Hilton official seek to improve flavor of hotels' restaurants
If you tuned in to last Wednesday's episode of Bravo's "Top Chef D.C.," you would have caught a glimpse of what Beth Scott does every day -- spicing up the menu.
On the show, the vice president of restaurant concepts for full-service and luxury brands at Hilton Worldwide challenged contestants to create a signature dish for the hotel chain. In reality, Scott, who has held her position for about a year, finds herself similarly challenged to breathe new life into Hilton's food and beverage division.
"For so long, we, as a hotel industry, had given up," Scott said before a screening of the episode at the Washington Hilton last week. Hilton has a vast network of celebrated chefs, several of whom were displaying their craft at the screening, but Scott admits food and beverage has not been a high priority at all of the more than 530 hotels and resorts that fly the Hilton flag. She hopes to change that.
"We want to recognize and celebrate the talent that we have and get all of our stakeholders on board with [food and beverage] being a main focus," Scott said.
It is no surprise that Hilton is lavishing greater attention on its food and beverage services. Industry-wide, the segment accounted for roughly 25.6 percent of hotel revenue in 2009, according to PKF Hospitality Research. Hilton declined to provide its revenue figures for the segment, but Scott said it makes up one-third of the company's property revenue.
"The hotel industry is realizing that revenue per room is going down based on the lack of travelers," said Reginald Foucar-Szocki, professor of hospitality and tourism management at James Madison University. Operators, he said, are asking, "How can we get guests to spend more money? And one way is through food and beverage."
To be sure, restaurant revenue has continued to slip since the onslaught of the recession in 2008. PKF estimates food sales dipped 19.5 percent in 2009. Still, the relevance of the segment has become more apparent across the industry, Foucar-Szocki said. He noted the proliferation of operators teaming with specialty chains, such as Wolfgang Puck, and bringing in celebrity chefs to keep guests at the hotel.
While Hilton is not opposed to partnering with such entities, Scott said, "We can do it just as well as anybody else; we have the talent and we know the mission." Her determination to take ownership of the process is largely born out of her background. Having helped celebrity chef Todd English launch restaurants at such hotels as the Bellagio in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, Scott began questioning why hotel operators didn't just do it themselves.
That led Scott to try her hand at corporate restaurants for Lowe's Hotels, where she was for five years before moving to Asia to do consulting work. When Scott returned to the United States, she wanted to team with a hotel operator with global reach. And Hilton, which had re-merged with its international brand a few years back, was a natural fit. "Hilton had also just been bought by Blackstone, so there was a renewed energy," Scott said. "I knew that if I could do what I did on a small scale on a greater scale, the impact would be extraordinary."
There are at least 20 goals that Scott has on her agenda, but the most immediate involve changing the mind-set around restaurants and helping hotels streamline the process. "We're not looking to brand food and beverage, but to brand quality," she said. "We're not saying that every Hilton has to have this hamburger, but if you walk into Hilton, you should know that they are going to have a good hamburger."
Much of Scott's work is centered on creating standout concepts that can translate across many of the 76 countries where Hilton has hotels. Scott said that Hilton has 70 hotels in the pipeline in Asia, each slated to have four to five restaurants. "We are opening a total of 350 restaurants in three years," she said. "There is no possible way that we can take a very linear approach to that process. We have to create some concepts that have legs beyond one hotel."
To that end, Scott and her team have been testing a number of concepts at the Hilton McLean, which sits adjacent to the company's headquarters. "If we are going to do an American steakhouse oversees, we don't need to reinvent it over and over again," said Scott, noting that the steakhouse, along with a 24-hour bistro and hibachi-style restaurant, is among the top concepts.
While having an arsenal of concepts on hand is important to Scott, so is authenticity. Each hotel still retains its own local flavor, meaning you'd likely see blood pudding for breakfast at a Hilton in London or crab cakes for dinner in D.C. The company just completed a global survey of some 22,000 guests and employees, and found that authenticity as well as healthy options and convenience were important.
"If you understand the needs of the guest and what attracts them to you, then you can be successful," Foucar-Szocki said. "Hilton is once again refocusing who they are and what their role is within the larger hotel industry."
Scott trusts that Hilton managers are largely capable of enhancing their restaurant operations. But for those who are not equipped to do it themselves, Scott is working toward an October launch of an interactive database of preferred partners that operators can team with. She calls it her "eHarmony" of hotel operation.
Changes can certainly help sell a hotel. But as franchisees throughout the industry began suffering from the downturn, some bristled at requests to upgrade their sites with pricey brand rollouts.
"We don't ask [our owners] to do anything that is extraordinary in extraordinary times," Scott said. Instead, she appeals to owners' need to stay competitive and differentiate themselves from other brands. "Our owners are starting to understand the need to put some capital back into their hotels."