Mr. Wilson

Food & Beverage

Hotels Would be Wise to Meet Consumer Demands for More Casual Dining

By Jonathan Wilson, VP Product Innovation & Brand Services, Hilton Worldwide

Consumer dining preferences are shifting and becoming much more casual at hotels across all segments of the industry, from grab-and-go and in-restaurant offerings at suite brands to fine dining options at luxury properties.

This change has created a void in the hotel industry for welcoming, casual dining experiences. You might think a large property that offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and room service has everything covered. But the new reality is that many guests now prefer to eat with friends and family in a more casual, social environment. In addition, independent travelers - who typically want to eat by themselves -also want to be surrounded by other people. This is what I call 'socially alone' - wanting to feel completely comfortable dining alone while being part of a bigger experience.

It's not just a matter of how or where, it's also a matter of when. As travel is changing, consumers want to eat outside of traditional meal periods. Casual food & beverage options allow hotel guests to eat dinner at 3:30 or 4 p.m. if it better fits their schedule, or to enjoy lighter eating later in the evening. This is another way the more casual programming of food & beverage environments can have a big impact on guest satisfaction and customer retention.

Hotel executives would be wise to consider a move toward more casual dining, and not just at budget traveler properties. This trend cuts across all price points.

Finding the Suite Spot in Casual Dining

We're staying on the forefront of this trend by developing food & beverage options at Hilton Worldwide brands that are less rigid, more scalable, and promote a greater social experience for guests. For example, approximately 60% of Embassy Suites' properties will undergo enhancements, including major renovations to bars, restaurants, lobby spaces and other areas, through 2019.

Any hotel brand known for its food and beverage services in particular needs to pay close attention to details when planning enhancements, and Embassy Suites is no exception. Two out of three of our brand pillars center around food & beverage: the cooked-to-order complimentary breakfast and the complimentary evening reception (the third pillar relates to the advantages of the brand's all suites model). New casual food & beverage options allow us to meet or stay ahead of evolving changes in consumer preferences for hotel dining.

Hotels need to continuously monitor guest satisfaction and feedback to stay ahead of this and other important consumer trends. Surveying guests on an ongoing basis, particularly those who travel frequently and are part of a brand's loyalty program, often provides invaluable insight. This is particularly important to hotels looking to capitalize on this trend and expand their casual food & beverage options.

We recently launched two exciting and more casual dining solutions for Embassy Suites called Brickstones and E'Terie to meet the growing demand for more casual dining. The two concepts serve different purposes - Brickstones is more casual but remains an in-dining experience, whereas E'Terie offers guests the convenience of grab-and-go food & beverage options.

Desire for Casual Dining Spans Sectors

Our efforts are not only limited to Embassy Suites. We're also rolling out casual dining alternatives across multiple Hilton brands simultaneously.

härth is one of our key Hilton brand restaurant concepts for more casual dining and social interaction. The menu features many small plates, flatbreads and other great dishes from a wood fired oven that promote sharing. The beauty of the härth concept is that property owners can also easily offer the same menu in the lobby bar or lounge, making it a scalable option.

Even at larger hotels where guests can choose among multiple dining options, the more casual härth concept works well. Many guests like the menu for later business meetings or to eat a late meal after a long day.

Not to be outdone, the casual dining trend is likewise transforming the luxury hotel space. For example, The Conrad Fort Lauderdale will open later this year with a luxury food & beverage market called Cornucopia. This market will provide upscale food options to the hotel's lobby social space.

It's very striking to see this demand for marketplaces growing so significantly for luxury properties. Early adopters of this more casual trend should reap the biggest benefits in terms of brand loyalty and return business. And I believe we're still in the early stages of the trend. Hotel guests across the board from the all suites, full service and luxury categories will continue to drive the demand for casual dining, even as it means something different to each of them.

