Hotels invested massive amounts of time and money into weathering the pandemic — from installing social-distancing furniture, partitions and sanitation systems, to offering pre-portioned and sealed grab-and-go foods and more.
Hotel companies around the country are still working out how much of that template will be carried over into the remainder of 2021 and beyond.
“Even though the ‘all clear’ was given on June 15, not all clients and guest were comfortable with throwing masks, gloves and shields to the wind,” noted Manfred Lassahn, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa in Huntington Beach, Calif. “We had and still have many groups requesting presentations similar to what we went through during the pandemic. We actually have a group in January 2022 that has requested pre-packaging, shields and attendants at their events.”
With the rise of the Delta strain and nearby Los Angeles County seeing a thousand new cases daily, he added, “a lot of what we had invested in might just need to come back out of storage.”
“It's been a smooth transition into this post-pandemic meeting landscape,” reported Don Barnett, director of sales and marketing for Hilton’s LondonHouse Chicago. “We prepared ourselves for several possibilities and find ourselves operating with fairly normal procedures based on what our guests’ expectations are.”
Kim Murray, general manager at Senate Hospitality Group, LLC’s Westin Memphis Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., said, most of the hotel’s groups are back to business since the vaccines have rolled out.
“We will make arrangements with groups that want some of the guidelines we were doing during COVID if they feel more comfortable,” Murray said. The property has maintained its sanitation stations, and still asks customers to social distance as much as possible.
In some areas of a hotel, the sealed/portioned food template could continue, such as for service at poolside and at golf course events. Pre-portioned meal catering may also prove to be at least a partial answer to the labor crisis by not requiring chef attendants to work at event food stations.
Many hotels were tasked with handling extra packaging waste and pre-portioned food containers during the pandemic. Murray reported, however, that The Westin Memphis Beale Street had very little waste.
“Our vendors adjusted to what we needed and sold us pre-packaged items because they knew our restrictions,” Murray said.
During the pandemic, when only small groups were meeting, pre-packaging items “made a lot of sense, and it was fairly easy to execute,” said Lassahn. “Now that you have much larger groups of 150 or more, the amount of time and labor it takes to make it happen is difficult from a production standpoint.”
Pre-portioning cut down on food waste, “but it did nothing for the landfills with the amount of packaging that went into them,” Lassahn added.
Other companies are finding the transition to post-pandemic operations a bit smoother.
“It has been very seamless for The Langham since we stayed open throughout the pandemic,” said Elizabeth Van Dyk, director of catering at The Langham Hotels and Resorts’ Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue in New York City. “We also have always offered grab-and-go options for clients upon request.”
What has been amplified, she added, is the questions that staffers ask clients during the booking and planning stages. For example, if they prefer setups and/or service to have any social distance or pre-packaged/portioned foodservice options.
“If the client asks for special foodservice options or setups we are as flexible as we can be and are very transparent as far as what we can and cannot do,” Van Dyk said. “But we have changed all of our capacity limits to reflect social distancing, so that people can be steered towards spaces that before the pandemic served 100 guests but now can be used for 50 guests.”
Many of the safeguards that were put in place during the pandemic will remain. Management at the luxury suite hotel has decided to keep both portable hand sanitizers and individual hand sanitizers for each position.
“Clients have told us they like having them there, and that it reminds attendees to keep their hands clean throughout the event,” Van Dyk explained.
Pre-packaged food in to-go containers works very well for corporate meetings, where attendees move every so often to other spaces for different parts of the program or breakouts.
“Again, this was an option pre-COVID, but now we overtly offer it to all meetings in case that is a priority for them,” Van Dyk said. “We have found it to be very popular.”