F&B Drives Hospitality and Human Interaction in the Digital Age

By Adrian Kurre, Global Head, Homewood Suites & Home2 Suites by Hilton

Many hotel guests enthusiastically book rooms online, bypass a front desk check-in with their digital room key, and choose to receive their bill via e-mail in an effort to streamline and control their own experience - and at Hilton we support (and have led the charge on!) many of these innovations. At the same time, human interaction remains the crux of hospitality. And hospitality is, after all, a main driver of guest satisfaction and repeat business in our industry.

Year after year the J.D. Power North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index StudySM has shown that the number of interactions guests have with hotel staff has a direct impact on how they rate customer service, even when mistakes are made during their stay. How can we continue offering the cutting-edge technology and the control that comes with it that our guests love, while not losing sight of the basic human need to feel acknowledged and welcome? I'll summarize it in three words - Food and Beverage (F&B).

Kurt Vonnegut's Predictions Ring True Today
One of the most influential things I've read in my life, a novel even more relevant in this digital age, is Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. Written in 1952, it describes a future where machines conduct all business transactions and perform all jobs, with the notable exception of bartending. More than 60 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut recognized the importance of human interaction in hospitality. Future humans did not want a machine to deliver their cocktails with cold precision.
Now, fast forward to today's digital world where technology streamlines many of our transactions. We make bank deposits, check home security and book hotel rooms on our smartphones. However, humans are always going to want the person-to-person relationship during a hotel stay, especially when staying for extended periods. This fact elevates the importance of F&B hospitality - a trend I expect to grow even more in the future.

F&B is Key to Hospitality
I started my career in hospitality focusing on F&B, first working for Stuart Anderson's Restaurants and then as regional director of F&B for Courtyard by Marriott, and I have always placed a high value on a hotel brand's delivery of F&B offerings. But this is even more true today because F&B remains an essential way to provide hospitality and humanity in the digital hotel age. And while this applies to all industry segments, it's especially true in the extended stay space. As Global head of Hilton's extended stay hotels, Homewood Suites by Hilton and Home2 Suites by Hilton, which have a focused set of services, I know how important it is to maximize the customer touch points we do have.

Just consider our breakfast. More than 80 percent of our guests at Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites join us every day for our complimentary breakfast. It's one of just two F&B offerings at Homewood Suites, and the only complimentary meal we offer at Home2 Suites, so we need to nail it.
The three pillars of exceptional F&B guest experience are simple yet essential: Team Members greeting guests at breakfast with a smile and a warm attitude, serving hot food hot and serving cold food cold. And if you get these three fundamentals right, you're already 90 percent better than most!
We are also focused on being sensitive to how much interaction individual guests might want. For example, business travelers on their fifth day at one of our extended stay properties might be missing their homes and families, and often welcome quick conversations with Team Members over breakfast. Other travelers will be on their smartphones or otherwise occupied as they eat, so a simple nod of acknowledgment from our Team Members is sufficient. This small interaction lets our guests know we're nearby if they need anything.

Standing Out From the Competition
Our research backs this up. We know, for example, that the second most important factor influencing our customers' decision to stay at Homewood Suites or Home2 Suites is the included breakfast (after a bed to sleep in while traveling). Done right, breakfast can have a significant impact on guest satisfaction, repeat business and overall profits. Staying at the forefront of guest F&B preferences and continuously updating what and how we present breakfast to our guests remains essential.
For owners of our extended stay properties, the goal is to drive profits. It's about revenue, loyalty and profitability. But that doesn't mean you can't continuously update the options. Again, tastes and preferences change over time, so it's important to get direct feedback from hotel guests and conduct additional research. It is tough in a complimentary breakfast service to truly differentiate yourself. In this environment, every hotel seems to offer oatmeal, an egg sandwich or other egg product, yogurt, coffee and tea. But hotels can stand out in terms of service, hospitality and food presentation.
In fact, presentation is everything. Breakfast is an opportunity to make a great first impression at the start of each new day. The color scheme, the arrangement of the furniture and the appearance of the food are essential. People will judge the appearance of the buffet before they take the first bite. And of course, everything has to be spotlessly clean.
How do we know if what we're offering is meeting the mark? Talking with guests - a benefit of having Team Members engaging people informally over breakfast - keeps us up-to-date on evolving tastes and the next major trend in breakfast options. We also monitor guests' preferences and customer feedback via social media. It's worth the effort to stay ahead of these shifts in demand to delight guests and continue to build brand loyalty.
The food that guests leave on their plates is another form of unsolicited but valuable feedback. Our Team Members generally know when an F&B item is not meeting everyone's expectations - it becomes obvious over time by just looking in the trash. We consider this an important way to monitor guest preferences and rely on our Team Members to provide it.

Embrace an Update When Necessary
Although we continuously monitor F&B trends, we're also in the midst of a major breakfast update. Unlike many restaurants that change regularly, the hotel industry does not always update food, beverage and the overall environment as often as they should. Homewood Suites went through a significant F&B revamp in 2010, and just last year made additional updates. (We believe both of these initiatives have been key factors in Homewood Suites being Named Top Upscale Extended Stay Hotel by J.D. Power and Associates over the last six years - 12 times overall.)
After about five years of a fairly consistent F&B offering at Home2 Suites, we are reevaluating what we offer and have identified some aspects we would like to change. Changes we hope will help Home2 Suites mimic Homewood Suites' award-winning pedigree, now that the brand is eligible for J.D. Power and Associates and other top industry awards.

Throughout this update process, we plan to remain true to the effective strategies that keep guests delighted while also ensuring hotel owners' profitability. For instance, we will keep and improve upon Home2's Inspired Table, a guest favorite that proves particularly appealing to customers who are accustomed to the digital age where everyone wants to control and customize their experiences.

You Can't Download Hospitality
Digital technology will continue to take over and streamline the many transactional processes associated with booking and staying at a hotel. But it can go too far as well. Some restaurants at major airports now offer the menu and ordering via a tablet poised in front of each seat. Guests can order quickly and request their food and drink according to individual preferences. This greater convenience, however, comes at the cost of a personal greeting from a Team Member at a restaurant. For many people, their first interaction with a Team Member comes when someone leaves the kitchen to deliver food to their table.

I believe that, in the hotel industry, we must remain cautious about overusing technology and automation, because person-to-person hospitality can make or break a guest's experience. Digital transactions are here to stay, so the humanity intrinsic to F&B will only grow in importance. F&B trends and offerings will remain a major opportunity for hotel executives and owners to deliver an exceptional and essential experience to guests. This emphasis on hospitality also differentiates companies like Hilton from other lodging options, like online apartment rentals, which don't provide the service and hospitality offered by our hotels.

If Kurt Vonnegut is right in his predictions, as our lives are increasingly digitized, the interconnection of people will become even more vital. At Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites, we'll continue to facilitate that essential human interaction throughout our hotels, but especially with successful and personal F&B offerings. That generous and friendly interaction is what guests expect at all of our properties because it is at the core of our business. We are Hilton. We are Hospitality.
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