A look at the factors that will recast hotel banqueting into a completely new avatar

The focus has shifted from delighting and creating out-of-the-box experiences to safety, hygiene and sustainability

Hotel banqueting spaces, Tocuhless hospitality, Banqueting experience post-COVID, MICE tourism, Hotel news

The coronavirus outbreak has forced us to socially distance, bringing in norms of contactless service and forcing hotels to carve out their spaces and experiences around this one reality.

As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, hotels are evolving new concepts. The focus has shifted from delighting and creating out-of-the-box experiences to safety, hygiene and sustainability. While the luxury services in hotels are either getting replaced or temporarily suspended, the moot question here is: how will banqueting/ MICE halls function, given that they are subject to higher footfalls and lavish décor.

We asked a few hoteliers about what it would be like to host an event or a wedding during a pandemic and the new alternatives that are emerging in order to make events more special and safe for guests. The emergence of intimate gatherings While the banquet halls are allowed to function with certain restrictions, hoteliers are introducing short-term measures and new concepts for built spaces in hotels, in a bid to practice social distancing and touchless hospitality.

Binny Sebastian, General Manager – Alila Fort Bishangarh.

“Social events in India are an elaborate affair and events such as weddings are considered a big milestone for people across cultures. The significant change in the coming times will see large galas reduced to small gatherings. As living with COVID-19 becomes the new normal, hygiene and safety are need of the hour. Given that intimate gatherings will be allowed, I think it will provide us an opportunity to showcase our bespoke cuisine and hospitality,” says Binny Sebastian, General Manager – Alila Fort Bishangarh.

The hotel and banquet spaces at Alila Fort Bishangarh are being reimagined to strike the right balance of connection and space. In order to elevate the experience, “Hyatt hotels are exploring audio-visual technology that will help offer customers hybrid meeting options—on-property and remote—for large-scale events with social distancing in mind,” adds Sebastian.

Hyatt Regency Gurgaon’s banqueting space. Hotels with large MICE facilities will reduce outsourcing and develop in-house capabilities of any task.

In a bid to transform the banquet space, Fairmont Jaipur will be utilising their grand ballroom at half its capacity, if not lesser. Says General Manager Rajiv Kapoor, “Even with limited capacities, we will ensure that the spaces will be used optimally to create experiences that we are known to deliver. The revenue capacity of banqueting areas has been largely affected owing to social distancing measures. However, we are hopeful that the spirit which encourages guests to get together will persist.”

For MICE-driven Hyatt Regency Gurgaon, all the changes will revolve around the basic principle of social distancing and hygiene. Few of the measures introduced at the property include reconfiguration of seating and banquet set-ups, assuring social distancing, temperature checks, a cap on the total attendees, mandatory usage of masks and Aarogya Setu app, change in service design for presentation and meals, and educating both guest and colleagues on dos and don’ts for their own safety. Apart from appointing hygiene managers, the hotel has trained and certified hygiene champions in each of their departments/areas to better monitor the operations.

Vishal Singh, General Manager, Hyatt Regency Gurgaon.

General Manager Vishal Singh believes that this transition is for the safety of their guests and colleagues  and he will continue to plan for the future, as well as take necessary steps to manage the current situation. Despite the negative situation at the moment, he says weddings and virtual conferences will become the key drivers of revenue for hotels.

Ranjan Malakar, Regional Director Operations (North), Hilton India

Ranjan Malakar, Regional Director Operations (North), Hilton India states that there will be numerous beginnings and learnings for the industry. “The way we function and operate, engage with our guests and cater to their expectations, safety and hygiene protocols that will be expected by our guests, and many other factors will be new for all of us. Meetings and events are a key aspect of hospitality and we believe that the immediate focus will be on smaller scale events with limited number of attendees. Events will have setups that encourage collaboration with social distancing norms in place, and we will move away from the classroom and cabaret styles that were more common earlier,” he opines.

