ATLANTA—With few exceptions, what is eating if not a social event? Precisely the thinking of executives at Staybridge Suites, who decided to up the ante on the brand’s traditional “Sundowner” evening reception and rename it “The Social.”
The refreshed moniker coincides with the planned roll out of new menu items for the three-night-a-week get-together for guests of the upscale, extended-stay IHG brand, scheduled to begin in January at North American properties.
According to Robert Radomski, VP/global brand management, extended-stay brands for IHG, “Sundowner was kind of a commercial name and we wanted to take that away. We wanted to create something that better describes what it is,” he said.
Radomski noted some of the Staybridge general managers had taken to informally calling the evening event “the social,” which he said fit the concept well.
“That’s what the reception is really for. The guests come down after work, mingle, have some casual conversation and get a bite to eat. It’s been one of our brand hallmarks since the beginning.” Interestingly, while the concept has been a brand standard, what was served as part of the event was not mandated.
“It’s always been described as ‘a light meal’ with a traditional Wednesday night barbeque (The Social runs Tuesday through Thursday evenings). Over the years, though, we’ve gotten away from consistency by not having a clear enough standard around what to serve,” said Radomski.
Part of that stems from the challenge of the brand not having a full-blown f&b operation; rather, properties usually include commercial microwaves and flash-bake ovens. “There are a limited number of things we can prepare. Ready to heat-and-eat-type entrées are what we serve primarily,” said Radomski.
While striving for greater consistency, the brand is seeking to differentiate itself from competitors in terms of revamping the reception and its menu.
Small plate, big idea
“We worked with a foodservice consultant and looked at eating trends. We came upon a newer trend that occupies the 5 to 7 p.m. window and it’s all around small plates,” said Radomski, noting a number of restaurant chains—California Pizza Kitchen, Bahama Breeze, Cheesecake Factory—have developed small-plate menus for this time slot. “So we took that trend and built a concept around that.”
Among the entrée items to debut are sliders, quesadillas, baked potatoes with toppings and flatbread pizzas. Guests will have the opportunity to compose a plate of several items to fit their tastes.
“Guests were telling us they like control and customization. They want to be able to choose their own ingredients; they don’t want to be served something that’s all prepared,” said Radomski. “So we’ll have slider bars, taco bars, baked-potato bars that will have ingredients that guests can use to customize their entrées. And with each of those entrées, there’s a signature salad. Could be a Southwest salad, Cobb salad, pasta salad. All the ingredients for that salad will be there, so the guest can pick and choose what they want to take.”
The Social concept has been in beta test for several months at a half-dozen Staybridge Suites “and we’ve done a lot of tweaking,” said Radomski, with operational efficiency, cost and guest satisfaction are among the items being reviewed.
The executive noted the operative word guests have been using on comment cards is “fresh” in characterizing the experience.
“I wouldn’t say the items or the ingredients are any more fresh than what we were offering before, but they’re perceiving it as being fresher, and fresh is very important,” he said.
Another six hotels were recently added to further test the concept, this time including menus, presentation tips, photos, written instructions and a training video. “We’re using them to model the roll out and if they can execute it the way it’s supposed to be executed, we’ll know the materials we gave them are sufficient and effective to get it done,” said Radomski.
As part of The Social, Staybridge also will serve complimentary beer and wine in states where it is permitted. “We’re giving hotels some leeway on this,” said Radomski. “We’re suggesting using a local brew or a microbrew. We’re even suggesting individual bottles because that creates the perception of a premium offering, but we’re not requiring that.”
In terms of wines, owners are being encouraged to go from 1.5 liter bottles to 750 ml bottles for the same reason. “Again, it’s a perception issue with guests. We’re an upscale, extended-stay product so we want to deliver an experience that is in line with our brand positioning,” said Radomski.
A monthly menu showing what is being served on a particular night will be posted in the suites on the refrigerator and owners/operators may choose which nights they want to serve what option. Wednesday will remain as barbeque night and highlight hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.