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Expert’s Voice: Why are hotels full but restaurants empty?

by | 20 Dec 2019 | Experts

A hotel restaurant at Hyatt Las Condes, Chile. (Photo: Hyatt)

There is a global shift in customer expectations and hotel restaurants are feeling the impact. Andreas Koenig, Senior Outlets Manager at InterContinental Dubai Festival City, explains why guests look for local experiences elsewhere.

Remember your last stay at an upscale or luxury hotel? Most probably you were on a business or a weekend trip in an unfamiliar location. You were looking for a good place to have dinner. Maybe you had not yet made up your mind whether you wanted Italian or Chinese, a buffet or a la carte restaurant. But in the back of your mind, you were looking for a strong and authentic experience, no soulless restaurant serving everything and nothing.

So you left your hotel suite, room service was not an option, as you wanted to flee the loneliness of your room. The bland and overpriced room service menu also did not convince. In the elevator down you see flashy pictures of food dishes and discounts. The doors opened and you walked into the busy lobby where you saw 2 or 3 empty restaurants.

Tables were nicely set, staff in matching uniforms standing around with sad faces. But even after reading the name and menu of the restaurant, you still were not convinced. You read “International flavours”, “Fresh Ingredients” and “Homemade”, which did not tell you anything. The hostess at the door informs you at her spiel about the special discount promotion for tonight. You were not impressed.

Then the question arose: Will you leave the comfort of your hotel and look for an authentic local experience in close proximity? Aren’t standalone restaurants out of the hotel cheaper anyways, serve real local and homemade food? This would also give you some good shots for your social media accounts.

Working in hotel F&B divisions for more than 15 years, I have witnessed a general and global shift in the mindset of customers and their expectations. These might vary in different segments, but a general want for a guaranteed holistically strong experience without surprises is omnipresent.

A sense of place

We live in a time where everything is available everywhere, regardless of location or season. Yet, many travellers seek to experience the originality of a destination, even if that means the risk of disappointment and wasted time. Sushi in Osaka or pizza in Rome is a must. But what would beat the small and rustic pizzeria down the road in Rome, surrounded by shouting chefs, outgoing Roman waiters, locals having dinner and having a quick chat with the restaurant owner?

Larger hotel groups have certainly picked up on this and offer guests a domestic experience, not only for tourists but also to capture locals and to compete with the neighbouring food scene. This certainly implies the outstanding and original quality of food, its preparation and presentation.

Focus on ambience

One of the most important aspects of any F&B establishment is ambience. And a key player here is certainly other guests. A reason why many guests visit restaurants and bars is the basic human need of being surrounded and seen by others. What are the chances you would enter an empty restaurant, despite its immaculate interior design? In contrary, guess choose a bar on a Friday night, knowing that it will be packed, ignoring bad service, mediocre quality of drinks and food. Besides this, the interaction with the waiter is crucial, too. Attentiveness is a given. But guests nowadays need a waiter to show personality, be able to upkeep a conversation, even just a chit chat about the weather. The times of robotic and “efficient” service are over. And yes, the interior design, music and operating equipment is certainly part of the overall atmosphere. However, Philippe Starck and Damien Hirst are surely not going to fill up your restaurant.

A strong identity

In times of the global citizen, the importance of attentive service and flavoursome food has shifted. Having a simple hence strong identity, and showing it in every fibre of the restaurant is crucial. The choice of the actual concept, be it Cuban street food or a Parisian bistro, is secondary. Most customers today do not buy food, they buy into a story, a lifestyle and a feeling. That does not necessarily have to be a copy-paste of a global player. However, a strong brand DNA is definitely the base of international brands and their success. Once your restaurant has a strong identity, it might become a larger player automatically anyways. It will get the attention of domestic media and so-called influencers who want to be associated with your business, instead of the way around.

The lesson

Because of low entry barriers into most markets, the customer is spoiled with choices. Social media and cheap travel make guests well informed and look for strong, authentic and local experiences. Hotels being slowed down by large administration and approval processes, preventing them to adapt to this.

But there is hope. Hotels with strong and open-minded management teams are aware of their challenges and do succeed. Hotel restaurants with celebrity chefs, stand-alone characteristics and strong identities do exist and become local stars in the short to long term. So next time when you wander through the lobby, give it a try. The restaurant at the hotel might just be a very great experience.

Andreas Koenig

Andreas Koenig

Senior Outlets Manager, InterContinental Dubai Festival City

Andreas Koeing is experienced in the F&B sector with experience in hotel restaurants and as a restaurant manager. He has worked with brands such as Mandarin Oriental and Hyatt. Currently, he works as Senior Outlets Manager at InterContinental Dubai Festival City.

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