from Eric von Starck, Panetière Marketing Advisors, published in 2004 by Hotel Executive - concerning hotel food and beverage marketing and building hotel F & B for niche markets.

Eric von Starck has been the General Manager of a Five Star restaurant, produced and directed theater and dance around the world, owned and ran a catering business in the Philadelphia market for eighteen years, sold it and is now part of the Panetiere Marketing Advisors. He consults on all marketing issues for hotels with particular attention to food and beverage challenges. He can be contacted 1 303 394 7592.

Food and Beverage:
How caterers can cream hotels and what to do to get the business back

"So tell me, chef, who and what is your comp set?"

"Well, we compete against the other four star center city hotels. That's for the group banquet business - both local and incoming."

"For the social business, frankly, we've got a lock because our ballroom is really elegant - chandeliers, damask walls - you've seen it. The social types and brides are all hot on it. I've got to say that our food is really imaginative - with good plate presentation and the service staff is up to the job."

That's all fine.

We're really happy for this property. We're caterers and this Exec Chef is being creamed by us. We want it to stay that way. She doesn't even know it and we are pleased to leave her in her bubble of "good plate presentation". She is one of our best business tools. Arrogance and ignorance - we love our competition to dabble in both.

As a group, we caterers know that our core competition is not just each other but hotel banquet departments. As a group, we all work hard to keep business away from those banquet departments. We are eager to take bites out of their feeder markets - all those charity social events and passionate brides.

We Caterers Concede The Group Business But We'll Not Give Up

The hotels have the lock on incoming group meeting business. We all know that. We do, however aspire to nibble away at even that market. Although the hotels have a better mix of facilities than we can provide - adaptable meeting spaces, boardrooms, size of a ballroom, the attached sleeping rooms, and the activity of the hotel sales teams, we do however try to play. We'll set up a retreat, we'll do all the AV equipment, we'll negotiate room rates at a nearby, appropriate hotel, and then we'll package the whole as an all inclusive "no-brainer" meeting. How frequently will a hotel do the same? We caterers give it our best even here with a market that the hotels own.

Social Business is Up For The Most Nimble To

Grab

However, when we move into the social functions, the balls, the gatherings, the weddings, and the special occasions, we caterers come into play and do so strongly. We have been innovating for years - innovating against each other and the hotels.

When I speak of innovation, it is not born only of the established catering businesses but has also been driven by the influx of two passionate groups. One group is comprised of skilled middle managers who were down-sized out of corporate America and have elected to follow their food passion rather than a quiet "retirement". They have followed that passion into catering and have done so with the skills of real managers rather than just "foodies". They may not have gone to Cornell but they might have gone to Wharton. Do you get the drift? Combine these folks with the overabundance of chefs being produced by all the culinary schools and you get a bubbling brew of well fermented chefs, business people, and entrepreneurs who have over the last fifteen years set up tens of thousands of catering businesses. In many cases, these are all professionals with passion, imagination, and a spirit of innovation. All hungry.

On the flip side, what food, menu, service style, design, and decor innovations have we seen in hotel banquet departments over the last twelve years? Maybe some new foods - but they are also foods that will have already gained prominence in the television and print lifestyle magazines. How have the banquet departments changed in response to all the "frou-frous" that Martha Stewart has been showing our customers for the last ten years? How creative have the displays become? How many mirrors will you still see in the hotels? These are the same mirrors that came into hotel banquet design in the 1920's. How organic is the banquet kitchen? How many tapas banquet menus are there in the hotel banquet department? When was the last time a hotel banquet department proposed doing a "family style" banquet service and got it past the Exec Chef?

Yes, we all know of a few hotels that are responsive to their customers, but how many more are responsive only to the confined, delineated, and structured wisdom of the Exec Chef and the "practices" of the banquet department.

"This is what we do. We're good at it."
Full stop.

Sites Eat Into The Pie - Twin Attack from Caterers and Sites

While the catering crowd has been nibbling away at the social feed markets, another complimentary group of nibblers has come into play: the mansions, the galleries, the historical houses, farms, barns, and museums. These buildings and their operating boards are all looking for a piece of what used to the hotels' landscape. They all have interesting, unique facilities: gardens, rivers, ballrooms, soaring spaces, intimate salons, and grass terraces with oaks. There are few hotels, with their generic decor -- their airwalls, their lack of furnishings, lack of unique design -- that can compare with what so many of these sites have to offer. These sites are hungry for business and make no mistake about it. Their boards have all identified rentals as a profit center. Each of those rentals is one less event for a hotel.

The result of these two forces is separate but integrated attacks on the local feeder markets for hotel banquet departments.

What are those banquet departments up against?

Menus

Caterers are offering a significantly wider array menu ideas and menu patterns that are more responsive to the sites at which they work and the broader array of clients with whom they can work. They are not stuck with a single bricks and mortar "look" nor do they stick themselves with standard plated menus. Caterers branch out to:

1. Tapas

2. Taster plates

3. Kosher-like

4. Kosher

5. Extensive children's menus

6. Organic

7. Vegetarian

8. The foodscape of "ethnic"

How many more lifestyle markets, how many more economic groups are opened up by menu creation that is niche market driven rather than by the kitchen's comfort zone?

