Throughout COVID-19, so many inspiring stories and creative ideas have emerged as the hospitality industry has battled to stay afloat and keep doors open. Caterers have boldly explored new avenues for business growth and pivoted their services while traditional revenue streams are still not possible in many locales. One strategy many caterers have adopted is an unlikely partnership, but one that benefits multiple parties that are struggling with the impact of COVID-19 on business. That partnership strategy is catering for hotels. It’s the epitome of harnessing the “we are in this together” mindset, and if we can stick together right now, we will all come out stronger.
Now, in a “normal” time, hotels have their own on-site catering teams that exclusively cater their venue. Few hotels use or allow external caterers to operate within their properties. However, as we enter the eighth month of COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions, the vast majority of hotels have not returned to their pre-COVID business operations, making it difficult to bring back furloughed staff. Most don’t have their kitchens open, nor do they have staff to service the safe events they’re able to host. So, caterers have stepped in, and it has proven to be a symbiotic relationship that has generated business for many.
There is still an opportunity to leverage these non-traditional partnerships. The International Caterers Association (ICA) recently hosted a Hotel Operations Roundtable call where both hoteliers and caterers shared their experiences leveraging hotel catering partnerships.
Let’s hear what they had to say and learn how you too can implement these partnerships for mutual success!
Types of Hotel Catering Partnerships
Hotels are complex operations, as are events, which is why the hotel catering partnerships make so much sense. Coming from the same industry, both hoteliers and caterers are adept at thinking on their feet, being creative and coming up with quick solutions.
Frank Christian, managing partner at Taylored Hospitality Solutions, discussed the variety of hotel catering partnerships that can be leveraged, including:
Full Food Service Takeover
In this partnership model, the catering company will take over full service of all food and beverage outlets at the property. This means everything from on-site restaurants and bars to room service catering, stay-and-dine packages, in-room bars and amenities and meal vouchers. This has been seen to be most effective in boutique properties with less than 100 rooms, as the demand for staff isn’t as high as a large conference hotel.
Hotel Sales & Catering Partner Execution
Some hotels do have sales managers on-site, and as such, want them involved in the sales and catering aspects for on-site events and meetings. This partnership allows the hotel sales team to sell the events, and the catering partner is the execution arm of the partnership. The catering company’s chef will lead the tastings and menu creation in partnership with the hotel sales team, involving them throughout the process for full transparency. Then, for day-of event services, the catering team will lead event execution.
Catering Partner Sales & Execution
The catering sales and execution partnership is one where the catering company takes over all event sales and execution for the property while their sales and operations teams are furloughed. This is an extremely traditional model right now, as many properties do not have the level of business required to bring back staff quite yet. This opens up the opportunity for a catering company to come in and operate as you would with an exclusive venue, leading sales efforts and meetings, tastings and site tours, as well as event execution. Typically, the general manager will help with room blocks, parking and other logistical matters that don’t involve catering but impact events.
Preferred Catering Partner
It is standard for many non-hotel event venues to offer a list of preferred caterers that can provide catering services on-site. The issue with this for caterers is that it’s still a competitive environment and may not lead to as much business, as it isn’t an exclusive partnership. It’s also difficult to manage equipment that is being shared by catering teams utilizing the on-site facilities typically used by only one hotel team, and relationships may not be as strong. This format tends to lead to more drop-off business like boxed lunches.
Understanding Hotel Catering Partnership Opportunities and Who to Target
In addition to understanding the types of partnership opportunities, Aaron Messina, Area Director of Sales & Marketing for TPG Hotels & Resorts in Providence, RI, had one major point to make:
Stay top of mind for your local hotel properties.
Hotels right now are not as layered as they once were. Messina himself noted that his team of 14 at three hotels has now dwindled to a team of two managing six properties. He stated that your best chance for relationship building is via the sales team. See if you can find the director of sales in charge. Since operations is likely still furloughed, they know exactly what is coming in and what opportunities are available. That being said, opportunities will also vary, with short-term the most plausible at the moment.