Optimising space for hybrid events
There are likely to more ‘hybrid’ events, such as a combination of a smaller physical meeting backed by technology such as video conferencing with another group of attendees participating from a different location. Malakar says that this will help companies to adhere to newer capacity rules and control costs. “Improved cleanliness protocols and practices will be visible across all spaces and at all events to ensure guests can focus on the meeting with the assurance of a safe and hygienic experience.

Another set of MICE hotels, Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre (NHCC) and Hyderabad International Convention Centre are using various modes of communication to inform guests about what they can do to ensure their own safety. For example, floor stickers near meal areas to distance themselves or informing them about medical screening on staff members serving them.

“Hotels with large MICE facilities will reduce outsourcing and develop in-house capabilities of any task (for instance, AV, décor, catering of specialised dishes). They will come up with capacity charts with reduced number of guests in a particular venue. These transformations will undeniably become part of a new normal. We all have been adaptive to change, especially when we know it has benefits attached to it,” states Manish Dayya, General Manager –Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre & Hyderabad International Convention Centre.

As a precautionary measure, a separate and dedicated entry has been provided to the banqueting floors at The Leela Palace Bengaluru.

At Radisson Hotel Group, space optimisation has become the most fundamental element in redesigning banquet experiences. “We are maximising the use of technological interventions to facilitate social distancing and minimal contact. Hybrid events with a blend of live and virtual components will gain popularity. Even when completely on ground, events resume virtual participation and will be critical for keeping them financially viable and enable a greater outreach,” informs a spokesperson.

Kanika Hasrat, General Manager,Taj City Centre Gurugram.

Right from seating arrangements at banquets, restaurants and all guest areas to remodelling of layouts and fixtures in guest and service areas as per physical distancing norms, every aspect at the Taj City Centre Gurugram has been redesigned in accordance with augmented health and safety measures.

Besides, the hotel is providing extensive training to associates in practicing safety, hygiene and physical distancing, besides ensuring food safety, and handling. Apart from revising the seating capacity in each hall, maintaining a minimum of 6 feet distance between each table and chair, The Leela Palace Bengaluru has changed their F&B experience. The live or interactive stations at the hotel will be manned at all times by staff wearing safety kits. Besides, a safety kit has also been stationed at regular intervals for guest’s usage.

The norms of banqueting hygiene  

Fairmont Jaipur: Fairmont Jaipur: Much like other Accor properties, Fairmont Jaipur is adhering to the ALLSAFE guidelines. The hygiene and safety measures adopted by the hotel will also be extended to the banqueting section.

Other measures include ensuring pre-registration for events and filling up health declaration forms. The hotel staff will be encouraged to multitask and cross-train across different functions of banqueting to try and reduce the number of team members who are involved in the operations, adding an element of safety as well as reducing costs.

For smaller events, guests can opt for sit-down lunches and dinners with contactless menus and table service. Décor has traditionally been a high contact item and there will be changes here too: the use of more artificial flowers and accessories that can be thoroughly sanitised will be encouraged. All amenities handed over to guests will be single-use only to avoid contamination.

For beverage service, Fairmont Jaipur will be implementing bar trolleys and smaller bar counter set-ups instead of long bars that are typically high traffic areas. In order to air the banquet spaces, the doors to the pre-function areas will remain open for a significant time period before the event starts, as well as after to, allow cross ventilation. The hotel will also try to set up food displays in outdoor areas to assist in ventilation and control the traffic within any one area.

In order to remind guests to maintain social distancing, the hotel has placed multiple signages across the venues. It is also using equipment such as queue managers to guide guests to create a healthy flow of movement. The placement of seating will be highly limited; for example, there will now be three chairs on a round table instead of eight. In addition, each chair will be placed 2ms away from the other.

The Leela Palace Bengaluru: As a precautionary measure, separate and dedicated entry has been provided to the banqueting floors. Before entering the premises, all guest areas will be thoroughly sanitised using a sanitiser mist machine.

The travel history of guests will be checked. The hotel has created a dedicated app-based valet parking. Cars will be well-sanitised before being handing over. All cutlery will be covered in a pouch. Seating arrangement will be followed by strict social distancing norms of 6ft. Housekeeping will follow strict cleaning/sanitising protocols before and after events, with a gap of four hours of cooling time between each event. If the set-up is done by an outside vendor, the accessories will be sprayed with sodium hypochlorite after unloading. All food counters will be personally manned by the hotel staff only.

