Now that the U.S. meeting market is healthy again — and more competitive than ever before for hotels — forward-thinking properties have begun to focus on new amenities to keep planners and attendees coming back year after year. And the best way to accomplish that say the experts is to offer attendees a complete meeting experience, an experience that very often catapults the hotel’s restaurants in the starring role. Especially restaurants that excel in such areas as farm-to-table menus and small plates/tapas-style presentations. It seems that corporate meeting attendees just can’t get their fill of foodie experiences as the restaurant craze continues to sweep the country.
Michael Dominguez, senior vice president of corporate hotel sales at Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, which operates hotels such as MGM Grand, Aria and Bellagio, which feature some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, says with a laugh that he credits the current restaurant craze to shows on The Food Network and other cooking channels.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in the sophistication of travelers — including meeting attendees — when it comes to food and beverage. Food is something we are all fascinated with now.” — Michael Dominguez
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in the sophistication of travelers — including meeting attendees — when it comes to food and beverage,” Dominguez says. “Food is something we are all fascinated with now. I joke that we all fantasize about becoming a renowned rock star chef. And you see that influence in the way hotels are presenting food today. One of the reasons that is happening is because more meeting planners and attendees are looking for real culinary expertise and excellence as part of their meetings. And part of that is because of the power of attendees today. They want a bigger and better meeting experience, and that now includes food.”
Over the past few years, there has been a major shift in the way travelers perceive hotel restaurants. “Not that long ago, almost no one thought of a hotel as a place you’d go to eat a great meal,” Dominguez says. “Now hotels are home to some of the best restaurants in the country. And that is especially true in Las Vegas.”
Lou Trope, senior vice president of food and beverage experiences at Denver-based Destination Hotels, whose flagship meeting properties include the Eden Roc in Miami Beach, Royal Palms in Scottsdale, and Paradise Point in San Diego, agrees that top-quality and unique restaurants are more important than ever before as a meeting amenity. “One reason is that you’re giving attendees a great, independent, restaurant-quality dining option,” he says. “But another is that you can use that restaurant to bring the experience directly into the meeting space. For example, as a banquet function you can have the chef prepare his signature dishes as a small plates experience. And that can become something really amazing in a group setting.”
Even in a destination as dominated by offsite restaurants operated by many of the world’s top chefs as New York City, new hotel restaurants that offer something unique and memorable have become a definite trend, says Sarah Gippin, director of sales at New York City destination management company Briggs Inc. And two of the key elements of that trend are farm-to-table menus based on fresh, locally sourced seasonal ingredients, and health-and-wellness regimens. “We’re definitely seeing more of those things in New York,” Gippin says. “But I’d also say those are broader trends that have been happening for a while and go beyond New York. Those are national trends.”
More and more hotels, both in New York and across the U.S., are bringing in celebrity chef restaurants as exclusive, upscale amenities, Gippin says, “Particularly in demand are high-end trendy spots that will really get attention,” she says. “There’s also more of a focus on high-end lounges and cool rooftop spaces that are perfect for groups. And being able to offer access to those kinds of exclusive restaurants and spaces gives the hotel an advantage in booking the group.”
In October, the Andaz Wall Street Hotel debuted its new Dina Rata restaurant and bar, which features upscale American bistro cuisine and a highly inventive cocktail menu. Located in the heart of Lower Manhattan’s financial district, not far from the new One World Trade Center, Dina Rata overlooks Pearl Street and the hotel’s signature courtyard. The intimate, cozy restaurant seats just over 60 people, so it is particularly suited to smaller groups who want an iconic New York experience. The restaurant specializes in small plates created from locally sourced ingredients from New York State’s Hudson Valley.
Another fresh concept in New York is Beer & Buns, a lively burger joint located in The Court, a St. Giles Premier Hotel on East 39th Street, and featuring a wide selection of craft brews and international beers, which are paired with an assortment of burgers, from the classic American version to Pan Asian-inspired sliders. Opened last March and capitalizing on the ever-increasing popularity of specialty brews among discerning groups, Beer & Buns showcases exotic beers such as Xingu from Brazil, Estrella Galicia from Spain and Blanche de Bruxelles from Belgium, as well as better known local favorites such as Blue Moon, HarpoonUFO and New Planet.
Last January, The Wayfarer, a classic American grille from the highly successful and innovative The Metric, a New York-based hospitality group, opened at the super-trendy and wildly popular The Quin Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The Wayfarer features an artisanal menu built around fresh, locally sourced fish and produce, top-quality shellfish and exceptional meats.
Another New York-based hospitality provider, David Burke Group, opened its David Burke fabrick restaurant earlier this year on the ground floor of the Archer Hotel, another super-trendy hotel located in the red-hot garment district. Derived from the Latin term faber, which translates as “artisan” and spelled with a lower-case “f,” the 84-seat restaurant is tucked behind a lush courtyard off 38th Street and features an airy dining room that is connected to the Archer’s main lobby by a cozy, stylish lounge.
