Experiential dining and the synergy between hotels and restaurants

On the surface, every hotelier has a broad notion of how integral a hotel’s F&B program can be for the guest’s onsite experience. It’s all about exciting the senses, igniting positive emotions and generating revenue, of course. That said, it’s time to revitalize the hotel-restaurant connection in order to sustain F&B profitability as well as enhance ADR, RevPOR and loyalty sentiments.

Aside from excellent guest service, plush guestrooms, superb amenities, consummate cleanliness and all the other indulgences you’d expect from a “perfect” property, one of the cardinal tenets of success is to simply be different. See, hotels are never purely logical points of sale. The reason certain brands can justify exorbitant nightly rates is that they provide their guests with a powerful emotional experience — something that jolts them out of the monotony of day-to-day life.

This emotional journey is drawn out by activation of the senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The better you can trigger all five of these in tandem, the more likely you are to satisfy your guests’ desires while traveling and make a positive impression.

My belief is that the “middle of the road” hotel restaurant model is boring. But why exactly? Because it’s too safe, and it isn’t offering anything that a patron can point to as unique. Even places that feed the upscale market can fall in this trap. The scene of stark, polished furniture under sharp halogens while canned lounge music drums softly from invisible speakers is the first generalization that comes to mind. Even though a lot of hard work has been put into creating this ambiance, there’s nothing exceptional about this presentation because every other operator running a high-end eatery is doing more or less the same thing.

This is not to say you have to think radically outside the box. In fact, a semblance of normalcy is critical, as you have to establish a baseline for customer expectations. Instead, you should strive to be “similar but different,” or slightly outside a person’s comfort zone.

But when you deliver an experience that’s different, it can’t be all over the map; all the pieces have to fit together for a common subject matter. Aiming for a themed restaurant is a step in the right direction — consider the standalone concepts of The Cheesecake Factory, Lone Star Texas Grill, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Johnny Rockets — but to impart endearing memories, you must go beyond this concept by offering a higher degree of interaction with the physical space. This way, it becomes an experience in food that is greater than the sum of all parts.

In my search for a hotel-restaurant partnership that fits this similar but different paradigm, I stumbled upon Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse. As you might guess, the place serves Italian fare and steaks — an explicit expectation by its very namesake. What intrigued me most about Johnny’s was its distinctive supper-club theme. It gave off a real “Mad Men” throwback vibe, which was exciting and gave our group lots of observational topics to keep the discussion alive.

My interest piqued, I reached out to Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse VP of Brand Development Ajay Singh to find out more about the chain’s take on the hotel-restaurant relationship. In this day and age, it’s all too easy for seasoned hoteliers to take a laissez faire approach to F&B, but Singh stresses that this method can have deleterious effects on the hotel brand. Because dining is such an emotionally charged aspect of the overall hotel narrative, a mundane or disappointing experience will reflect negatively on the property, regardless of the direct involvement in the eatery’s operations. But the opposite is also true, necessitating the imperative for quality food and service as well as investigating bold concepts like experiential dining.

One of the underlying objectives for advancing towards a synergistic hotel-restaurant relationship is to keep people in the hotel. With smartphones beckoning guests to speedily embark on an adventure beyond a property’s four walls, it’s now even more important to have straightforward and accessible twists on quotidian activities (such as eating) to cajole guests into better appreciating their temporary domicile.

In order to have strong visitor appeal, your F&B experience must be a strong point of differentiation unto itself. However, as Singh points out, there’s a fine line between casual upscale dining and demarcating an eatery as a “special occasion” destination. You want your restaurant to have cachet while also having quick service and approachable prices so it isn’t classified as an outlet purely for birthdays, anniversaries, career celebrations and the like.

And here you thought food was just food. It’s far more involved than that. It’s time for hotels to get a restaurant upgrade, so think over the concept of experiential dining and share your thoughts in the comments below!