The food will be laid out in the pre-function area. No self-service will be allowed. The buffet counter set-up will ensure enough spacing between guests queuing up to be served. Fresh air system in the hall and pre-function areas will be checked constantly, thus maintaining the free flow of fresh air.

Recovery strategies
Given that the revenue capacity of the banqueting areas has been reduced drastically, hotels are chalking out new strategies and experiences for quick recovery. Fairmont Jaipur is making most of its multiple venue options to host the most spectacular of events.

Rajiv Kapoor, General Manager, Fairmont Jaipur.

“As a strategy, we plan to use this flexibility to cater to multiple event parties at the same time, with an option of private floors for guestrooms and different venues for meals. This will allow us to make a recovery in the coming months, while respecting the government restrictions in terms of number of guests,” says Kapoor.

Most of the hotels will be operating at half the capacities, which will subsequently impact the P&L of every event, resulting in reduced margins. As a recovery strategy, Singh suggests, “It will be inevitable for hotels to charge rentals for each and every event in order to cover the minimum revenue requirements. Focus will now shift to quality rather than quantity.” He advises hotels to explore creative ways to reduce the cost of operations. Stringent hygiene and safety standards will have to be adopted to ensure staff and guest safety as they will emerge as key attributes of the value proposition offered.

Singh claims that he will make contracts of the future more flexible to allow for unexpected changes, along with a relentless focus on strengthening relationships with event planners and travel managers. Besides, he is willing to work with changed business strategies and focused approach on online distribution and marketing tactics.

Every aspect at the Taj City Centre Gurugram has been redesigned in accordance with augmented health and safety measures.

Malakar presented a different viewpoint on recovery strategy. He says, “The drop in large events will be somewhat compensated, with increased usage of smaller event spaces for social and evening functions.
Previously, most evening social events were medium to large and there were fewer events in the 20–50 guest range. From here on, smaller event spaces will see increased usage due to large gatherings being not permissible in the short term. A certain component of event space hire over and above the per person food rate will be introduced for high demand dates to compensate for a large space being given to a smaller group.”

In addition, more focus will be on off-site or outdoor catering at company premises and catering to events at a guest’s residence. “We will provide guests with flexibility in cancellation policies to offer them more confidence in booking events. There will be attractive offers for planners looking to book early and host events in the near future,” he adds.

According to Radisson Hotel group’s spokesperson, “Travellers prefer booking with reputed hospitality brands with whom they can feel assured about their safety and hygiene. The trend of gatherings moving to branded establishments is picking up gradually. We also anticipate emergence of new opportunities for the sector as destination weddings move back to domestic locations.”

Siddharth Joshi, Director of Sales,The Leela Palace Bengaluru.

Besides, the hotel group is curating ‘India road trip routes’ to provide guests a holistic experience of celebrating their special occasions. The package will blend in visit to local attractions, hotel recommendations and attractive offers to drive business. As a strategy, The Leela Palace Bengaluru is focusing on how to build up confidence among guests to host an event with the hotels. According to Siddharth Joshi, Director of Sales, the hotel is encouraging packed lunches/personalised packed boxes for outdoor catering at a guest’s house, receiving quite a few orders for packed lunches or personalised packed boxes that they are being delivered personally. Besides, they are also leveraging their online
food delivery service to fill in some revenue for the hotel.

Rewriting F&B rules
Apart from the banquet set-up, quality F&B offerings are the focus area for hosts/planners of an event. However, to deal with existing dilemmas, hotels are introducing a healthier menu and hygienic food arrangement that allows for contactless service.

Alila Fort Bishangarh has introduced digital menus using QR codes. They are essentially based on seasonal and local produce. “The cuisine served is very rustic, distinctive and regional, drawing inferences from Shekhawat, Awadh and Travancore culinary traditions.

The dishes are also inspired by the silk route and spice trade of the erstwhile era, besides the use of modern progressive ways of cooking. Guests can choose the event style, which varies from interactive cooking stations, sit-down Thaala dining or family- style service with set menus.

