The necessity of outdoor dining 

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, outdoor dining has grown exponentially more popular at hotels and resorts, and smart hoteliers have capitalized on this trend.

Contributed by Jeanette Hurt 

“We are more focused on outdoor spaces than we ever have been,” said Steve Palmer, founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which develops F&B concepts for hotels. “I used to jokingly say that I never would develop a hotel without a rooftop bar, but that’s true more than ever before. Everybody wanted to be outside (because of COVID), and we started putting more energy, emphasis and spatial development toward outside, and we’ve turned them into the best seats in the house. Customers are going to want them today, tomorrow and further down the road.”

“Although all of our restaurants have indoor and outdoor dining options, most of our guests prefer dining outdoors with a view,” said Rene Egle, area general manager for the Shangri-La Al Husn, Muscat and Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah, Muscat in Oman. “The pandemic has definitely fast-tracked the shift to outdoor dining for a more experiential and safe setting.”

The Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, also has experienced greater demand for outdoor dining. “The Beau-Rivage Palace has always been famous for its terrace and outdoor dining options,” said Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, general manager. “However, we have indeed encountered even more activity compared to the past.”

Clifftop dine by design at the Shangri-La Al Husn in Muscat, Oman

Brian Montgomery, owner of Sirenian Bay Resorts and Villas in Placencia, Belize, said that outdoor dining has always been popular in his country, as many indoor spaces were not traditionally air conditioned, but he, too, has seen a big shift in consumers’ mindset. “Over the past two pandemic years, having outdoor dining venues has become a necessity for hotels and resorts, rather than just a perk,” he said. As a result, his resort added a new Beache Grille and a three60 Martini Bar.

Firmdale Hotels, London, has also seen an unprecedented interest in outdoor dining and beverage experiences. “As soon as the pandemic hit, demand for outside dining saw a massive increase, beyond expectation,” said Sarah Williams, Firmdale’s group food and beverage manager, adding that demand didn’t start decreasing into winter of 2021. Because demand was so great, the hotel group decided to extend the courtyard at the Ham Yard Hotel because it was in the most demand, and then the group also created a courtyard area at The Soho Hotel, too. “At the Ham Yard Hotel, we always flex depending on weather and business levels, but during 2020 and 2021, we kept the maximum capacity at all times, creating a desirable area with planters and ropes and posts,” Williams said.

The Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, greatly expanded its outdoor seating and dining options in 2021, adding 66 seats in a new area overlooking the 18th hole of the resort’s golf course and a beautiful pond called The Landing, which used to be an area with just a handful of tables and planters. “We use it for two purposes,” said Nelly Buleje, executive chef at the resort. “We didn’t have any outdoor dining for breakfast, so we use the space in the morning for breakfast and lunch for our Grand Café. Then, at nighttime, we use it for The Chophouse, our fine dining steakhouse. It’s been extremely popular.”

In the past, that space at the Grand Geneva was underutilized – there were just planters there and a handful of tables. “It had no identity,” Buleje said, adding that it now is a distinct, sought-after destination. “Now, during the day, it has a completely different identity from the evening, and we change everything for the evening, and we have two different kitchens serving the area.”

The Beau-Rivage Palace also expanded its outdoor dining areas – 10% for its restaurants and 20% for its lobby lounge, which now has a new, summer bar. “It’s important for hotels to optimize their space and create locations with specific themes and comfort,” Seiler-Hayez said.

Egle said that one of the big outdoor dining trends is private dining in beautiful yet not traditionally considered dining spaces. “One of our significant concepts for couples is the Dine by Design, which is a romantic dining experience for two at the resort’s most picturesque locations that we have identified such as Clifton dining, beach indulgence, in addition to our private island on the lazy river and more,” he said.


Rooftop terrace at Firmdale’s Ham Yards in London

Egle noted that the resort is expanding its Dine by Design options this year. “Muscat has so many hidden gems along the coastline so we are planning to take it to more remote areas off-property such as clifftops and remote beaches, where guests could be transported by boat from our marina, and after a short hike, they would reach a beautiful and unique, surprise location, which would have a full private dining, candlelit setup, with their own private server and chef,” he said.

This expansion is in line with what luxury guests are seeking, Egle said. “Unlocking secret locations is a rising trend for luxury guests,” he said. “We have noticed a significant interest from guests looking to explore the unexpected, especially when it comes to Oman, as it’s such a picturesque country that has endless options and locations to unlock.”