Ultimately, It's What Works Best for Each Property

I've highlighted some of the major advantages for hotel guests, but how can hotel property owners benefit? The goal should be to establish a memorable casual brand nationwide while ensuring the concept and implementation are flexible enough to vary from property to property. For example, owners can scale a Brickstones or E'Terie based on demand, location, size of property and other factors.

Savvier hotel executives recognize this variability in markets and do not dictate one-size-fits-all hotel dining options. We approach property owners with new ideas in a way that ideally makes them want to update their restaurants. In fact, we try to give them options that are so good they can't help but implement them.

Most franchisees also value when we share the modeling behind the new restaurant concepts we create at the corporate level. We estimate their ROI based on the hotel's size, location and other factors. We can also predict how much the new restaurant brands will contribute to overall guest satisfaction for their individual properties. Owners like to get all of this expertise up front, although they know the ultimate success relies on how well they scale, implement and promote the new casual dining options.

Flexibility and scalability go hand-in-hand. We help owners scale their options up or down depending on their specific properties. Picture your favorite casual, chain restaurant- it's a very specific restaurant brand. If you're building one of those restaurants on your property, it's very prescribed. A better strategy is to provide a brand foundation and put a lot of programs around the edges that individual property owners can scale up or down.

Location can also guide the size and scope of food & beverage options. A larger hotel near an airport that requires guests to take a taxi or uber ride to off-site restaurants will need a more robust food & beverage program. These owners will want to offer more options at the hotel, with restaurants that occupy a larger space, to ensure guests remain comfortable and on-site.

In contrast, the owners of smaller urban hotels surrounded by dozens of nearby restaurants could opt for a scaled down option. In this scenario, the restaurant becomes more of a service-add than something designed to create a social environment.

Raising the Bar

Let's not forget the beverage part of food & beverage. Hotel bars no longer operate independently from these restaurant concepts - that's another essential concept. Many hotel kitchens multitask to provide food for a restaurant, room service and guests sitting at a bar or lobby lounge. This can be challenging and inefficient. One great aspect of transitioning to more casual dining is that the same menu can serve double or triple duty. For this reason, härth and Cornucopia provide food that also supports their hotel bar.

The social environment of the bar is critical. The set-up needs to be flexible enough to meet the needs of all clients - whether it's six business associates meeting for food and drinks, or a solo traveler looking to feel included and comfortable spending time in the bar area.

Even as the food offerings continue to evolve in exciting and inventive ways, the beverage trends remain around creative mixology and great craft beer. The demand for craft beer has not waned, so we continue to offer and even expand our selection at some hotel properties.

Upgrading beverage offerings can also make sense. We're undergoing a major refresh of the Embassy Suites evening reception, for example. We're focusing on guest motivation and mindset. In the past, many hotel clients said the reception meant they "needed to get to the bar to get their free drink." Going forward, we want to transform the experience so guests want to participate and get together in a casual, social atmosphere - one that also just happens to come with a complimentary beverage. What we do around food, entertainment, and "activating the space" for the evening reception will combine to create a unique guest experience.

We're fortunate to have a team of full time employees dedicated to staying ahead of the latest in restaurant trends and then executing the best food & beverage concepts. These subject matter experts allow us to do two things at once -- create the most commercially viable food & beverage environment for owners while also meeting or creating new customer expectations -- now and in the future.

Jonathan Wilson leads a team that provides global product innovation and brand definition in food and beverage, spa and wellness, rooms division, and meeting and public spaces for 14 worldwide brands. He is responsible for the development of strategic opportunities through creative partner solutions. Prior to Joining Hilton Worldwide Mr. Wilson spent 15 years at Princess Cruises as vice president of the guest food and beverage experience, product development and hotel analysis. He was responsible for guiding product development in the areas of culinary, dining and beverage services, through new-build initiatives, revitalization efforts, capital expenditure, crew engagement and product relevance of Asia source markets. Mr. Wilson can be contacted at 703-883-1000 or Please visit for more information. Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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