Food Service Styles

Caterers have nimbly followed the lifestyles of their clients and give these lifestyles expression with styles of food, menus, service, and presentation. It is possible to serve a breast of chicken in more ways than one and I hate to tell hotels but there really are more options than just "Plated" or "French". When a caterer is assisting a client and figuring out the psychology of the event, here are the bag of tricks that caterers carry around in their marketing packs:

1. Table d'Hôte or "Family Style" - guaranteed that everyone will have a better time.

2. Russian Style - which is a "self serve" French.

3. French Service.

4. Butlered out buffet - to a "stand-up" event.

5. All the kinds of buffets.

6. Just butlered finger food.

7. Limitless ways of presenting the foods.

8. Disappearing staff.

9. Hovering staff.

10. Cadres of waiters each carrying a service tray or single plate.

11. Tray service from football trays à la hotel.

12. Plated with clôches - presented altogether at one table.

Tables

What is up with those 72 inch rounds with which hotels like to lash themselves?

I would contend that it is only crazed extroverts or devoted Zen monks who could feel comfortable at a 72 inch round. No one ever gets a kick out of being marooned on one of those monsters where isolated loneliness takes on the grimace of desperation. Does that make for an engaging event? No, of course not.

When a guest is coerced into pulling out a chair to sit at one, that guest is looking at a desert of linen and is forced to focus on the centerpiece, the bread, and the "problems" with the food and the service.

A big table is a big failure. Caterers know this and they work with a variety of tables and shapes. They know that intimacy, elbow rubbing intimacy, makes for a better dynamic, an easier flow of conversation, and less stressful isolation. Caterers know that if a 60 inch table has ten seated at it, there is a good dynamic and, if a 48 inch round has eight or six seated at it, there is an even better dynamic. Finally, for the more formal occasions, groups of banquet tables can be placed end to end and set on a moving diagonal with others set at 90 degrees to each other. This format, caterers know will allow for the greatest creation of energy and the greatest ease of conversation. It seems formal but its energy paths are actually exuberant.

Now why was it that hotels are using those 72 inch rounds? Oh, yes, so that the guests have a miserable dinner experience. Hotels, please keep pursuing your innovative sense of style. We love you.

Decor

Caterers have a hard life. They have to schlep all that heavy equipment in and out of all those houses, sites, and tents. The good part of that brute labor is that caterers, unlike hotels, are not stuck with just one "look" - one space configuration.

Because each catering site will have its own unique decor, furniture, plantings, and gardens, there is likely to be a substantially more defined and client responsive visual style than the generic look of most hotel properties - even when they are 5 Star 5 Diamond. This is, in many cases, a real, defined benefit to the clients; they are getting a "look" that most suits them and their event.

Sites/Venues

A hotel cannot change its skin (no, airwalls do not qualify) to suit the client so it must look only for clients whose style and needs are reflected in that one property. Meanwhile, the caterers are taking those same clients to sites that might better reflect those needs and aspirations. It is a tough life in that ballroom.

Tenting

Tenting has become so much more affordable over the last fifteen years that it is a serious contender for the alternative site and the party at home. Caterers know this and aggressively market tenting options. A tent really does say "special event happening here." Tents, too, are nibbling away at the hotel pie.

Web Presence

Take a moment to search on Yahoo. I suggest Yahoo because it will give you a better cross section of the marketplace than Google, allowing the hotels to rank better than will Google. Look for, say, "banquet site st.louis" and you might be surprised to discover that there is no single hotel listed in the first 50. A search for "wedding site st.louis", yields the first hotel at #34 - a Sheraton Four Points.

So who is grabbing that very obvious web space: 3rd party site channels, 3rd party wedding channels, sites and caterers.

All that web space available for the asking and hotels don't bother to ask. What else don't hotels ask of themselves for themselves?

How to Purée Those Caterers

Find your niche markets. Appropriate them for your property. Then, use those niches to inform the work of the culinary team, the banquet team, and the marketing folks. Let your markets dictate your work rather than your work limit you to proscribed markets. Finding those niches should be fun, enlivening, and enriching - for all the departments.

A. Open up your kitchen to what the caterers are already doing better -- menus and food service styles. As usual, the mantra of "We can't do that!" is why another business is getting a client that could have been yours.

B. Open up your banquet department to begin to consider a variety of seating configurations. Allow the department to take flight with research into and adoption of the new, the different, the unique. Specialize in building from the ground up for each client.

C. You, too, can have a kosher kitchen. The kosher kitchens in synagogues can be rented. The plates and flatware can come from the unopened crates at your favorite rental company. It can be done.

D. Invest in simple decor schemes - screens, urns, dividers that can give your function rooms a variety of visual impressions. Make sure that the lighting can be focused away from the walls and onto the people and your new focal pieces. It doesn't need to cost much - just imagination. Rocks, candles, screens, real trees, sculpture, urns . . . they can do the trick. The point here is to show your clients that you are uniquely reflecting what they want without forcing them to use a decorator for $10,000 or migrate to a mansion site or a backyard tent.

E. If you have a bit of space, just put in a tent, any tent for any client and make that their special space - even if it's just an accent, the skeleton of an idea. It will still create that special visual celebration focus point. Yes, tents can be put up in prefunction areas and ballrooms.

F. Take back the web world. Write exhaustive, imaginative, living copy about what you have accomplished. Even better would be to write about what your clients have accomplished. Stay away from advertising blurb and give the world a taste of your new, all encompassing vision. Search engines find specific words and "gorgeous ballroom" is just two.

The stealthy invaders have struck yet it is possible to come to grips with their invasion.

End

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"So tell me, chef, who and what is your comp set and who are our traget audiences?"