At the Beau-Rivage Palace, the restaurants team created “The Swiss Ladies Lunch,” a picnic event in the garden of the Beau-Riavage in the late summer. “This is a big trend,” Seiler-Hayez said, adding that the hotel staff saw a need for this, as some tour operators in the region offered this. “On our side, we offer the possibility to rent our electric bikes and head to the lake with a picnic catered by our kitchen team,” Seiler-Hayez said, adding that it has proven popular.

The Grand Geneva Resort has plans to increase the number of “landscape dinners,” or special dinners that are catered outside in beautiful areas of the resort – like a wine dinner along one of the rivers or a dinner on top of the ski hill. “Guests want to have fun, and they want to create memories,” Buleje said. In winter, the resort added igloos, and they started with five, then added three this past year, and there are plans to add more this year. “They’re always booked,” he said.

Do your homework 

Hoteliers should take time to scout out interesting areas for special dining, Egle said. “Learn what you guests are looking for and keep an eye on the globally trending dining concepts. Don’t forget to start with internal simulations to ensure the guest journey is perfected at every touchpoint.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of adding outdoor dining and beverage outlets is to make sure they’re not an afterthought, Palmer said. “It’s not buying furniture that’s not consistent with the overall concept, and there’s no heating elements for the cooler months and no fans for the hotter months,” he said. “You can tell when it’s an afterthought. But when it’s well thought out, outdoor seats are the best seats in the house. Good design enhances your revenue dollars.”

“Look for spaces that are currently unused,” Montgomery said. “Sometimes simple changes can make that space a hidden or intimate dining space.”

But good design also makes it easier for hotel food and beverage departments to manage the outdoor areas. “You need to make sure those spaces are self-contained,” Palmer said. “There’s an ice machine, there’s a dry storage area, etc. In the old hotels, bartenders would have to run down the stairs to get backup cups or to an ice machine across the back of a house instead of having built in back-of-the-house infrastructure.”

“Often, temporary outside dining areas look temporary and not inviting,” Seiler-Hayez said. “You should ensure the space looks special or like an extension of the restaurant and bar, rather than a temporary solution. Create atmosphere and don’t forget the small touches like candles and flowers. Offer something special and exclusive in these areas, but ensure you have the structure in place to do it well, even if it means limiting the guest flow through other areas.”

Outdoor Bubble Bar at The Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland

At a new boutique hotel being constructed in Ashland, North Carolina, the operator ultimately added a kitchen on the rooftop bar, Palmer said. “Going down an elevator seven stories to get food – there is not a way to do it well,” he said.

The Sirenian Bay Resorts & Villas also built a new kitchen on the beach for its new Beach Grille. “We needed to ensure quality of food and speed of service,” Montgomery said.

When you add additional outdoor dining, it can increase the amount of covers a restaurant does a night, Seiler-Hayez said. “This means that it is important to manage the flow of guests and also to sometimes block inside sections when demand for outside is high,” she says. “What was really important to us last year was to ensure we were not overwhelming the team in our quest to drive business through our restaurants and bars. Also, we needed to ensure guests were having a great time, and we learned very quickly that less is almost certainly more.”

As guests enjoyed themselves and the hotels managed their flow expertly, revenue increased. “In fact, we saw our average spend almost double from pre-COVID levels,” Seiler-Hayez said. “We saw guests wanting to stay longer and spend more on high-end menu items, cocktails, large format wines and fine wines. I think that being outside,evoked a holiday mood and also a post-COVID celebration. It is certainly a trend that we hope will continue.”

Environmental factors such as weather have become a big concern for hotels and resorts. “Will you have umbrellas at every table, how often are you spraying for mosquitos, how do you handle sudden rainstorms?” Montgomery asked. “Guest comfort and convenience are key. A beautiful view can be negated by the hot sun beating down during one’s lunch. It’s important to consider air flow, shade and other factors that increase guest comfort when dining outdoors.”

This year, Seiler-Hayez saiod, guests are looking for more interactive, immersive outdoor dining and drinking experiences. “This will include activations with drinks’ brands and themed celebratory events such as outdoor/street-party style promotions in conjunction with the Queen’s Jubilee this year,” she said.

Montgomery added, “Outdoor spaces allow for a lot of creativity, and you can create a very customized, pop-up menu and environment more easily in both permanent and temporary outdoor dining spaces – the sky is the limit.”