Messina noted that some of the biggest opportunities at his properties have been short-term needs like providing breakfast and lunch for a crew of 100 people coming in post-hurricane for clean-up or a last-minute board meeting that needs boxed breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks for 15 people for three days. If you have that relationship and the DOS knows your company, they’re going to call you to see what you can do.
Mid- & Long-Term Opportunities
No one knows when business will be steady again. Many hotels have business on the books through the end of the year, but how much of it will actualize is a different story. Being a resource if they have events down the line around the holidays but still can’t bring their team back will be critical.
Don’t rule out Marriott & Hilton and bigger brands; there are brands that are independently owned and operated or franchised, which allows them more flexibility to bring in external catering services. You’re going to see a boom in needs when brands start requiring properties to offer services that they’ve typically suspended for COVID-19, like breakfast, complimentary happy hours for platinum members and more.
How to Navigate Hotel Catering Partnership Conversations & Negotiations
Reaching out and starting the conversation with a potential hotel partner can be a daunting task, but Vagn Nielsen, Corporate Executive Chef at Proof of the Pudding, offered up a few tips to take into consideration so you can be prepared for the conversation.
Leverage Existing Partnerships
Nielsen and his team had an existing partnership with Boar’s Head, who in turn had existing partnerships with several hotels in their area. Their Boar’s Head contact was able to get them in touch with the right contact at the property to start the discussion. As they had a glowing review from a current partner, it was much easier for Nielsen’s team to seal the deal.
Create Valuable Proposals
Nielsen’s team created a co-branded menu with Boar’s head, focusing on sandwiches and small platters that they knew the hotel could use for both transient and group business. Focusing on the need and showing your value in a proposal is critical, as with any business exchange!
Focus on Mutual Benefit
Make sure that when you approach the conversation, it is focused on how you can help the hotel during their opening phases before business makes a real comeback and they can bring their teams back in. You’re here to be a valuable resource that will help them rebuild.
Be Prepared to Sign Paperwork
It’s no secret this is an unlikely partnership that may come with some apprehension. Be open to drafting up contracts that outline non-competes and operations policies that will provide longevity and security for both organizations.
Hotels are all about their branding. Some may worry you’re going to want to come in with your brand in the forefront. Ensure them that you’re professionals at accommodating branding, as you help corporate brands put their brands in the forefront for events, and weddings are all about personal brands, right?
Safety is huge right now. If you’re starting up this partnership, the hotel is going to want to know that your company is following guidelines. Invite them for a tour of your facility so they can see your day-to-day safety policies in action.
How to Navigate Tricky Situations in Hotel Catering Partnerships
Just as catering off-site venues can typically come with some tricky situations, this could be elevated in a hotel catering partnership. Here are top things you’ll want to consider for successful execution:
Nail Down Logistics
Hotels are servicing guests, and the hotel space is constantly in the public eye. You may not be able to pull up to the front and unload the day’s breakfast, or they may not have a service elevator if they’re a smaller property, requiring more runs to deliver meals. Make sure that you work through every logistical step with the property and set expectations and guidelines up front.
Keeping the Peace with Hotel Staff
Hotel staff are on edge right now, as we all are in our industry. If the hotel does have operations teams on-site, they may be fearful that you’re there to take their job rather than being a temporary solution. Keep that in mind and be friendly, work together well, be flexible, but stick to your policies and procedures. Make sure the hotel also briefs their staff on the relationship, and you do the same.
Together, We Will Rise
Things for the catering and hospitality industries are slowly but surely starting to look up. If we continue to support one another and leverage these non-traditional partnerships to help with industry recovery efforts, we will rise!
Thank you to all the panelists for sharing their experiences in navigating hotel partnerships:
Frank Christian, Managing Partner, Taylored Hospitality Solutions
Jeanne Whitworth, Executive Vice President–Development, Butler's Pantry
Brian Ingalls, Director of Sales and Business Development, Brancato's Catering
Vagn Nielsen, Corporate Executive Chef, Proof of the Pudding
Aaron Messina, Area Director of Sales & Marketing Renaissance, Hilton, Residence Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Providence, RI TPG Hotels & Resorts
To listen to past ICA webinars or for more information, visit internationalcaterers.org.