Southeast Asia has an exciting F&B scene - from speakeasy bars, street-food, to Michelin-star restaurants. With all of these things happening both inside and outside of hotels, we would like to know what kind of challenges hoteliers are facing, and how hoteliers might overcome them.

Joint our conversation today are:
Ludovic Blanc: Director of Food & Beverage at Royal Hotel Hoi An MGallery by Sofitel;
Rémi Prim: Food and Beverage Manager chez Pullman Pattaya Hotel G;
Frederic Kolde: Director of Food and Beverage at Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok;
Brendon Partridge: Director of Food & Beverage, Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park;
Rohit Sachdev: Managing Director at SOHO hospitality

If you could identify the top three challenges you have, what are they and how did they come about?

Ludovic Blanc (LB): Recruitment: Finding staff is always a challenge, and I am not saying it is happening only here in South East Asia, but experience is predominantly here in Vietnam, Tourism is booming and new hotels are opening every week. This was the same where I was previously posted - Thailand, where tourism is driving the economy and forever growing. We could hardly find any really qualified employees.

Marketing: Finding the right marketing channel mix is not easy as society is overloaded by communication platforms and it also depends on everyone’s habits in actually searching for information that they need. Finding the right balance across a large spectrum of communication channels where you are not harassing people, nor are you investing too much money in paid-for channels is a challenge. Still, it is difficult in some places to be heard across all of the advertisers’ daily hubbub.

Innovation: The F&B scene is a worldwide phenomenon. I can see what’s new on the other side of the world in a second and trends are changing fast. Some trends last longer than others depending on the public, so you need to make sure that if you are pushing something new, you are really good at what you are doing and create a timeless success, otherwise be ready to re-invest often to catch up with whatever the next trend is. Competition with other restaurants is fierce. City hotels have an additional challenge, as our guests are always tempted to try as many experiences as possible when traveling and big cities are flooded with amazing restaurant concepts. Some of the best examples of these can be found in Tokyo, Bangkok, Paris, New York and Singapore.

Rémi Prim (RP): It is always a challenge to provide the same standards of quality when it has to be done with high frequency or on a big volume event / function. At the end each needs to develop their own ROI that is in line with the volume.

What I do with my team is focus on a particular position and focus on the needs of that position. There are less and less passionate people in our industry these days. Everyone seems to think that he or she is good at everything and they neglect the value of ‘specialization’.

I think it is important to enhance passion by highlighting a position - for example bartender, chef, banquet manager and so on, and demonstrate their value.
Passion leads to ownership and when every member of a team can take control over their environment, then the work of a manager becomes much easier which leads to great results.

Frederic Kolde (FK): There is no doubt that Bangkok is a foodie’s paradise; offering inexpensive high-turnover street food, to Michelin and San Pellegrino 50 Best restaurants. In this maturing dynamic market, stand-alone restaurants operate with more fluidity, and luxury hotels seek to differentiate themselves whilst balancing expectations and tradition.

Staffing: The influx of restaurant opportunities in Bangkok also negatively affects our current and future staffing levels. We not only strive to remain attractive to our guests, but also, to our associates. The industry workforce now has an abundance of choices, where salary is the ultimate determining factor. New developments can typically offer more from the start than older establishments that have set precedence in their payroll structure.

‘Camera Eats First’- The influence of social media. Today’s largest demographic of diners, millennials, dine at restaurants more than any previous generation, and are also more likely to base their dining decisions on social media reviews, often with the same impact as they would heed a comment from a friend, or a post from a HiSo (High Society person) that they follow on Instagram. Maintaining social presence is critical in capturing the attention and intrigue of this influential group.

Brendon Partridge (BP): 1. Social media: Life changes fast but social media moves faster than us all. How do we keep up with social media? This is a challenge we all face but at the same time social media has given us so much opportunity and allows us to communicate faster and get information to the market faster. We are all still learning and adapting as the playing field keeps changing. New tools become available on a daily basis and we continue look at how we can utilize these tools to portray our story to the market.

