Hotel Optimization: Pandemic drives hotel tech, F&B innovation

The Moving Beyond the Hotel Restaurant panel. Clockwise from top left: David Kaplan, founder and co-owner of Death & Co.; Marcus Marshall, VP of restaurants and bars at Hospitality Ventures Management Group; Jeremiah Batucan, director of conference & industry development, Questex Bar & Restaurant Expo; and Rick Hertan, director of upscale brand operations - Cambria Hotels & The Ascend Hotel Collection. Photo credit: Hotel Management (Moving Beyond the Hotel Restaurant)

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached the six-month mark in the U.S., Questex Hospitality Group (parent company of Hotel Management and the International Hotel Investment Forum) and AAHOA partnered to present Day 1 of Hotel Optimization Part 2, a virtual conference with insights from industry insiders on how to survive and even thrive in the pandemic.

The day's second half examined how hotel food and beverage service has evolved and how technology is keeping guests safe and comfortable—from a distance.

Moving Beyond the Hotel Restaurant

The pandemic has devastated hotel restaurants and bars, but hoteliers are finding ways to keep guests fed and safe at the same time. 

Click here for all of Hotel Management's COVID-19 coverage

“Our main priorities right now are twofold,” said Marcus Marshall, VP of restaurants and bars at Hospitality Ventures Management Group. “One is for us to continue to manage our COVID protocols, to make sure that we're creating a trusted environment for our guests.” The second, he said, is to find ways to bring back a full-service hospitality experience. “A lot of our full-service environments are only coming back at 10 or 15 percent,” Marshall said. “The profit model looks quite different than it was before [the] close.” To keep F&B staff on the payroll, the company has put some of its hotel restaurants on Doordash so locals can order delivery from the kitchens—a practice known as “ghost kitchens.” 

“We've just launched this and we’re hopeful that it’s going to drive some alternate revenue and allow us to then use those associates to activate some on-premise bars and menus as well,” Marshall said. 

Read about June's Hotel Optimization Day 1Day 2 and Day 3. Read about the first two September panels here.

David Kaplan, founder  and co-owner of cocktail bar chain Death & Co., said his company was pursuing “creative revenue” while indoor imbibing remains on hold. “We had an online marketplace—really, just an online retail store,” he said. “We drove a lot of traffic to it and created some experiences on there that were very simple, very saleable, a great value to our customers—and it was almost like buying Death & Co. futures.” For example, guests could buy priority reservations for upcoming visits or commission a unique cocktail. “As an operator, it doesn't cost us anything,” Kaplan said. “It's a nice value-add to our guests or our customers, and obviously, those are redeemable as we reopen.”

Choice Hotels’ upscale Cambria brand emphasizes food and beverage experiences. Rick Hertan, director of upscale brand operations for Cambria Hotels and the Ascend Hotel Collection, said the brand has shifted its focus in recent months from bars and restaurants to its sundry shops. “We have been expanding our offerings in our markets for both food and for beverage—specifically, alcoholic beverages,” he said. “We immediately noticed an increase in sales.” As with HVMG, Hertan said, Cambria is also considering expanding into ghost kitchens as well.

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Taking Technology to the Next Level 

The day’s final panel, sponsored by SmartHands by Minibar, examined the next generation of hotel technology, especially as the pandemic makes contactless experiences and ultra-clean stays ubiquitous. 

Contactless hotel experiences does not mean plastic shields in between guests, said Vanessa Borkmann, researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering in Stuttgart, Germany. “Contactless digital solutions are at least smart solutions, and these are topics that we are really working on for many years now,” she said, suggesting that “contactless solutions” should simply be called “remote services.” 

“It's the independence from time and space for hotel guests, but also for employees,” Borkmann explained. “If digitalization is implemented in a right way, and with an ecosystem that is supporting all the processes in a hotel, then you have much more flexibility for your employees in their daily work, you are able to give them more support, and also the guests experience a different service. … Contactless is here to stay, but it will be experienced differently: not as a contactless social distancing tool, it will be experienced hopefully as an enhancement of the hotel experience in a whole.” 

Neal Patel, treasurer at AAHOA, said mobile communication between hotels and their guests will likely gain ground as hoteliers look to personalize the guest experience. “[If] we can ask them exactly what they want, what time they'll be there, we can be better prepared,” he said. “And I think that's where the [return on investment] kicks in.” Positive guest reviews increase average daily rates by 10 percent, he noted. 

Self check-in is a standard feature at CitizenM hotels, said Lennert de Jong, chief commercial officer at CitizenM. “Checking in with an employee is the worst customer service that you can ever have, to be honest” he said. “For me, luxury is Netflix, luxury is Uber, not having to talk to the taxi driver.” By using an app to check in, get a room assignment and open a door, guests don’t need to wait in line to hand over their credit cards and be treated like a customer in a traditional business transaction. Having an app to handle these tasks does not mean a hotel should eliminate staff, he added, but to shift team members’ responsibilities away from tasks a computer can handle to things no computer can do. “We have 24/7 staff and they're not there to check you in,” he said. “They're there to make you happy. That's it.” 

Sign up for Day 2 of Hotel Optimization on Sept. 24 here.