by Jonathan Vatner | December 01, 2006

StarwoodSpread-out spread:
Starwood Hotels favors
long rectangular tables.

Hotel banquets can be wonderful, memorable experiences -- but rarely have the food and decor been the stars of the show. The logistics of feeding hundreds of people all at the same time has traditionally dictated that everyone sits in a giant windowless box and eats the same mediocre food that has been sitting in a warmer for an hour.

All that is changing, however. Hotel companies have begun to innovate in this department, to create banquets that look less like stuffy hotel ballrooms and more like celebrity shindigs or dinner parties at home, with food that tastes as good as in a high-end restaurant.

“The impression is that hotel food is not good food,” says Daniel Briones, CPCE (certified professional catering executive), president of the Columbia, Md.-based National Association of Catering Executives and director of catering at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. On the contrary, he says, “In general, hotels have amazing culinary teams, amazing creative teams that can design restaurant-style experiences.”

Better food isn’t the only positive development. Following are 10 trends in hotel banqueting that are changing the way people eat en masse.

1. Skirting skirting

What’s out: The major hotel chains are doing away with those once-ubiquitous rectangular buffet tables with a skirt velcroed on. Westin Hotels & Resorts, for example, will be completely rid of them by 2008.

What’s in: Westin instead favors setups with clean lines and a minimum of visual noise. Daniel Briones at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia uses simple, elegant, unskirted tables that fit together in a variety of ways, depending on what shape is needed.

Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels & Resorts has even made an effort to reduce the prevalence of buffet tables, instead using an assortment of benches, ladders, stainless steel tables and risers from Alu, which are used in many retail stores to display merchandise. “We’re looking a lot to the retailers, and how grocery stores are displaying their products,” says Steve Enselein, vice president of catering and convention services for Hyatt. “We’re asking our banquet people to look at storefront windows for inspiration.”

At Disney Resorts, based in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the stainless steel prep tables from the kitchen often are brought out to serve as buffet tables, for a chic industrial look.

Bruno Lunghi, vice president of event management for Marriott International, based in Bethesda, Md., not only is fixing the tables but what’s on the tables, by elevating food with purpose-built risers rather than milk crates swathed in linens.

Skirted tables are gone at many break setups, too. At some member properties of White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts, soft drinks are served on grocery display racks and food on bakers’ racks. Other hotels use sideboards and armoires for breaks.

2. A lukewarm reception

What’s out: Warmers of all kinds

What’s in: The chains recently have begun to get rid of hot boxes that plated food sits in before it’s served. Alternative options include serving the food family-style or French-style, where dishes are plated right at the table.

On buffets, chafing dishes are going by the wayside, to be replaced by the likes of serving trays, woks, paella pans, cast-iron skillets, and heated bricks or marble slabs.

Hyatt is working with a task force to come up with alternative heat sources to keep food warm, including induction cookers, which heat food without being hot to the touch. “The chafing dish only gives the illusion of heat, anyway,” says Steve Enselein.

For now, the food stays hot because it’s served in smaller batches, which Hyatt’s catering experts claim is not too difficult a feat to pull off.

3. Room for squares

What’s out: Round banquet tables

What’s in: Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood are beginning to find alternatives to round tables. At Hyatt, for example, the hotels are mixing square and rectangular tables with round ones. Every property will have access to rectangular tables for a reasonable price, even if it means putting 6-foot by 30-inch tables together. David Dvorak, vice president of catering and convention services in North America for Starwood, is experimenting with using long communal tables that seat up to 18 people for banquets taking place at Sheraton Hotels and Resorts.

MarriottA clean look: Marriott is experimenting with purpose-built risers.

And it’s not just the tables that are going square. At the Marriott chain, banquets now feature square china, as well as stemless water and soft-drink glasses -- which aren’t square but certainly are more angular than before. “The water glass with a stem on it is kind of old-fashioned,” says Bruno Lunghi. “It doesn’t have the crisp, clean lines we’re looking for.”