It’s not just New York that is creating an ever-increasing list of new dining options for meeting planners who want a special experience for their attendees. The landmark Fontainebleau Miami Beach recently debuted a new StripSteak outpost from James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef Michael Mina, whose StripSteak at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas has been cited by Esquire for serving the best steak in the U.S. — Mina’s butter poached bone-in top loin. One year before he opened StripSteak at the Fontainebleau, Mina premiered modern bistro Michael Mina 74 in the hotel, which also features the Forbes Four Star and AAA Four Diamond Hakkasan, serving modern Cantonese cuisine, and Scarpetta from acclaimed chef Scott Conant.
In Boca Raton, Florida, the new Waterstone Resort & Marina, a Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, has focused on delivering spectacular waterfront dining. Offering two venues, the flagship Boca Landing and more casual Waterstone Bar & Grill, the 139-room hotel specializes in small meetings. Boca Landing features art-inspired interiors and a “water-centric” atmosphere that provides 180-degree views of Lake Boca and the Intracoastal Waterway. The restaurant features fresh seafood sourced from local fishermen and an oyster bar, as well as stone crabs — a renowned Florida delicacy — shrimp cocktail and marinated conch. The menu focuses on small plates and simply prepared fish and meat dishes.
Early in 2015, Michael Mina also will open a new Bardot Brasserie at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas — still the center of the culinary universe when it comes to celebrity chefs and over-the-top venues. Open for lunch and dinner, Bardot will pay tribute to the famous café culture of Paris while serving contemporary treats such as a dry-aged steak burger with Comté cheese and bordelaise sauce.
Celebrity chef Julian Serrano will open a new Lago restaurant at Bellagio in Las Vegas in March. Featuring a stylish and sophisticated dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views of the famous Bellagio fountains and Las Vegas Strip, Lago will be the first Italian restaurant from the James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred Serrano. The menu will feature small plates that celebrate classic Italian cuisine infused with Serrano’s creative flavor profiles.
“Las Vegas now has a reputation that creates an expectation from our meeting customers to not only have a new experience, but to have something that is going to be cutting-edge and world-renowned,” Dominguez says. “And that’s one of the reasons that we look to top chefs like Michael Mina and Julian Serrano to create those kinds of experiences.”
The new Della’s Kitchen at the Delano Las Vegas is being billed as “historic farmhouse meets urban eatery.” The inventive menu, created from sustainably sourced ingredients, “tows the line between healthy and decadent, featuring fresh local and regional ingredients including sustainably grown herbs from the hotel’s own greenhouse.”
In September, chef Tony Hu opened his critically acclaimed Lao Sze Chuan — which serves Sze Chinese cuisine — at the Palms Casino Resort. Adapted from Chu’s hugely popular Chicago restaurant, the Las Vegas Lao Sze Chuan also will serve Mandarin, Hunan and Shanghai specialties created for the Palms location.
In Orlando, another A-list destination, The Ritz-Carlton, Orlando Grande Lakes debuted its new Highball & Harvest restaurant in September. It blends rustic design elements with a level of contemporary refinement associated with the Ritz-Carlton brand. The “interactive” dining rooms feature tableside services such as the handcrafting of specialty cocktails and the shucking of fresh oysters. Chef de Cuisine Mark Jeffers continues his dedication to farm-to-table dining and authentic, local experiences. Fresh seasonal ingredients are harvested from the resort’s 7,000-sf Whisper Creek Farm, which opened in late 2012. Highball & Harvest also features a raw oyster bar, which serves house-made hot sauce; Pig-n-Potatoes, an all-day breakfast dish of poached egg, potato hash, and tender pork cheeks with sweet peppers, caramelized onions, H&H Hot Sauce and hollandaise sauce; Southern Spreads, pimento cheese dip and smoked fish dip served with pickled veggies, benne seed lavash, and grilled sourdough presented in a metal tackle box; and Smoked Lamb Brisket with boiled peanut “baked beans” and collards.
In Atlanta, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta — one of the city’s landmark meeting hotels since 1967 — has created something new from something old and beloved. Earlier this year, the hotel reopened its signature amenity — the rotating, blue-domed, 93-seat Polaris restaurant and lounge that sits atop the 22-story property. Polaris, which officially reopened in June after the hotel underwent a $65 million renovation, serves handcrafted cocktails and creative shared plates that are highlighted by panoramic views of the downtown skyline. Polaris sources its “soil to city” ingredients from local purveyors, as well as produce from the hotel’s rooftop garden. Visible from the restaurant, the Polaris rooftop garden features homegrown vegetables, herbs and fruit that are incorporated into food and cocktails. The garden also grows flowers, seasonal plants and features the only peach tree on Peachtree Street. In addition to growing produce, chef Pfefferkorn tends two hives of more than 10,000 honey bees in the garden, where busy insects produce several gallons of fresh honey to be sold at the restaurant and hotel.