“The other options include pass-around dishes in individual portions; live stations with pre-plated food; dedicated food handler(s) serving guests instead of serving themselves; and multiple live stations for tea/ coffee. However, we recommend sit-down meals as it will reduce the chance of contamination,” says Sebastian.

At Fairmont Jaipur, the menu will feature live stations and individual portions. “The a la minute preparations will ensure high standards of hygiene, reducing wastage and optimising costs. Popular best practices such as pass-around dishes will not be served at the moment. The hotel will be creating sustainable menus, in line with the philosophy of agroecology. The menus will feature local produce in delectable recipes. Traditional buffet set-ups will make way for extensive live counters for all courses. In case there is a small buffet, it will be fully manned with a team member serving guests to avoid the serving ware to have multiple people touching it,” says Amit Sangwan – Director, F&B.

In order to assure safe and hygienic experience at Hilton Hotels, the service will largely include food cooked-to-order and served via live counters or smaller individual portions, against the older trend of cooking in advance and serving at a buffet. Pre-plated, bento box or thali- style meals will become the norm.

Flexible menu and pricing options will be offered guests. While buffets are not completely suspended, they will be offered only when necessary and the buffet service will be suitably modified to ensure that team members are serving guests to avoid the sharing of cutlery. For smaller events, pre-plated or individual servings will be preferred over buffets.

Ore-portioned meals and seated dining could be an alternative option to the pre-COVID style buffet, in order to reduce the physical contact.

At Radisson Hotel Group, the new norms of social distancing and spatial parameters will dictate food service at events. “Elaborate buffet spreads will become a casualty when events resume, and a reduced menu with healthy meals and individually pre-packaged dishes will be served. Shorter, simpler and frequently changing menus will become more common.

“There is also merit in overhauling menus to add healthier options, with enhanced emphasis on wellness-oriented, immunity-boosting dishes made with farm-fresh ingredients. Touchless digital menus will become an increasingly relevant application to suit the comfort and convenience of guests,” says a spokesperson from Radisson Hotel Group.

At Taj Gurugram, General Manager Kanika Hasrat says, the menus will continue to list the legacy offerings of the restaurants. “However, we have added more wellness-oriented dishes that are not just healthier options but also taste delicious. For instance, Broccoli and Cheddar Soup with jalapeno croutons or Lemon-dredged Chicken and stir fried greens. Keeping to the maximum limit of 50 guests as per the guidelines by local authorities, the quantity will be according to a thoroughly-measured preparation to avoid wastage. Fresh, locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients will be put to use. Heightened food safety and hygiene measures will be ensured. The placements of banquet stations will be re-engineered in a manner that physical distancing is maintained.”

To avoid contact and spread of infection, more artificial flowers and accessories, that can be thoroughly sanitized, will be used in the set-ups.

When it comes to serving food, individual pre-plated portions are being encouraged and so is the concept of a flying buffet. For common dishes, the use of wide tables has been put in place. Associates maintaining two meters of distance will serve from the banquet stations to eliminate multiple touch points of service utensils.

At Hyatt Regency Gurgaon, smaller portions of food will be cooked,keeping in mind the number of attendees, to avoid wastage. Pre-plated portions will be served for meetings. Focus will be on nutritious and immunity-boosting dishes. “Self-service buffets won’t be a viable option for a while. Pre-portioned meals and seated dining could be an alternative option. So will pre-boxed meals for smaller meetings and a dedicated staff that will serve the meals instead of people self-serving in order to reduce physical contact. Staggered stations and serving food in individual units will be introduced,” says General Manager Vishal Singh.

The hotel is also looking at providing clean supplies of CCG (Crockery, Cutlery & Glasses) at a side station that has been cleaned and sanitised before and after each meal period. Alcohol wipes will be provided on the table should guests wish to sanitise their own CCG. Drink straws and stirrers will be provided only on request and will come wrapped in paper packs.

The way we experience events at hotels is set to change drastically, pretty much obliterating the pre- COVID experience, at least in the immediate future.

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