Looking at it this way, there are not a lot of opportunities to trigger the brand experience among hotel guests (or local community). Take one of them away, and there is even less opportunity. Take a moment to reflect on what is actually happening in the industry: the arrival departure experience is being commoditized by self-serve apps; rooms are generally commoditized with little differentiation. Which leaves…yes, food and beverage!
Does Your F&B Offering Build Your Brand?
As discussed above, very likely the answer to this question is no. It may be outstanding and it may be on trend (in which case it builds the trend brand0; it may be super trendy with a star chef, in which case it probably builds the chef's brand or the restaurant brand.
Quickly: name the hotel in which "Gordon Ramsey Steak" restaurant is located in Vegas is. Or "Cut by Wolfgang Puck" in Beverley Hills.
And while these two hotels arguably don't need to build their brand (Paris hotel and Beverley Wilshire), chances are the hotel that houses USA's number 1 Best Hotel Restaurant does (the restaurant is "Southern Art" and your challenge is to find out where it is!).
How to Ensure Your F&B Supports and Amplifies Your Hotel Brand
For a start, you need to have a clearly defined, experientially based brand for the hotel. Which you no doubt do. And let's say, for the sake of argument, the brand is something like: the place where Littletown meets the world and the world meets Littletown.
This is an easy brand to operationalize - the front desk associates are trained that they are the face of Littletown and welcome guests not just to the hotel but also to the city; guest rooms are stocked with local products as amenities and on arrival each guest received a welcome gift of a local specialty chocolate. There may be classic pictures of the city and the hotel in the city on the walls. You get the picture (so to speak). The room service menu focusses on local Littletown comfort food.
But what about the restaurants. Lets say, again for the sake of argument, that you have decided to hire your own chef and run the restaurant yourself. You need local community business to make a profit. At the same time, you want hotel guests to dine in the hotel. You need to integrate the idea of local (to appeal to hotel guests) with cosmopolitan (to appeal to the local community). Your chef creates a menu based on cosmopolitan interpretations of local favorites or local interpretations of classic dishes. But most importantly, you merchandise this fusion in the menu, in the restaurant name, in the web site and at every touchpoint. The servers are trained to emphasize the local content to out of town guests and to ensure a cosmopolitan experience for local guests.
You did this by talking to your hotel guests and understanding what they were looking for when visiting your town and not staying at the Hilton or Marriott; talking to local community leaders and trend setters; and then building an operationalized brand based on this input.
But the Owners Want More
Or less. The asset manager insists that the restaurant be outsourced because he is a real estate guy and understands leasing! How can you ensure that the new restaurant tenants support the hotel brand and not their own brand? It's a problem - the person leasing the restaurant in all probability has a definite idea of what he or she can do best, and what will be most successful in the location. She has the ear of the asset manager because the owner is interested in maximizing revenue from the space.
The answer is to try to ensure a reasonable amount of control (I was recently at one of the most exclusive hotels in Toronto and the leased restaurant was handing out tacky brochures promoting the operator's other restaurants and take-out!). More importantly, you need to build a positive, symbiotic relationship with the operator immediately, and try to build a concept that works for both. This can usually happen if both parties are honestly interested in a mutually beneficial outcome. If the operator is not interested, then you're probably better off moving to another city! If the owner is determined to bring in a name brand restaurant or chef from another city (e.g. a famous New York restaurateur or franchise) there is not much you can do to ensure the restaurant supports the hotel brand, but you must do your best to ensure that the restaurant name is closely associated with the hotel name at all touchpoints.
Bottom Line
The F&B operations in a hotel are the most powerful touchpoint to amplify the brand experience. It is easy to lose sight of this and focus on a small, short term revenue bonus from leasing or getting a franchise operator; but the costs in terms of long term brand development for the hotel are high.

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