"My picture of a [typical] manager's reception is tepid, with chafing dishes," says Marriott International Director of Culinary Sustainability Kathleen Wellington. "In extended stay, you've got guests with you for a long time. You've got companies sending different groups of guests. It's an opportunity to connect with them and create a value for the guest. Having that opportunity but doing something that's not memorable doesn't make sense."
With that in mind, Marriott launched the Residence Inn Mix, a next-level take on the evening social. The concept, which centers around F&B with a reimagined experience that combines multiple local culinary options and upgraded beverage offerings, rolled out at nearly 700 Residence Inn hotels across the country in April 2015.
The Mix is a rotation of food trucks, grilling, a taste of local eats and sweets, and premium beers in a relaxing social setting. Offered three nights per week, these experiential evening gatherings encourage guests to interact and connect with the destination. Themed nights include:
- It's On (Mondays): Meet other guests for some "must-see TV" or hang by the fire pit with a variety of light-fare appetizers.
- Off the Grill (Tuesdays): Join in for conversation and great eats, hot off the grill.
- Food Truck (Alternating Wednesdays): Get to know the local area's most popular food trucks.
- Local Flavors (Alternating Wednesdays): Sample specialties from famous local hot spots.
- Just Desserts (Alternating Wednesdays): Reward yourself with something sweet and savory.
- Out & About (Anytime): Stop by the front desk to get the lowdown on the best local spots and what's abuzz in town.
The brand measures success in two ways. One is from the general guest satisfaction survey, which takes information as well from social media. The second is feedback from guests booking specifically because of the events—repeats or new guests who heard about it from colleagues. Guest satisfaction scores on the Mix have gone up since its launch across all age groups, but have increased the most among Gen Y guests, says Diane Mayer VP and global brand manager for Residence Inn. Mayer reports that satisfaction remains strong, up a point across the board since launch and up three points with the targets of the program: millennials. Wellington observes that while some people want to sit in a room and not communicate with others, they still want an "energy" in the room, along with quality of offerings, such as craft beers. "It's energized all guests sets," she says, because even Boomers want something pleasurable when traveling for business.
FIRING IT UP
One revolution brought on by the Mix is its intended encouragement of social interaction.
"In other brands, an evening social is 'come down, get your free food, and here's a drink ticket.' It's just kind of a feeding buffet," says Michael Golembre, GM at the Residence Inn Arlington Ballston (Virginia). "The Mix program has much more of a social aspect. It's not just about filling stomachs." Research revealed that people simply love fire, Wellington says. "It's a jumping off point for a lot of things," she observes. Two of four events (Monday and Tuesday) during the week are by the outdoor fire pit, with upbeat music and lighter fare. It's a chance to relax after settling in and before, perhaps, going out for dinner. On Monday, the TV selections are "something contemporary," such as an important sporting event. "That's an evolution," Wellington explains. "We had a manager's reception with television, but we now focus on what people want." While the setting and atmosphere are important, the real focus is on local F&B, doing the culinary legwork for guests. "If I'm going to be somewhere for days or weeks at a time, I'd like to be able to come home and say, 'Look what I learned. Look what I did there,'" says Wellington. "So, we've got food trucks coming in. Before, people might have brought in pizza from a local pizzeria. But now you find that [special] local restaurant. If you're in Alexandria, Virginia, where you've got a huge Middle Eastern community, you're going to bring in the local kabob house, so when that guest goes home, he's going to say, 'Wow, I learned all about Afghan food.' The other piece to it is that it then ties back to the community; if the guest is there awhile, they're going to go to that kabob house or to that food truck at its regular lunch stop." "You'll have some people coming from towns that don't have food trucks; they're not used that," Golembre says. "Where we're located, right outside D.C., they're very prevalent. The brand definitely gives the hotels leeway as to local offerings. We have craft brews, food trucks and restaurants from the area, but there are mandated days you have to offer local flair...seeing is believing for our guests. When they saw the quality food items and added beer and wine—not just our core program of nonalcoholic beverages. They enjoyed it and got a better feel for the local area. It started strong and has gotten stronger."
Wellington noticed that many hotels just use the same space for evening receptions that they use as breakfast buffet space. "A lot of people don't want to have a beer and relax in the same place where they had breakfast," she says. "We've asked the properties to take the events outside the breakfast room." It's not just four walls that matter. Layout is key. The Mix is broken up into smaller stations. "There's always going to be a savory snack," says Wellington. "It might be freshly popped white cheddar popcorn, and that's going to be in small bowls around the place or near beverage station. If your main item is going to be an apple cobbler dessert, that's going to be served with bowls, topping, and fixings. Things are spread out around the room, which encourages people to walk around the room. If there's a beverage station, we tell hotels to put it towards the back, because people gravitate to the bar. And of course, if you can go outside, go outside." Certain nights at the Arlington property might feature crudite, hummus, and pita chips in one area, drinks in a different area, and fresh-sliced fruit in another area, says Golembre. "It's not just getting the masses through a line; it's built for an engaging, relaxing experience. It's more like a cocktail reception." Attendance varies from property to property due to the sizes of the hotels. Wellington set up event menus, order guides, and recipes and quantities of 25, so hoteliers can multiply from that.
