Relaxation, fun drive group events

The Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort livens up events with margarita mix-offs and guacamole challenges. (a woman making margaritas at a table)

Riffing off of its coastal setting, Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, open since the fall of 2015 in South Florida, throws beach parties in its 30,000 square feet of meeting space, weaving in tropical music, drinks and décor.

“At Margaritaville, they want to take off their shoes and have a good time,” said director of food and beverage Andres Teran. “It’s a beachfront resort. Margaritaville is associated with fun and escapism. We have definitely played off of that.”

Every decision—propertywide—is made under the auspices of founder Jimmy Buffett, who channels island living with songs about margaritas, flip-flops and sunsets. From the minute guests walk through the front door, “it really transports you to that state of mind,” Teran said. This playful theme also extends to the food, which features eats like tiny burgers, fish tacos and jambalaya, as if it’s a beachfront shack serving through a window instead of a full-service resort. The “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” flight—named for the Buffett song and Key West restaurant—is a popular choice from the banquets menu. There’s an intentional mission to source food and drinks for catering and banquets from menus at the resort’s eight venues, including Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and LandShark Bar & Grill. “It’s really a way to cross market,” said Teran, with the hope that locals might make a dinner reservation on a return visit.

Instead of navigating a rope course or an escape room, teams of employees can bond over a margarita-making class called Margarita Mix Off. (There’s also a guacamole challenge.) Resort bartenders are the coaches. “We become the judges on the drinks and provide feedback,” Teran said. Events include a food buffet that participants—typically a group of between six and eight people—can graze on during their mixology sessions. Stepping outside of the office to participate in this fun activity, which can be an add-on to a meeting or company event, often results in a new level of trust and cooperation, Teran said.

That casual, fun vibe isn’t resigned to South Florida. A 1,600-square-foot space at Curadero (called Arriba) debuted at Hotel Palomar San Diego—part of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants—in February, designed to compete with local caterers. Its first-floor spot with vintage arcade games and pool tables boasts high visibility. A taco window serves up fish tacos for a whimsical effect; catering menus are solely Mexican coastal. “It’s a fun environment—lots of bright colors,” said Drew Parker, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “We’re selling the space for a lot of evening receptions. San Diego, in general, is a more casual city. People don’t want that buttoned-up, ‘wearing a name tag’ type of space.” It’s proven to be a popular break-out spot for groups using other areas of the hotel. “We’ve taken it to the next level with this space. Mexican works really well here. If you’re coming to San Diego, you want a good fish taco,” Parker said.

“We’re really looking at custom tailoring of our menus,” said Jeffrey Hess, general manager of The Westin Milwaukee, which opened in June. Among his first big tests was a retirement party with a ’70s-throwback theme—right on down to the food. “We brought some of those comfort foods from that time forward, with a modern twist,” said Hess, including the meatloaf staple, adorned with creative sauces while still honoring the theme.

Westin Denver International Airport

Are airport hotels finally a hot meeting spot?

With the city center an astonishing 25 miles away, the food-and-beverage team at The Westin Denver International Airport wondered how on earth they would ever entice catering and banquet business. Being attached to the airport is a boon for travelers with early flights or who miss their connections, but could it really be a sought-after meeting spot, too?

However, when the property opened in late 2015, and after opening-fever buzz slipped away, director of event management Nick Davies was in for a surprise. “Airport hotels are usually stagnant,” he said. But by shrinking the booking window for groups to just 30 days, all of a sudden the event calendar was nearly full. Sixty-six percent of the hotel’s catering business was being booked only 30 days out. There are 19 event spaces in The Westin Denver International Airport. Due to the middle-of-the-country locale and convenient access to flights, and the fact that Denver is a major hub city, groups found they could host a meeting for less than 72 hours, including travel time. “Most of our business is fly-in and fly-out,” said Davies.

More tweaking and fine-tuning continues for Davies and his team. “We’ve started to restructure more with a daily menu (for lunch),” he said, doing away with complicated, ever-changing choices that were bogging down planners who wanted everything to be convenient—not just the location. “It’s more cost-effective for the hotel as it reduces our labor costs. We’re only producing one menu. We make it easy and that’s the whole point.” Each day the lunch table menu shifts to a new theme with set choices. One example of a themed menu is Rocky Mountain BBQ, featuring three entrees (ancho-roasted whole chicken, smoked brisket and sweet-hot rib tips), three salads, two hot sides and—for dessert—buttermilk pie and s’mores dip.

A year ago, a light-rail line that connects the airport to downtown Denver opened, which could further cement the property as a meeting destination.

London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills

Catering to special diets

London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills never set out to be a vegan caterer. When a regular guest, the head of a high-end cosmetics company, inquired about hosting a meeting at the West Hollywood, Calif., hotel, staff found themselves in a quandary. Sure, they wanted the business. But how would they conceptualize four days of meat- and dairy-free menus without compromising on quality and elegance?

“The chef rose to the occasion and created these beautiful menus” with breakfast and lunch menus, plus snacks for breaks, said Douglas Hoagland, director of catering and special events. “The menu was a highlight [for the meeting]. Food does drive the business.” It also turned out to be that special offering to set the hotel apart from its competitors. Companies started to book the hotel just for its custom vegan breakfast and custom vegan lunch menus, enticed by inclusions like tortilla jalapeno soup and miso-marinated tofu with udon noodles and coconut curry or, for breakfast, vegan avocado toast with assorted fruits, smoothies and pressed juices.

There are also enough people in the region on a strict vegan diet to meet the demand. “We’re in L.A. Everyone has a special diet,” said Hoagland, who quickly realized this niche could fill a hole in L.A.’s meeting space. “Our market is a tad bit different. What we’re challenged for is that companies always want something new and different.” Because the hotel is not affiliated with a brand, meeting these desires didn’t require too much extra energy from staff. They simply ran with it.

“The key is flexibility. Nobody wants a set menu. They like a creative twist that relates to the company,” Hoagland said. Getting to what the client wants is the biggest challenge, he said, a hurdle that is almost always labor-intensive: “It takes a lot of questioning and examples.” Has Hoagland seen a cutback in event spending? Not really, he said, especially for product-launch events at the hotel. “Money is flowing for that market, so to speak,” said Hoagland, despite reductions in spending for holiday parties or client-appreciation events. As for that cosmetic company, it now hosts quarterly meetings at the hotel.

Unveiling a wellness-oriented menu has also helped The Westin Milwaukee capture business since it opened in June. “There’s certainly been a trend towards healthier dining and snacks to make sure people feel energized, refreshed and engaged,” Hess said. “We serve a lot more balanced foods—whole grains, nuts and fruits.” While this is consistent with The Westin brand, it’s also “convenient and accessible,” said Hess, alluding to individual portions of, say, nut mixes or nutrient-packed preportioned juices, and not heaping platters. In a move he never could have anticipated, in a city known for its bratwurst, quinoa cakes are a popular request for catering and banquet events. “Most events are looking for simple design without a lot of clutter,” he said.