Christmas came early this year — or at least promotions for holiday dining bookings in hotels started earlier than usual, facing an uncertain season ahead.
Rising vaccine rates have helped bolster earlier bookings for some travelers, CNBC reported in September. And TravelPulse in October shared numbers from a recent Amadeus Rebuild Traveler Survey, which found that though 43% of respondents still are concerned about the risk of catching coronavirus while traveling — 73% are ready to roll. It’s a welcomed phenomenon for the hotels recovering from a drought in food-and-beverage revenues, after the ups and deep, deep downs experienced over the course of the pandemic.
But for many hotel companies and properties, circling back after a very unusual year, it means figuring out what F&B planning for the holiday season looks like in 2021. And with a labor crisis hampering staffing and global supply chain issues sparking inflation, hotels are curtailing services and taking a cautious — and more nimble — approach.
Traditions a strong pull
Early-2020 lockdowns around the country, and restrictions in travel and gatherings severely dampened holiday activity last year. But, as of mid-October, vaccination rates were up, and COVID cases and deaths were trending downward, Biden administration officials reported. The confidence the vaccine instills, coupled with the strong emotional pull of holiday traditions, is a favorable combination for the holiday dining business this year.
That is especially true at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley, a traditionally sought-after gathering spot for holiday revelers.
Mohonk decided to kick-start promotions earlier in 2021 than ever before in its 152 years —releasing its holiday campaign on July 6. As a result, guest reservations have increased by 60% compared to the past three years, including before the pandemic.
“Of course, Mohonk Mountain House is a holiday tradition for many people, so bringing guests back for the holidays or trying to inspire the thought of the holidays in the middle of the summer fit very well for us,” said Barbara Stirewalt, vice president and general manager at the resort. “And we did have an astounding response.”
Rethinking F&B planning
But hotel F&B officials said they are tweaking their offerings this year, not only to accommodate still-skittish guests but also to address labor pressures and supply chain challenges.
Ron Wichowski, vice president of operations at Dimension Development, oversees 15 hotel properties in Florida, Washington, D.C., New York, and New Jersey. Because of the lingering pandemic, payroll expenses have gone up 20% in some markets, and cost of goods and services has gone up 10% to 15% — ”and that’s if you can even get the goods and services,” he said. “Everything is backed up.”
Stirewalt at Mohonk also noted that food cost has increased, a fact that is at the top of the team’s planning, along with capacity restrictions. Accordingly, Mohonk has capped group sizes and spaced out seating, Stirewalt said.
“Our labor model is stretched to the limit in food and beverage,” Stirewalt said. “It has been incredibly challenging. Our ability to serve people and keep the guest experience high has led us to capacity constraints.
“It’s not just F&B labor, but also housekeeping and support service labor that we have been lacking,” she added. “We work with international programs and have looked at and revamped our compensation model. We have had positive changes, but as we come back, we are constrained in labor. During a holiday in the pre-COVID past, we could have serviced 1,200 guests. We’re now limiting ourselves to 400. It’s very different.”
But increased labor costs are part of the current normal for Wichowski’s operations.
“One of the benefits we have in most of our hotels is that we pay well,” Wichowski said. “That helps us retain our associates, which makes it a little easier to be sure we will be able to service a client.”
Nimble service and booking timeframes
Key to planning F&B offerings for more groups returning for banquets this holiday season is continuing to offer options in service, even if some options come at a higher cost.
Though reports continue to indicate travel is increasing, “there is still a lot of uncomfortableness, especially with groups that have older, senior travelers,” Wichowski said.
His company’s leadership was “aggressive” last year when budgeting for this year, believing pent-up demand would increase business, but they “aren’t quite there yet,” he explained. “Things are starting to trickle in, and we’re having a lot more dialogue with clients as we get closer to the holiday months.”
Projecting F&B revenue, even in the short time frame of the coming holidays, is tough, Wichowski said.
“You have a lot of last-minute bookings, which we’ve seen all year. It’s things that are being booked two or three weeks out,” he said. “Larger parties obviously have to book a few months in advance, because a lot of the space is full already, but there will be a lot more demand for short-term, smaller bookings.”
At Mohonk, smaller corporate bookings and family reunions have been very strong and continue to be, said Stirewalt.
But the same capacity constraints that may reduce efficiencies in labor are a positive for some groups.
“We’re seeing that they are requesting private spaces,” Stirewalt said. “They don’t want to be in the large, iconic dining room. It gives us the opportunity to give them a more intimate service.”
Mohonk did use partitions for a while during the pandemic in its large dining room and still has them available if guests request them. But because the room is so large, they are able to space seating well, she added
For Dimension properties, “friendlier” menu and service concepts utilized during the pandemic remain useful in this transitional period, Wichowski said.
“Maybe a client doesn’t want a plated dinner, because they want a little more variety, so we might elect to do stations or a buffet that is not self-served by the guest but served by an associate,” he said. “There is extra labor involved, but we explain that to the client, and they pick it up as a ‘station fee’ or ‘attendant fee.’ A lot of clients elect to go in that direction, so people aren’t handling the same tongs and utensils. At the same time, it elevates the service experience.”
Less tolerance for cancellations
Last year, holiday bookings were vulnerable to last-minute changes as a result of COVID restrictions. This year, Wichowski’s hotels have returned to being less tolerant of last-minute cancellations.
“Some planners have reached out to us with questions about cancellations and how we will hold them accountable (for holiday bookings at the Boca Raton Marriott in Florida),” Wichowski said. “At this point, the state is open 100%, and there are no restrictions on meetings. So, we’ve implemented our full cancellation policy and held firm on that.”
All in all, holiday travel is coming back, but it won’t mean a return to pre-pandemic practices.
As a result of higher turnover and cutbacks, Wichowski expects to be working with more inexperienced employees, who will need more training.
“So, when you have that situation,” he said, “it’s not a cut-and-paste from last year’s event. We have to be creative and flexible and get a good read for what the client wants and what they can afford — and make sure we don’t leave any money on the table either.”
Tad Wilkes is former editor of Hotel F&B Magazine, Nightclub & Bar Magazine and other hospitality industry publications.