CHICAGO—Creating memorable moments, elevating the cuisine and ensuring each guest feels like a VIP are now part of an exceptional dining experience. It’s the differentiator between a thriving hotel and one where guests may not return. The one thing not on the menu is good design, but it’s an important factor in a venue’s success. So, how are hotels designing F&B spaces to maximize return on investment?
In a Q&A with Hotel Business, Tim Freeman, lead designer of hospitality design, Zimmerman Weintraub Associates (ZWA), shares insight into how hoteliers can use design to help their bottom line.
Why do you think the F&B scene is improving?
Over the past 10 years, sales in the hospitality F&B sector have struggled due to both a changing demographic and rapid growth and evolution of direct competition within the market. The modern hotel guest is a much more sophisticated and global customer, increasingly seeking venues that craft more localized, unique experiences reflecting the area or region in which the guest is staying. We see that many guests tend to avoid the F&B offerings offered within their hotel because they view the menu as stagnant, with a cookie-cutter restaurant and bar design.
Another key change in today’s guest is a cultural shift in how they work and utilize the space around them. As a much more communal and social demographic, we have seen the millennial traveler move away from the private desk into open coffee shops and cafés to work. Hotel owners have taken notice and more recently, we have seen a major focus on maximizing lobby spaces and providing greater flexibility, especially those that were renovated 10-plus years ago and no longer serve the current demographic of travelers.
Research shows a downward shift in fine dining and strategic use of the lobby’s communal spaces. Why do you think that is happening?
The major shift we are seeing is not in that people are no longer seeking fine-dining food; in fact, the opposite is occurring. Guests typically have higher expectations of a menu than previous generations with offerings that are unique and original. What has changed is the guest’s expectations of the fine-dining environment. We see that many business travelers want to relax and unwind in a less formal and flexible setting, outfitted with soft lounge seating where they can take out a laptop and work while enjoying a quality meal—something you can’t normally find in a traditional fine-dining establishment. It’s becoming more about creating dining spaces for the guests to experience as they see fit rather than traditional spaces to which they need to conform.
Are you seeing a move for hotels to integrate dining choices into the property’s public spaces, including the lobby?
Much of this trend that we’re seeing has to do with the fact that many spaces are designated for eating only, meaning they become dead spaces outside of regular mealtimes. Traditional breakfast service areas are the perfect example of this; filled with diners early in the morning, the spaces are empty throughout the rest of the day. To maximize square footage, hotel owners can make modest changes that will allow these spaces to become usable, profitable square footage throughout the day versus just during that morning breakfast rush. Plenty of hotels that have run into this issue are moving to close private dining areas and convert them into additional guest amenity areas and are looking to lobbies for food and beverage service instead, ultimately maximizing their return on investment.
Please share examples of how hotels are designing F&B spaces to maximize return on investment?
Our team at ZWA recently redesigned two dining areas facing this dilemma. The Courtyard by Marriott Chicago Downtown/Magnificent Mile is located in an urban setting right in the center of one of the hottest areas with upscale, boutique shopping. Given its prime location, you’d expect that the hotel restaurant would easily attract street traffic and have a steady flow of hotel guest traffic, but the space lacked the local aesthetic and was cut off from the lobby space by a large dividing wall, making it almost hidden from hotel guests.
Our first priority was taking down a major portion of the dividing wall, opening the space into the lobby to create a seamless flow between the lobby and bar. Increasing the connectivity and removing barriers instantly activated the lobby and made it more intriguing to guests. Next, the restaurant underwent a major revamp itself with a unique, localized theme developed by our team. The hotel is located in a historic section of the city where much of the modern developments are built atop the rubble of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Looking to this rich history, the space is filled with warm colors and tones and customized artwork that links the hotel to that era in the city’s history, giving the hotel a unique, localized experience for guests and travelers.
Similarly, the problem we encountered at the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley was that hotel guests were leaving the hotel and venturing out for better food and beverage options. Not so similarly, the hotel is located in a more suburban setting, meaning that guests did not have many options nearby, yet they still preferred leaving for meals at restaurants that could offer a more authentic San Diego experience. This was a large audience that hotel was missing out on capturing.
Our primary focus became reimagining the lobby space instead of keeping a traditional restaurant setup, so we removed partitions wherever possible to open the space into the lobby. A full-service lobby now allows guests to enjoy a locally infused food and drink menu at the bar or any of the flex seating in the space and has helped to retain guests.
Looking beyond the immediate expansion of the lobby and bar, we considered the underutilized outdoor patio area overlooking the pool. Taking down the fixed wall that separated the indoors from the outdoors, we put into place an operable NanaWall, which allows the hotel to open the entire wall, creating a flexible indoor/outdoor seating option. The food and beverage menu extends into the space, allowing guests to sip a craft cocktail and enjoy the resort-quality pool.
What were some of the results of the changes for these two projects?
At the Downtown Courtyard location, the most dramatic change was easily the transformation of the space from a cut-off lobby into a fully activated space. With a revamped menu, branding and aesthetic overhaul, the property noticed a 150% increase in revenue within the first 30 days of reopening.
Prior to the renovation at the Mission Valley Marriott, one would typically find a fair amount of guests congregated at the bar, but the large back portion of the main restaurant remained empty and dark. With the revitalization of this space and mixing in of flexible lounge and dining seating, a greater sense of energy was created, encouraging guests to linger and utilize previously dead areas of the lobby. Opening up the formerly fixed exterior glazing further enhanced the guests’ use of the space by encouraging a flow and continuity between indoor and outdoor experiences.
How did you work with these clients to accomplish their goals?
For the Courtyard by Marriott Chicago Downtown/Magnificent Mile, we worked closely with the owner and project manager to ensure a design solution compatible with a tight renovation budget and to develop a custom program unique to the hotel’s demographic needs and specific concerns. Originally, the owner considered multiple options for the existing restaurant and bar space, from leasing it out, to converting it into a Starbucks location, but through expert design solutions that fit within the budgetary parameters, we proved that simple changes could produce a steady revenue stream for the hotel. We made many strategic decisions in terms of the design options that would have the most impact, like keeping the bar in its existing location, but extending it into the lobby once we removed portions of the dividing wall allowed for greater connectivity between lobby and restaurant without needing any costly structural work.
The goal at the Mission Valley property was slightly different than at the Courtyard. Much of the programmatic requirements for the space are determined by brand, even though the design solution is ultimately a custom one. As such, we worked closely with both the owner and brand to craft a space that would adhere to the brand program, owner operational needs, and all parties’ aesthetic aspirations. Key to crafting the image of the property was the development of our concept, an urban resort for the barefoot business traveler, which we developed alongside the owner’s representative. To create a unique identity for the hotel, we also sought to highlight the hotel’s most desirable features, like the resort-quality pool, by extending food and beverage service into this area.
What else should hoteliers know about ZWA’s ability to help clients get the most out of their F&B spaces?
At ZWA, we view ourselves as “the owner’s designer”—we treat the owner’s money as if it were our own. When evaluating the owner’s goals, we don’t make design decisions solely for the purpose of a design statement. Rather, we maximize design opportunities and impact while always remaining cognizant of the owner’s available budget. Most importantly we stay educated on the latest innovations in design for F&B to make sure their properties maintain a competitive edge in today’s hospitality environment.