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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 5, 2012

James DaleTwenty-six years after starting out as a coffee server at a hotel restaurant, James Dale, now senior catering director at the 1,306-room Grand Hyatt New York, has walked off with Hyatt's prestigious Donald N. Pritzker Award for Excellence. Global competition is stiff for this lifetime achievement award, which honors general managers and directors in the field operation. "I was completely surprised and humbled, because they only give out one award a year," says Dale. "I went up to my hotel room to call and tell my wife and found out that she already knew and had been watching the awards through a webcast set up by the company." 

Life in the hotel industry's F&B realm is demanding. Dale estimates he and his staff of 12 execute more than 5,000 events per year, from small, closed-door board meetings to over-the-top weddings for several hundred. Last year, he was responsible for generating $40 million in catering revenue, and with meeting business picking up, he predicts this year will be even bigger. Meetings, he says, force him to stay on top of his creative game and relationship-building skills. "You have to really listen to what the client is asking for, then dig deeper and peel back the layers," says Dale. "Sometimes they have ideas that you know from experience is not the way to go. Like pre-setting the ballroom with smoked-salmon appetizers. The whole place will smell like fish by the time they open the doors."

The best part of his job, Dale says, is helping planners think outside of the box to stretch their budget dollars. To do it, he turns to his iPad, which is loaded with past events, to help clients visualize each space and pull ideas together. A hotel's public spaces, he says, offer tons of alternatives without adding to the bottom line. One of his personal favorites is staking out a corner of the Grand Hyatt's spacious lobby, with its striking sculptures, for a group breakfast. "The lobby has its own energy, and attendees can soak that up before heading in to the meeting rooms," he says. "It creates a buzz. And the other guests are like, 'What's going on over there?' It's inclusive and exclusive at the same time."

When he isn't checking up on the competition, meeting with clients or mulling over menus, Dale says he is out of the hotel looking for inspiration, which often turns up in the most unexpected places. On a recent scouting mission with the hotel's executive chef to a design and décor showplace in search of serving vessels, it was the store's trendy stainless-steel and glass shelving that caught his eye. "We bought the shelving instead. They became our new buffet tables," says Dale. As for his thoughts on food trends, the organic, local-farm-to-table, responsible-eating movement is not going away. More and more, he says, clients are asking for healthy options -- and not simply vegetarian. And the proliferation of food network shows, he adds, has made guests much more willing to try ethnic dishes. "Fifteen years ago, if you served someone seared tuna, they would send it back. Now everyone eats sushi," he notes.