Hitting the Mark

The importance of in-person, in-brand networking.


Earlier this year, Benchmark Resorts & Hotels brought together more than 50 of its F&B professionals from 25 different properties for an F&B conference at the brand’s Eaglewood Resort & Spa near Chicago. The three-day program—called “Passion for a Purpose”—was the company’s second F&B gathering since 2014 and examined a number of industry-wide F&B topics affecting Benchmark’s properties. No two Benchmark hotels are the same, so conferences like this are crucial to reinforcing the brand’s core F&B values across its portfolio.

“We want that intimate connectivity that comes from face-to-face interaction,” says Tom Garcia, VP and GM at Eaglewood and one of the event organizers. “This is the only time our various F&B directors, chefs, beverage directors, and conference center personnel can just be together and share ideas, break bread, and have a sense of belonging to our brand. It also helps when they have recipe, operational, or staffing questions throughout the year—it’s easier to contact someone you’ve met in person.”

Approximately 50% of the attendees were first-timers, and that will likely increase for the next meeting (tentatively scheduled for 2018) due to Benchmark’s merger with Gemstone Hotels & Resorts this summer. The new entity, called Benchmark, A Global Hospitality Company, brings the portfolio to nearly 75 properties.

Here, we take a look at ideas, issues, and trends presented to help empower Benchmark’s F&B teams once they returned to their respective properties.

Alex Cabanas Benchmark
Benchmark CEO, Alex Cabañas


Benchmark’s CEO, Alex Cabañas, gave an inspirational speech to attendees, outlining the company’s commitment to F&B as one of the brand’s core pillars. He also admitted that F&B had not been one of Benchmark’s core pillars in the past due to a rooms first mentality that still permeates much of the industry. Cabañas added it was time to recognize and support F&B as a revenue generator and key driver of guest satisfaction.

One of those impressed by the speech was Lonny Huot, executive chef at the Villas of Grand Cypress in Orlando. “To hear there’s a shift in the perspective on F&B from the top of the company, it’s uplifting and very promising,” he says. “It shows we’re focused on moving forward together.”

Benchmark Progressive Dinner 3 -
Chef Frank Estremera’s roasted yellow beetroot dish, with sugar snap peas, shaved rhubarb, enoki mushrooms, crispy red quinoa, blood orange, and a white sesame seed-and-mirin vinaigrette.


While Benchmark is busy getting the word out to guests about its talented chefs, the brand is already known within the industry as having top culinarians. The company has sent a team of chefs to cook at the James Beard House three years in a row, including a dinner scheduled this December. Four of Benchmark’s best chefs gave attendees a taste of that talent with a four-course progressive dinner outdoors next to Eaglewood’s scenic golf course.

Each table was assigned a sequence of dishes different from other tables, so the group didn’t eat the same food at the same time. “We had some great comments about the variety of flavors and tastes, and it was fun for everyone to eat the courses out of order—it created a lot of conversation,” says Eaglewood Executive Chef John Billings.

Media and Marketing Benchmark Conference


One area emphasized during the conference was the importance of marketing an F&B operation through media events and branded products (like these Benchmark Conference ginger beers). “We want them to maximize the power of their restaurants with the media tools available today,” explains Garcia.

Huot says he applied those ideas at his property post-conference with immediate success. “We came right back and invited bloggers and a writer from the Orlando Sentinel to taste our new menu and received great coverage. The Sentinel even came back and shot a video with me for their web site. I also taped a segment on the Golf Channel about healthy food options for golfers. The results have been terrific for us.”

Jay Rocha Presentation


Another presentation that resonated with attendees was Cheyenne Mountain Resort GM Jay Rocha’s plan for personal growth, called “You Inc.” Rocha (seen here, center, with Benchmark’s VP of Operations Cedric Fasbender and Kirsten Ponza, director of F&B at Chaminade Resort & Spa) detailed the discipline and dedication it takes to use your off-work hours to further your career goals.

“I thought that presentation was important,” observed Huot. “Back when I was young, there were a lot of dollars spent on training and development, but that’s not the case today. Nobody’s going to improve your skills and knowledge except you, so it’s powerful to know how to put together a plan to take ownership of your career path.”

Benchmark Meeting Breaks - sized


“One of our F&B pillars is meeting breaks and how we can create consistency across our brand since we’re not a chain,” explains Garcia. “The first step was to get away from processed and packaged food. The second was to convey that the food is fresh while educating guests, so everything is labeled with calorie and nutrition information so they know what they’re putting in their bodies.”

Benchmark Meeting Breaks 2Rob DeBekker, director of F&B at Santa Barbara Beach Resort & Golf Course in Curaçao, was impressed with the breaks. “I thought they were really cool, and Chef Billings did a great job with labeling the items—very detailed explanations and something you don’t traditionally see on breaks.”


Benchmark’s conference coincided with the end of the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, so the brand invited a handful of vendors—Restaurant Technologies, Spring USA, Cardinal, Oneida, Avendra, Wasserstrom, and S3 Hospitality Wine Source—to showcase their latest products for attendees in an intimate setting at Eaglewood’s Red Oak Ballroom.

Those vendors, along with Tito’s Vodka, US Foods, Lavazza, and Avero, also helped to underwrite the conference. Garcia says hosting the three-day event can become costly, and partner support covered “about 70% of those costs.”

Michael Costa is VP of industry relations for Hotel F&B.

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