  1. Talent: How we attract and maintain talent remains a big concern for all major companies. We all want the best talent to be part of our teams and we can achieve more with a great team and entrusting our teams

  2. Work-life balance: The hospitality industry has never been known for a great work-life balance. Long hours, high pressure, high intensity, working weekends and public holidays can all make it a very unsociable career choice and can be a major deterrent for younger generations to join the industry. It’s hard to attract good talent. We now see industry leaders trying to change the norm creating well-being programs for associates and some leading restaurants moving to three and four day work weeks. These programs have so many benefits to the associate and to the workplace, including higher associate engagement, higher productivity and increased guest satisfaction. Those who can provide a good work-life balance will win good talent.

  3. Execution and the pursuit of perfection: As we all become closer via social media and traveling becomes more affordable, we gain greater knowledge and higher expectations. We all want that flawless experience or maybe the perfect Instagram photo.

In the service industry we strive for perfection - perfect service, perfect ambience, perfectly executed food and the perfect beverage experience all packaged within one concept. When chasing perfection we also continue to learn and evolve and our perception of what a perfect experience is, can also change. Each guest also has a slightly expectations or ideas as to what their perfect experience is. In hospitality you need to have drive rise up from deep within yourself that inspires you to chase perfection.

Rohit Sachdev (RS): One of our biggest challenges this year was to restructure Soho Hospitality in order to expand our restaurant business at a faster pace and across international waters in the next five years. Since our inception in 2010, we have grown our business organically but there comes a time when you realize that there is an opportunity to scale the business and the time is now. Our second challenge is that we have a significant amount of deal flow coming through but we currently lack the capital to take on some of these projects. Lastly, we are in a human capital business and it is becoming more challenging in terms of recruiting and retaining the right resources to service our customers

How can these problems be solved?

LB: Recruitment : Not only hotels but also the tourism & education governmental entities must put a strong emphasis on the importance of the hospitality industry on the economy, and should elevate the image of the hospitality workmanship.

Retain talent : Luckily for a large group like us (ACCOR), and having properties in so many destinations, we have the ability to train staff, to develop them and get them to climb the ladder within the organization, moving from one hotel to another whenever they are ready or even to help them be closer to their family members. This means that we have created a talent pool that is highly mobile, and whose members have opportunities to get more responsibility and higher positions even as they are learning.

Marketing: The Sales and Marketing departments in hotels need to work alongside with the F&B department to develop common strategies and make sure that F&B is part of the overall hotel sales and marketing plan. When I have a Michelin star chef coming, we draft the full advertising plan with them, identify triggering factors for customers, coordinate action plans and also choose the types of media that will be used (video, photo, newspaper, database...).

Innovation: Nowadays brands either have R&D departments for F&B concepts or they will call in consultants to help in get things right. I think it’s great, and that is the way it should be. Budgetary constraints however, sometimes make this process more difficult. Therefore the F&B director and hotel GM need to be aware of the latest trends or the future trends. We frequently share what we are doing with other ACCOR hotels’ F&B departments in the area and share our experiences. You can always test the market with some special promotions, and make sure that it matches your market and customer profile. Once again, in these cases marketing should be involved, as if they are planning a change of the hotel guest demography, the F&B department should also adjust the offer.

For outside competitors, you need to be different and create your own market. If you never copy and always be first and unique, you will be recognized as an innovative place. I good idea is to also search for what is missing around your area.

RP:Maintain a high loyalty through your staff members
As discussed previously, there is a sense many of the newer people working in our industry these days having less passion about what they’re doing, and they are rather focusing on working the least hours for the best salary. That means that such people are more volatile and will be subject to change for the best offer from other properties should one arise.

Cultivating more passion by developing skills and widening the perspective of what work is, in my opinion, is the best way to demonstrate the value of a hotel and of a brand.

