Will holiday gatherings return for hotel catering operations?


Christmas arrived early this year – or at least promotions for holiday meal bookings at hotels started earlier than usual, in the face of an uncertain season ahead.

Rising vaccination rates have helped bolster earlier bookings for some travelers, CNBC reported in September. And TravelPulse in October shared numbers of a recent Amadeus Rebuild Traveler survey, which found that while 43% of those polled are still concerned about the risk of catching coronavirus while traveling, 73% are ready to roll. It’s a welcome phenomenon for hotels recovering from a drought in food and drink incomes, after the ups and downs experienced during the pandemic.

But for many companies and hotel properties, returning after a very unusual year, it means figuring out what F&B planning looks like for the holiday season in 2021. And with a labor crisis hampering staff and chain issues. Global supply causing inflation, hotels are cutting services and taking a cautious and more agile approach.

Traditions a force of attraction

Closures in early 2020 across the country and restrictions on travel and gatherings severely hampered holiday activity last year. But, by mid-October, vaccination rates were on the rise and COVID cases and deaths were trending down, Biden administration officials reported. The confidence that the vaccine inspires, coupled with the strong emotional pull of holiday traditions, is a favorable combination for the holiday catering industry this year.

This is especially true at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley, a traditionally sought-after gathering place for revelers.

Mohonk decided to launch the promotions earlier in 2021 than ever in his 152-year-old age – posting his holiday campaign on July 6. As a result, guest bookings are up 60% from the past three years, including before the pandemic.

“Of course, Mohonk Mountain House is a holiday tradition for a lot of people, so bringing back guests for the holidays or trying to inspire the thought of a midsummer vacation is fine with us,” said Barbara Stirewalt, vice-president. and general manager of the station. “And we had an amazing response.”

Rethinking F&B planning

But officials at the F&B hotel said they were tweaking their offerings this year, not only to accommodate still nervous customers, but also to deal with workforce pressures and chain challenges. supply.

Ron Wichowski, vice president of operations at Dimension Development, oversees 15 hotel properties in Florida, Washington, DC, New York and New Jersey. Due to the persistent pandemic, salary expenses have increased by 20% in some markets, and the cost of goods and services has increased by 10% to 15% – “and that’s if you can even get the goods and services” , did he declare. “Everything is saved. “

Stirewalt in Mohonk also noted that the cost of food has increased, a fact that is at the top of the team’s planning, along with capacity restrictions. As a result, Mohonk capped group sizes and spaced out seats, Stirewalt said.

“Our working model is stretched to the limit in food and beverage,” Stirewalt said. “It was incredibly difficult. Our ability to serve people and keep the customer experience high has driven us to capacity constraints.

“It’s not just the F&B workforce, but also the housekeeping and help desk workforce that we are missing,” she added. “We are working with international programs and have reviewed and revamped our compensation model. We had some positive changes, but as we come back we are limited in the work. During vacations in the pre-COVID past, we could have served 1,200 guests. We are now limited to 400. It is very different.

But rising labor costs are part of Wichowski’s current normal operations.

“One of the perks that we have in most of our hotels is that we pay well,” Wichowski said. “It helps us retain our associates, which makes it a bit easier for us to make sure that we’ll be able to serve a client. “

Agile service and booking deadlines

The key to planning catering offerings for more groups returning for banquets this holiday season is to continue to provide service options, even though some options have a higher cost.

Although reports continue to indicate that travel is increasing, “there is still a lot of unease, especially with groups that have older and senior travelers,” Wichowski said.

His company’s leadership was “aggressive” last year when budgeting for this year, believing pent-up demand would increase business, but they “aren’t there yet,” he explained. “Things are starting to take hold and we have a lot more dialogue with customers as we get closer to the vacation months. “

Projecting F&B revenue, even in the short span of the next vacation, is difficult, Wichowski said.

“You have a lot of last minute bookings, which we’ve seen all year round. These are things that are booked two or three weeks in advance, ”he said. “Large groups obviously need to book a few months in advance, as much of the space is already full, but there will be a lot more demand for shorter, smaller bookings.”

At Mohonk, small corporate bookings and family reunions have been and continue to be very strong, Stirewalt said.

But the same capacity constraints that can reduce work efficiency are positive for some groups.

“We are finding that they are asking for private spaces,” Stirewalt said. “They don’t want to be in the iconic large dining room. This gives us the opportunity to offer them a more intimate service.

Mohonk used room dividers for a while during the pandemic in his large dining room and still has them available if customers request them. But because the room is so big, they are able to space the seats well, she added.

For Dimension properties, the “more user-friendly” menu and service concepts used during the pandemic remain useful during this transition period, Wichowski said.

“Maybe a customer doesn’t want a plate-based dinner, because he wants a little more variety, then we could choose to do stations or a buffet that is not served by the ‘invited but served by an associate,’ he said. “There is some extra work involved, but we explain this to the customer, and they recoup it as ‘postage’ or ‘attendant charge’. A lot of customers choose to go in this direction, so people don’t handle the same tongs and utensils. At the same time, it improves the service experience.

Less tolerance for cancellations

Last year, vacation bookings were vulnerable to last-minute changes due to COVID restrictions. This year, Wichowski hotels have once again become less tolerant of last minute cancellations.

“Some planners have asked us about cancellations and how we will hold them accountable (for vacation bookings at the Boca Raton Marriott in Florida),” Wichowski said. “At this point, the state is 100% open and there are no restrictions on meetings. We have therefore implemented our full cancellation policy and are required to do so.

Overall, vacation travel is coming back, but that won’t mean a return to pre-pandemic practices.

Due to the higher turnover and cutbacks, Wichowski expects to work with more inexperienced employees, who will need more training.

“So when you have this situation,” he said, “it’s not a cut and paste of last year’s event. We have to be creative and flexible and get a good read of it. what the customer wants and can afford – and make sure we don’t leave money on the table either.


Tad Wilkes is the former editor of Hotel F&B Magazine, Discotheques & Bars Magazine and other hospitality industry publications.


Sara H. Byrd

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