TAKING COST OUT OF THE MIX
Perhaps the real innovation of the Mix is its ability to impress and attract guests with much higher quality F&B in receptions than before, yet at a much lower cost-sometimes eliminating cost altogether.
"Rather than putting out Sysco appetizers—which are easy but expensive—five nights a week, we're doing very targeted things," Wellington says. "On a night when we have the food truck, a lot of the hotels are able to set a deal with a minimum to be reached. We're giving them a free beer or custom soda, but they're paying for the food themselves, and they're fine with that."
There can be potentially no cost whatsoever to the hotel if the minimum is reached. When working with restaurants, hotels sometimes purpose the restaurants come provide samples. If that's not a go, they propose the restaurant bring food that highlights what they do best, and offer samples of portions, at a cost to the hotel. But Wellington says each hotel can work out incentives, such as a guest showing a room key later at the restaurant to get a free item. "It could be costly, but if you set it up as a great partnership, there's less cost impact," she says. The Off the Grill event brings the heaviest food cost of the events, but It's On skews less expensive, with items such as cheese, crudite, and snacks, but with, say, a great Sangria. The program does not increase room rates, Golembre says. "The whole premise is that, at a minimum, it's cost-neutral," he notes. "Yes, we're adding food trucks, local restaurants, and alcohol, which you'd think would be more expensive, but it's really not. Before, it was much heavier, because it was a buffet—which was never the intent of the Residence Inn brand. Now, with quality items, it's really cost-neutral, and we've seen our satisfaction scores skyrocket. This call came about through extensive research by the brand and feedback from our next generation of traveler." That traveler soon learns to rely on Residence Inn wherever he or she may go. It's reliable yet unique. "One of the main benefits is that you can go to a Residence Inn in New York, Los Angeles, or here in Arlington, and it's the same menu, but there are differences based on local flair," Golembre says. "That really sets us apart."
WHEELING AND DEALING
Cost is not in the equation at all when using the food trucks, at least at the Residence Inn Redondo Beach, says GM Ryan McCarthy. Situated in the Los Angeles metro area—perhaps the epicenter of the food truck scene—the hotel uses trucks only, finding no need to partner with restaurants. "There's hundreds of [food trucks] to choose from," McCarthy says. "We went after a few of the most popular ones. People who are foodies want to try them, so when they see them at our hotel, it's really exciting for them. Big names including the Lobos Truck, CreativEats, Baby's Badass Burgers, the Grilled Cheese Truck, the Lobsta Truck, and the Urban Oven, park and purvey tastes of L.A. right inside the entrance of the property; 50 to 100 guests, McCarthy says, walk up and get the straight-from-the-truck experience. "We have a lot of regular guests, staying five nights or more a lot of the time. Having a new truck pull up every week really gives them something to get excited about." In negotiating with a new truck, McCarthy says the vendor would ask for a minimum. "We asked them to come out and give us a try first, without a minimum. So many of them had such great success that we never had to talk about minimums after that." Early on, trucks began making $800 to $900 a night from guests, requiring no payment out of the hotel's pocket. Summer brings heavy leisure travel, but the rest of the year the main demographic sidling up to the food trucks is business clientele doing work with nearby SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Tesla. They come home from meetings, and rather than have to explore the area for quality eats, it comes to them. It's a differentiator, he says. "With all that corporate business that surrounds us, you get one person who's jazzed up about it in an office place, talking about it with other people who travel, and all of a sudden that starts pulling business to us."
LABOR, MENUS, AND RHYTHM
"The different hotels figure out their staffing as they go," says Marriott International Director of Culinary Sustainability Kathleen Wellington. "When we piloted it, obviously there was a bit of a ramp-up, but really the staffing is consistent with what it was previously—but it's a shift as to how it goes."
Instead of milling around in the back prepping the next day's food, the attendant is out in the room taking care of the guest.
"It's great to have leadership out there," Wellington says. "It could be a sales leader looking for new leads, or it could be the GM or someone else. The model itself has not changed, except to which people are out there, because it's much more interactive than it was previously."
Each hotel selects its own vendors, though corporate does provide best practices. For example, if a hotel is looking to book a food truck, there are guidelines, such as suggesting the hotel look up the local food truck association, if there is one; attend a food truck event; check into booking companies; or research on Yelp. "We always suggest checking reviews," says Wellington. "For restaurants, you really want to work local, not a national chain just because they're in your parking lot or across the street."
Tuesday's menu changes weekly. "There's always going to be a main protein and sides and sweets, but one week it's going to be bratwurst with sauerkraut, and then next week it might be Italian sausage and peppers," Wellington says. For Wednesdays, which alternates each week of the month, two of the four nights are just desserts, which are different from each other, and the other two are different local fare. "There is a cadence to it. We try to think about when it is within the guest's typical stay. Not everybody's there for six weeks, but you think about what they're going to be doing when they come in on a Sunday night, what they're going to be doing on Monday—when they might go out and when they might stay in. Having that robust event on Tuesdays is something to look forward to, so they say, 'Oh, yeah, that would be fun to hang out for.' On Wednesday nights, you want it to be something in their mind before they leave." —TW