The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, located at the edge of the city’s historic Inner Harbor and near downtown, has debuted a new Apropoe’s restaurant named after local hero and literary titan Edgar Allen Poe. Designed as a modern au courant restaurant, Apropoe’s is billed as more than just a restaurant. It is a versatile, functional space that includes spaces to work, gather and play. Fresh and local ingredients are sourced daily, with some picked straight from the hotel’s own herb garden located on the fifth-floor pool deck. Although the restaurant serves excellent food, it also is noted for the fact that meeting attendees work, relax, plug in, meet and socialize there.
In North Carolina, the Raleigh Marriott City Center has begun an extensive renovation that will add a new Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen to its dining options. The new restaurant will offer a refined take on traditional Southern cuisine, inspired by the high-quality seasonal ingredients available from North Carolina and regional farmers. Rye will represent a next-generation collaboration between a restaurant kitchen and local farmers.
While farm-to-table menus have been a trend for several years, small plates or tapas-style menus are emerging as the next big trend.
“That trend is really being driven by the fact we live in a society now that is all about sharing and also having a social experience,” Dominguez says. “And sharing small plate meals is a very social experience. It’s also an adventure, because you get to try a lot of different things, rather than just eat one entrée.”
Trope agrees that small plates are now a major trend that will gain even more momentum in 2015. “And we’re looking at a couple of concepts for future development that are based on small plates and customizing the guest experience,” he says, adding that in effect, a small plates menu can emulate the much pricier experience of a chef’s seven-course tasting menu. “And it also means you can have more of a communal experience.”
Another trend Trope thinks is still in its early stages is a commitment to local brewers and artisanal makers of local spirits. “For example, in San Diego we have a ton of great microbreweries,” he says. “So now I’m going to try to make sure I bring microbreweries into meetings and events. But there are also now great local spirits makers in San Diego. And bringing them in means you can do a unique local bar based on locally produced products.”
With so many of the new restaurants being opened touting their farm-to-table regimen of locally sourced seasonal ingredients, it’s hard to claim any truly unique innovation at this point.
However, the Aloft Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina — one of the least well-known but truly sensational regional food destinations in the country — has indeed discovered something new.
The hotel works with 20-year-old, Asheville-based Wild Food Adventures to give meeting attendees a one-of-a-kind culinary experience. Programs for groups include foraging expeditions in local woods, “show and smell” presentations, cooking classes and five-course wild food banquets. The company’s signature experience combines “lookin’ and cookin.’ ” Attendees are taken outside to eat. Expert guides lead them on a woodland shopping spree, gathering wild mushrooms, plants and other extreme cuisine. Small servings are cooked up in the great outdoors, then the rest of the gathered food is taken back to the hotel, where the restaurant or caterer prepares a banquet featuring the unique and healthful, highly nutritious, tasty foods. Wild Food Adventures is the only forage-to-table company in the U.S. Its tours have been ranked by Fodor’s as one of the 10 best food experiences in the world. In 2010, Time called foraging “the latest culinary obsession.” Noma Restaurant of Copenhagen, whose always changing menu is entirely focused on foraging, has been the No. 1 restaurant in the world three of the past four years. It has made foraging and self-catering a worldwide phenomenon that Wild Food Adventures delivers to meeting planners and attendees.
Meanwhile, at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Florida — formerly The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach — executive sous chef Jason McGarry, a graduate of the prestigious Greenbrier chef’s apprenticeship program, is focusing on more healthful fare crafted from plant-based foods.
His “meatless menu,” which is garnering attention among foodies as well as animal rights activists, was recently featured at a local event for the South Florida Wildlife Center’s Wildlife Trauma Hospital.
At Eau Palm Resort & Spa, McGarry is creating an Ayurvedic pantry in the kitchen of the rebranded resort to cater to guests following the traditional healing diet of the Indian subcontinent.
His health-and-wellness menu flourishes at the hotel and includes Middle Eastern Eggs Shakshouka for breakfast and a full Mediterranean breakfast buffet that features more healthful and nutritious options than the typical hotel menu.
“There’s a heightened sense of awareness around healthy living, cooking and eating,” McGarry says, “and guests are asking for lighter foods, and we are delivering them here at Eau Palm Beach. The important thing is always the purity of the ingredients.” He adds that he is encouraged that more and more guests at the resort are interested in more healthful options — including many meeting attendees. And he is delivering, in the hope that his food will become a marketing asset for the rebranded hotel. C&IT