Consistent Innovation - Fresh New Ideas
We need to offer consistent concepts which are continuously being refreshed with new ideas - for example, product offers, promotions and entertainment ideas.

Most middle management and management positions are occupied by expatriates in Thailand. They are here for a limited time, and so each time there is a concept conceived, it becomes a challenge to maintain this concept. The next candidate will need to buy into this concept that was conceived by his or her predecessor if they want to shine, otherwise they they will also have to develop their own new concepts.

I guess one of the best options is to extend their contracts, and that is what you can see happening in the best performing hotels. They keep their key positions such as Executive Chef, F&B Director, Restaurant Manager and even Pastry Chef for many years.

FK: Many of these obstacles can be combated with research, while monitoring and following the trends of the market. In order to maintain relevance with the ever-growing Bangkok food & beverage scene, we have to adapt to the fact that social media is the significant driving force in its growth. This year, Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok added a Food & Beverage Marketing Executive, dedicated to growing our social influence through all online platforms, which allows us to monitor and develop on trends, while tracking our competitors.

RS: By restructuring Soho Hospitality, we are creating a scalable infrastructure using people, process and technology in order to enable us to meet our ambitious growth targets in the next 5 years. We have recently hired senior management resources and created a scalable, shared services center to better manage our restaurant development pipeline as well as ongoing operations. Secondly, we are currently speaking to investors and private equity firms to provide us with the capital, advisory and guidance to enable us to scale our business. In terms of human capital, we are investing in human resource development initiatives in order to create an environment and culture where we our staff can fulfill their long term career objectives at Soho Hospitality.

What are the latest F&B trends you see in hotels? What does your hotel do (if anything) in response to these trends?

LB: Steakhouses have been a hot concept over the past few years, and many hotels have developed and revisited this concept. An excellent example of this is the Mad Cow restaurant in Saigon. Now, however this trend seems to be on the downturn. Burgers also came back into the market hard with lots of innovation: vegan burgers, Japanese burgers and even non-bread burger using avocado, but these too seem to be a dying trend. You need to make that sure you catch the trend on the up-take, and don’t just ride along - rather really nail it to make it a success.

‘Healthy’ is the thing right now (well not so new anymore, but still kicking hard). There are vegetarian offers, vegan offers, calorie oriented menus, organic, non-pesticides, non-GMO, product traceability etc. I think people want to know what it is that they are eating and how we cook it. It seems that people wish to spend more time cooking. In a town like Hoi An, Vietnam, where you can find fresh organic products and farmers just 10 minutes away, we promote market visits, cooking classes and local products. They want to discover handicrafts and also experience new tastes.

RP: Shared Food Related to the lifestyle of most of the people, rising or existing trends that I see focus on comfort food, simple dishes but using high quality products that are served on shared plating.

Also Instagrammable places and plates have become almost as important as the food itself - sometimes more!

I am currently working on a resort with a great location and a nice beach Club concept. We are with the management team working on a long term project to enhance this offer as much as for the food & beverage offer as for the atmosphere of the venue.
Unfortunately I can’t go any further in the details of that project as we are still in the development stage at the moment.

FK: Back to basics. Clean, simple and healthy is what consumers seek. We have slowly abandoned the idea that complex and elaborate ‘equal’ quality. Instead, we see the every day diner evolving into a more conscious consumer, where their interest is peaked by environmental awareness and protection, such as conserving water and energy. At Hyatt, we are right on trend with this mindset, as our core ideals focus on sustainability and eco-friendliness.

Another big trend is ‘Hyper-local’, where restaurants grow produce on their own property, usually in the form of a backyard or a rooftop garden. Locally sourced produce is always a hit, and this is especially intriguing for the millennial market, who largely seek out the “story” of a restaurant. The concept that the ‘camera eats first’, and the ‘story’, are the two most important ingredients for this generation, and through a strategic social presence, we aim to capitalize on this movement.

