A Perfect Pairing

Working with your hotel F&B director

hotel F&B directors

Kings of the kitchen (from left to right): Barry Sondern, Dan Piccolello, David Holland, Todd Kohls, Michael McPhie, Brian Pierce

Sometimes, it’s the people in lesser-known roles who turn out to be the key players. So it goes with food and beverage directors. Most guests never lay eyes on them; few actually know what they do. Even meeting planners often funnel their F&B concerns through intermediaries, such as the conference services manager or event team specialist. Yet, these directors are the lodging industry’s most important employees when it comes to driving F&B revenue -- hotels’ second most important profit center (after room rates), upward of a 40 percent margin in any full-service property.
    The F&B directors who share their expertise on the following pages were chosen for their hands-on approach to meetings business. All are adamant about establishing an early and ongoing communication with planners, from site inspection to on-site arrival. They believe a quality meal can be served on any budget. They are committed to the notion that the ultimate success of an event is indelibly tied to the food and drink served.
    “There are a lot of moving parts involved in food and beverage,” says Dan Piccolello, F&B director at the 800-room Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. “Sometimes I feel like I am standing there, baton in hand, keeping them in sync. If they move out of sync, they’ll collide, and if that happens, the banquet will be a disaster.”
    Every F&B director is responsible for a hotel’s entire food and beverage operation, which includes all restaurants and bars, room service, banquets, weddings -- in sum, all in-house meals -- as well as off-site catering. Add to the job description the oversight of the staff supporting all of these operations. In large convention properties, that could be as many as 300 or more regular employees who require constant training, along with support staff brought on to help out during peak times. In addition, directors must purchase all the food and identify and retain key suppliers. They also work side-by-side with the executive chef in designing all of the hotel’s menus, from fancy banquet to fleeting meeting break.

Knowing what works
The F&B directors with an added creative edge are those who have a hands-on culinary background, whether having worked their way up in hotel kitchens from dishwasher to sous-chef or having studied cooking at a prestigious culinary institute.
    “At a lot of properties, the F&B director’s role is very institutional, almost clinical. If the conference services manager comes to them with a planner’s question about wine pairing, they have to go to their sommelier for the answer,” says Brian Pierce, F&B director at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale (Ariz.) at Troon North. “Because I have culinary training, the planner knows I can speak directly to their question, and that immediately makes them feel more comfortable and confident.”
    Michael McPhie, F&B director at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa and a formally trained chef, agrees. “When a meeting planner asks me if I can add this to the plate or change that, I can tell them from experience whether it will work,” he says. “A lot of my F&B colleagues will have to check with the executive chef.”

Kathy Rowe

Kathy Rowe

At Boston-based Sonesta Hotels & Resorts, Kathy Rowe, senior vice president, oversees direction of the chain’s 22 food and beverage directors. She also is the creative voice behind Sonesta’s recently launched Food Is Art program, which gave chafing dishes in every hotel kitchen the boot.

M&C: What’s your F&B philosophy?

Rowe: I believe people eat with their ears first, then their eyes, then their mouths. When you put that plate in front of a customer, the food on it should look beautiful. Take a slice of tenderloin at a carving station. Instead of the guest getting a slice and moving on to the next station, the chef will decorate it with a dollop of garlic-roasted mashed potatoes, two spears of grilled asparagus and drizzle it with a raspberry demi-glace. The guest walks away with a miniature work of art.

M&C: What exactly is the role of an F&B director?

Rowe: They are the backbone of F&B operations. They are the true talent and creativity behind the scenes.

M&C: How do you involve the service staff?

Rowe: In training, we spend a lot of time describing the food, the flavors and the textures to them. And we build the serving stations together so they can experience the creation of the food and get to taste it. The service staff are the ones serving the guest, so it is absolutely critical that you make them a part of the whole operation in order to get their buy-in.

Filet mignon at Trump Intl Sonesta Beach Resortt


Darling dish: Filet mignon at Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort, Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.

M&C: Where do menu ideas come from?

Rowe: Our F&B directors like to compete with each other. When the F&B director at the Key Biscayne property developed the Floridian desert station, the F&B director at the Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort [in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.] was like, “aha.” He came up with a tapas station. They see and hear what the others are doing and are always trying to take it to the next level.

M&C: What trends are evolving?

Rowe: Building food on the plate, mixing textures and temperatures. Warm crispy noodles with a smooth cold slaw makes two temperatures and two textures come together. -- C.A.S.

The chef office at the New Orleans Marriott





Fancy worktable: The executive chef’s office at the New Orleans Marriott

Show and tell
At the New Orleans Marriott, F&B director Todd Kohls enjoys bringing planners into the heart of his operation -- a process greatly facilitated by management. Five years ago, the hotel decided to move its F&B department, which generates $25 million in revenues annually, front and center stage during site inspections, which can number as many as five a day. A $25,000 renovation transformed the executive chef’s office, located in the hotel’s busy kitchen, into a mini-banquet area, complete with a stainless steel dining table and a ceramic floor.
    It is here that a meeting planner sits down to champagne and conversation with Kohls and his team, which includes the executive chef, the banquet services captain, and the directors of catering and event operations. “I can’t tell you how many planners will say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been on a site visit and allowed to be in a kitchen,’?” says Kohls. “They love the atmosphere of watching the whole kitchen working around them, and it’s our way of saying we have the staff and the resources, and we guarantee you our F&B will make the difference.”
    This strategic F&B marketing has proved so successful, it has been officially designated a best practice by Marriott.

