Marriott International has always prided itself on its F&B parlance. Its chief operations services officer for APAC, Bart Buiring, wants to continue using this distinctive dialect
BY VINITA BHATIA
What is one of the smartest ways of developing a lucrative food and beverage (F&B) strategy for a hotel chain in any region?
Well, according to Bart Buiring, chief operations services officer, Asia Pacific of Marriott International, it boils down to a simple thing – sit around with the team, brainstorm about it very solemnly, and then add make the whole thing a fun affair!
If someone else were to offer this as a stratagem, it would come across as whimsy. However, when this idea is presented by a hardcore F&B professional, who spent the first three years of his career as a kitchen steward, one tends to take it a tad more seriously. After moving up the food chain as a stewarding manager, Buiring was responsible for the kitchens areas being scrubbed clean after every service.
“Those three years in the back-of-house taught me a couple of things. Firstly, you need to provide employees with adequate opportunities and recognise their performance. Secondly, if they are doing an exceptional job, you need to communicate to them that they can choose the work domain they are most comfortable in, rather than the one they signed up for,” he shared. “This is one of the things that has helped Marriott in India because we acknowledge and care for our associates. We give constructive feedback, invest in our associates’ training and sit down with them to chart their career paths.”
In fact, he recalled how, when he started his journey with Marriott International as director-operations for JW Marriott Mumbai
(now Juhu) in the early 2000’s during its pre-opening phase, he visited several hospitality schools in Aurangabad, Manipal
and Goa where he had to convince candidates to join the company. 17 years since, finding talent has become much easier for the company as it expands its hotel pipeline in the country has become far easier.
“What we look for are people who are passionate about this business, particularly in the F&B area; who wake up daily wanting to do an amazing job for our guests. That is the first aspect of attitude we look for in recruits. After hiring, we train them on technical skills and give them an opportunity to be part of pre-opening hotels so that they can learn more and better. We fly them to international conferences where they can engage with their global peers and discover more. Within Marriott, there are so many examples of people who have had tremendous careers, which itself attract other folks,” he stated.
Buiring should know, he has been with the company for 17 years and has changed domains through his career. Starting out as a director of operations at JW Marriott Mumbai, this Netherlands citizen later became the corporate VP, F&B for Ritz Carlton and then shifted gears to senior VP, operations for the continent lodging services. And throughout this growth he has seen some trends hold their ground
steadfast in the industry.
“Our first hotel in Asia Pacific was the JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong, which we opened in 1989, and today we have more than 600 hotels in the region. 28 years later, that hotel does breakfast, lunch, and dinner business with local customers, and that is how you sustain the business – by focusing on the local business,” Buiring emphasised.
In his opinion, if a hotel is successful with diners who within a couple of kilometers radius and they have space for guests to stay with them, then it is doing a really good job. “We need to be super relevant to the local community. Hence, as a company we concentrate on three things – deliver the best local food; attract the best talent, and engage with customers through creative marketing,”
REWIND TO RETURN
While many hoteliers treat F&B as a part of their overall profit bouquet rather than a standalone business, Buiring underlined that Marriott has a different take on things. Seeing the importance that F&B can contribute independently, he said that the hotel chain will try to build 50 to 60-seater F&B outlets and specialty restaurants. Additionally, it will focus on offering authentic culinary experiences, irrespective whether they open a property in India, Thailand or Hong Kong.
“Most food concepts have a time frame, after which they need to be refreshed. For instance, a nightclub’s lifecycle is two or three years, probably longer if it is a rooftop bar. We will look to renovate our outlets, working in partnership with our owners,” Buiring revealed.
Even restaurants need a makeover after five or six years, whether it is through interior design or menu changes. While chatting with the team at St Regis Mumbai, Buiring was surprised to learn about the increasing number of freestanding restaurants opening in the immediate vicinity. In his opinion, competition like this should be viewed positively as it keeps every brand on its toes.
“A hotel is where people come to meet and socialise. We love nothing more than for our hotel to be the social heart of the local community. The only way to achieve this is by offering relevant, value for money, interesting and authentic dining experience,” Buiring stated.
Another important component of the F&B equation is catering and banquets, especially in a country like India, where weddings can be multiple day extravaganzas. Today, every hotel wants a piece of this action, and with everyone competing for the similar target audience, it is imperative to create some sort of differentiation. One of the best ways to do this is by creating exemplary culinary experiences.
To be able to do this, Marriott is empowering its chefs and F&B heads to take the right decisions that will lead to guest
delight, even if it means overlooking food costs at times.
“It is all about balancing within the hotel – the food cost does not have to be the same in all outlets that we operate.
In a specialty restaurant, like Akira Back in JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity we fly in imported fish couple of times a week to ensure we offer the best food quality. In such instances, we are fine with the food cost being 50% to 60% at a three-meal day restaurant or even in banqueting, as we are more focused on the guest experience, as things balance itself out,” Buiring explained.
Additionally, chefs in Marriott International are encouraged to travel often, experiment and come up with new culinary creations to present remarkable food quality. However, there is an unwritten caveat that goes without saying – not all produce has to be exotic or expensive.
THE ROOM IS ALWAYS FULL When it comes to the F&B domain, customer expectations are moving northwards, while at the same time they expect
it to be value-for-money. That is one reason they gravitate towards standalone restaurants, where they perceive the average
price per customer to be lower than F&B outlets in star-rated hotels. Herein lies the challenge for hoteliers – those with 100 to 150-seat establishments are struggling to have full occupancy. That explains why Marriott would rather have smaller F&B outlets. “A successful
restaurant is one with a queue at the door, which is not easy to achieve. In our company, we are aiming for 100% restaurant occupancy. This year, therefore, we will focus on adding more folks to our team and working with our owners to renovate restaurants in a timely manner,”
He added that the company has some refreshingly cool ideas around F&B concepts and by 1st April, 2018, around 100 hotels will implement these in the region. It will also take a close look at some of the worst-performing restaurants to see how these can be reinvigorated to keep pace with the competition.
This could well begin from a space planning perspective, as the industry trend is moving towards compact buildings with better utilisation of space. Since such well-planned properties offer a clear ROI for owners while improving operational efficiency, Marriott’s team reviews all hotel designs in Asia Pacific regularly, where they look at the floor plans and decide how the space programming can be optimised.
“We have a team that not only looks at the feasibility of the hotel, but also its facilities. Then, we look at how large the
property should be, how many rooms it should have, how big the F&B space ought to be, what facilities should be there, etc. Where earlier we might have built two or three specialty restaurants in a hotel, we would probably limit it now to one good buffet restaurant or café,” Buiring claimed.
Marriott is also attempting to break free from the conventional dining loyalty programmes, especially keeping in perspective the needs of the younger generation who like to wine and dine often. Seven years after the Club Marriott dining programme was launched, it has around 225,000 members in India and counting. Last year, the company integrated its three dining loyalty programmes—Club Marriott, Eat Drink & More, and Star Privilege—into a single paid membership one. The newly combined Club Marriott provides members with more choices and benefits whenever they dine in any of the 250 participating hotels across 16 brands in 13 countries across the region, with more hotels joining every month.
Buiring revealed that a newer version of this programme will make it more hyper-local, offering guests access, benefits and recognition based on their personalisation parameters. “We have developed a luxury version of Club Marriott that will promote our luxury brands hotel-by-hotel, market-by-market. The next iteration is connecting it to our three loyalty programmes – Marriott Rewards, SPG & The
Ritz-Carlton Rewards,” he mentioned.
These are just some of the activities on Buiring’s plate, and he seems to be game to pile on more. Little wonder then, that even when he is standing, he looks like a man who is sprinting!