BP: Trends are constantly changing and evolving whether it be food trends, design trends or concept related ones. Sustainability is a trend that continues to have legs as more people become aware of the impact we have on the environment and understand that we can make a difference. Our chefs have been working with small local fisheries to source responsibly caught wild prawns to serve our guests. We have several other environmental programs that we are also working on that will be announced in the near future.

RS: Global hotel brands are becoming more flexible in terms of how they approach food and beverage outlets from a strategic standpoint. Previously, hotel operators almost always managed the entire portfolio of restaurants at a typical hotel. Now, they are much more flexible and are open to leasing space within their hotels to third party operators or perhaps franchising a known brand and managing the outlet under the brand's guidelines. At Soho Hospitality, we recently signed an MOU to bring our flagship brand Above Eleven on the rooftop of a new Marriott project in Dubai which will open in late 2019. Our design and F&B consulting arm is also working on projects with hotel operators and conceptualizing restaurants for them in a turnkey manner inclusive of interior design, lighting design, brand development, f&b concept, uniforms, tabletops and music.

Should an F&B outlet be managed as 'restaurant business' or as a 'hotel business'?

LB: A restaurant is restaurant! If it’s part of the hotel, the dynamic created by your hotel occupation and size will generate your base. It’s a plus and you need to adapt your offer to your customers in order to capture the highest number of them, but a restaurant will only survive if you are treating your restaurant like a stand alone restaurant.

Creating an identity with a specific category of food is not enough. We are running a proper business where people want to be seen, find new experiences and being Instagrammable. Interactions with your public are necessary and looking for emerging trends is endless as restaurants are fashionable. When you look at a successful restaurant, it is easy to realize how far concepts are going now. Of course the quality and services are vital but we need to create a lifestyle too.

F&B should now have its own marketing budget and dedicated marketing staff. Advertising is crucial and must be professional as it reflects who you are. It mobilizes a lot of manpower and if hotels owners are not ready to invest in F&B, and to dive deep into it to succeed, then F&B marketing should be outsourced to specialist who will work hard to make it happen.

F&B’s are developing this strategy to increase not only outlets’ reputations but also the hotel and brand’s reputation.

RP: Restaurants should definitely be run as an independent restaurant business.

The identity of an outlet is a key factor of marketing and no one is running to eat for an everywhere else concept or offer. The marketing of an outlet has to be developed independently of the hotel in order to generate original concepts.

FK: There are many moving pieces in a five-star hotel operation, where every decision must be thoroughly scrutinized in an effort to maintain our standards and reputation. This comprehensive process can at times limit our ability to push forward quickly.

To ensure we continue to keep pace with the free-standing restaurants, we have adopted their approach in many facets of our operation, specifically in our beverage program. We moved away from the 28% beverage cost ‘hotel standard’, as we recognize that wines sold in Thailand are expensive enough because of excise taxation, we instead aim to deliver the same value that our customers may find in stand-alone restaurants. 50% profit on a bottle is still a wonderful return on a product. We also introduced a ‘free corkage policy’, as we would rather sacrifice marginal revenue from corkage fees, to instead have a full restaurant that attracts more people. Lastly, our investment in a beverage consultant, whose primary focus as a head mixologist in several, highly successful stand-alone restaurants, has helped advance our placement and influence within the current market.

BP: Food and beverage plays a major part in the hotel business, from building your reputation, attracting guests to stay with-in your hotel, also attracting local residents to eat, meet and drink all within one complex. A lot of tools utilized in managing a successful hotel can also be applied to managing a successful restaurant business and both the restaurant and hotel can feed off each other

RS: Restaurants need to be managed independently from the hotel operations as customers are becoming more sophisticated and have a higher level of expectation of their dining experiences. Each restaurant needs to create its unique identity, personality, messaging and tone of voice that is different from the hotel. As part of the hotel restaurant ideation process, the concept must be implemented with attention to detail at the risk of commoditization in order to ensure it meets the needs of today's increasingly discerning customers.

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