Outside of overnight room revenues, no area in a hotel generates more money than meetings and events, and the corresponding catering, meals and breaks for attendees. It’s easy to overlook how important conferences are to the bottom line until something catastrophic happens to grind business travel to a halt. The hotel industry has experienced three of these incidents the past 20 years, with 9/11, the downturn in 2008, and now, the coronavirus pandemic.
While hotels were shut down earlier this year, some brands like Hilton took the time to reinvent their meetings program around the reality of COVID-19 precautions, with the goal of bringing conferences back in a modified form to restart revenues, since even a reduced number of events is preferable to zero business. Hilton emerged from the shutdown with its branded EventReady with CleanStay program, aiming to put meeting planners and attendees at ease when it comes to safety.
“Extra disinfection efforts are being put in place for the 10 most high-touch areas of the event room, including tables, chairs, door knobs, thermostat and lighting controls, window shade and drape controls, room phones, room furniture, podium and stage items, AV equipment and sanitizing stations,” said Tom Walters, SVP, F&B, Americas, Hilton. “We also present creative physical distancing meeting sets and meal service.”
Photo: Plated meals for Hilton events now have “a lot less happening tableside. We’re not setting out utensils—instead they’re pre-rolled. We’re also not coming to the table regularly and refilling water or doing other kinds of traditional servicing,” says Jonathan Raz, account complex director of F&B at Waldorf Astoria Orlando & Hilton Bonnet Creek in Orlando, Florida.
From an F&B standpoint, events usually encompass two main service options: meals (which can include a pre-function reception) and meeting breaks. Hilton removed nearly all self-serve components to those options and was able to move existing staff to areas that need it most without adding labor costs. Those employees were also equipped with PPE like masks and gloves to be worn at all times.
Meals for events can be broken down into two sub-categories: plated and buffet. Plated meals at Hilton now have “a lot less happening tableside. We’re not setting out utensils—instead they’re pre-rolled. We’re also not coming to the table regularly and refilling water or doing other kinds of traditional servicing. With less labor needed for plated meals, we’ve shifted them to our buffet stations,” said Jonathan Raz, Jonathan M. has a account complex director of F&B at Waldorf Astoria Orlando & Hilton Bonnet Creek in Orlando.
Buffet stations at the two-hotel complex—which has 1,503 rooms combined, along with 175,000 square feet of meeting space and sits on 482 acres with numerous outdoor event options, including poolside—have transformed completely due to COVID-19, with a combination of grab-and-go pre-portioned foods in eco-friendly, biodegradable containers and bento boxes, and action stations where cooks serve attendees hot food from behind plexiglass windows.
“Maintaining that human connection with our clients is crucial,” Raz said. “An attendee can still ask our team to customize their meal instead of choosing from pre-portioned servings. We’re maintaining the guest experience and have turned our coronavirus modifications for buffets into a positive.”
The same concept applies to meeting breaks at the complex. Staff serve coffee from behind plexiglass windows, and they’ve added touchless coffee dispensers, touchless glove applicators for employees, and pre-portioned snacks and desserts in single-use containers. Bottles and cans of beverages are also offered, and high-contact surfaces are cleaned every 30 minutes.
Overall, client feedback for Hilton’s program has been positive so far, according to the brand. At the Orlando complex in particular, the amount of outdoor space has been a deciding factor for some groups to return, since the extra room allows for comfortable social distancing, while the CDC has noted coronavirus may be less likely to spread outdoors when combined with proper social distancing.
The number of attendees for events at the Orlando complex has dropped by half or more compared to pre-COVID-19 levels—an average of 200 to 300 people today. The complex used to host multiple clients at once, but today’s bookings often have one group with the property all to themselves. Raz says this is currently beneficial to gaining trust with clients, since attendees feel safer with the extra room and corresponding social distancing during meetings and meals.
While the pandemic continues, those at Hilton say client trust is essential to building business back one group at a time. Other hotels can take a cue from Hilton’s success by emphasizing outdoor event options, and creating a comprehensive, easy-to-understand COVID-19 strategy for meeting planners that includes modified F&B service options. Also, listen to and solve client concerns before, during and after conferences to improve the chance for future bookings.