Working it out
A truly creative F&B director can make the best of most any restriction. For example, “I have a group coming in two weeks. They have a tight budget and asked for a discount off the regular catering menu,” says Barry Sondern, F&B director of the Omni Hotel at CNN Center in Atlanta. “Rather than just say, ‘OK, here’s your discount,’ I’m going to take that same menu and create meals that meet their price points and still look and taste great, like taking the filet mignon and turning it into a terrific flat iron steak.”
    Menu choices -- or the perceived lack thereof -- often become another test of an F&B director’s mettle. “Many hotels aren’t flexible on their banquet menus, and that’s a terrible thing,” says David Holland, F&B director at The Lodge at Sonoma, a Renaissance resort in the heart of California’s wine country. “After all, planners are the people driving
the business.”
    How far will Holland go to please? Several months ago a client requested a whole roast suckling pig be served at a dinner, something the hotel had never before been asked to create. “It was crucial to his event, though, and we made sure he got it,” says Holland.
    While going off menu poses a challenge to the entire flow of a kitchen’s food operation, it’s also a great chance for an F&B team to strut its stuff, says the New Orleans Marriott’s Todd Kohls. “We encourage planners on their site visit to think outside the box and do things differently. When they say they’d like to try a certain entree but are afraid it won’t work, we say, ‘Trust us. We can plate that for 2,000.’ And they always say no one ever told them that before.”
    It helps that Kohls, a 23-year F&B veteran who visits the Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Culinary Institute of America four times a year scouting for new talent, is passionate about his department’s contribution to meetings business. “We like to take things to a different level, because without the meetings business, our people don’t have the work,” he says. “And after Hurricane Katrina, which was a huge thing to go through, we know we have to step it up and get the word out.”
    Indeed, Kohls’ role in site inspections has become such an important force in snagging meetings business that Marriott recently named him a salesperson of the year, a title typically awarded to members of the sales force.

Going the extra mile
The hotel that asks planners to fit its schedule of operations has the formula backwards, says Hyatt’s Dan Piccolello. “It’s my job to make our facilities fit the client’s needs, not the other way around.” Opening restaurants an hour earlier in the morning, extending the lobby coffee shop hours to 2 a.m. and keeping room service humming around the clock are just some of the ways Piccolello reworks his department’s operations to meet planners’ requirements.
    It’s also the little extras that help make the difference between a great convention experience and a mediocre one, notes Piccolello. The makeup of the group will help dictate how he stocks the bars, what extra munchies he will add to the bar menus and what to-go items he’ll offer in the lobby coffee shop. “When you have a large group in-house, they come back from a night out and they usually are hungry and want to unwind in the bar, or take something into the lobby or up to their room,” he says. “It’s all about understanding people and traffic patterns.”

Dos and don’ts
Even the most senior meeting planners can trip up when in comes to food and beverage. Here are some insider tips on ways to enhance the planner-F&B relationship for the good of all concerned.
    Communicate. Need a special green tea for the CEO? Are some attendees on a strictly kosher diet? Don’t wait until the last minute to tell the F&B director. “I can’t do 30 kosher plates the morning of a breakfast, because I don’t have a kosher kitchen,” says Omni’s Barry Sondern. “I have to go and find a supplier, and maybe they can’t squeeze me in. Now you’re stuck.” But with enough advance notice, says Sondern, he can get anything. For a recent “green” association, he stocked the hotel’s kitchen with organic coffees and recycled all papers, bottles and cans during their stay. “We were able to do that because the meeting planner started working with us a year out,” he says.
    Similarly, “If you find out that even one group member is allergic to something like peanuts, call us immediately,” advises Four Seasons’ Brian Pierce. “If one person misses the fact that we have an attendee allergic to peanuts, we are all in trouble.”
    Nix personal preference. Just because you might swoon for a particular entree, don’t assume your taste buds speak for the whole group, says David Holland of The Lodge at Sonoma. “Seventy percent of people don’t like cold, poached salmon, but meeting planners love to request it,” he notes. “Then, nine times out of 10, when the first person who says they don’t like fish gets a chicken plate, everyone else begins asking for it. It turns out to be a terrible waste of food, and the meeting planner gets stuck paying for all the plated differences.”
    Don’t jump the gun. “Meeting planners love to have the entire buffet laid out and ready to go a half hour before anyone arrives,” says La Posada de Santa Fe’s Michael McPhie. “Let me tell you, food dies in a chafing dish. Anything that’s sitting out there that long will be inedible.”
    Stay destination-focused. Holland prides himself on executing group requests. However, he says, planners sometimes choose themes purely on a whim that work against the meeting’s location. “Don’t do a Mardi Gras party if you have chosen Wine Country for your meeting,” he says. “We can certainly do the theme, but it doesn’t fit the destination. Better to pull in elements from the destination and make them work for you.”
    Don’t be shy. “I know planners might be nervous about asking a sensitive question like whether we have enough staffing, but they needn’t be,” says Kohls. “Because of Katrina, I didn’t wait for them to voice that concern to me. I brought it right up to them.” In fact, Kohl did not lose a single member of his 262 staff, including 22 managers.