Spanish-Themed, Lobby-Located F&B Gives AC Hotels Unique Draw
When Marriott International acquired Spain-based AC Hotels in 2011, they inherited a lifestyle brand already established across Europe but not on this side of the Atlantic. That changed when Marriott opened its first AC Hotel in New Orleans in late 2014 and 11 more since in the States, two in Mexico, and two in Brazil.
Marriott has 50 more AC Hotels in the pipeline over the next three years, expanding to the Caribbean and Latin America. While the brand is, geographically speaking, all over the place, its F&B foundation is firmly rooted in Spain, where AC was launched by hotelier Antonio Catalán (the “AC” in AC) in 1998.
Marriott highlights those origins throughout its three lobby venues, AC Lounge, AC Kitchen, and AC Store, giving it a unique identity in the select-service lifestyle category. Success has come from how AC conveys some of those Iberian ideas to guests and from Marriott’s connected approach to embracing technology in the front and back of the house.
Beverage & Food
At AC Hotels, beverage is emphasized first (B&F instead of F&B) which is a strategy Marriott uses “in environments where the lifestyle trends of our guests are a driving factor,” says Guy Heksch, VP, Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group, Marriott International. “The food is more for snacking rather than sitting down to a full dinner, and the main focus is on the bar.”
A Spanish influence flows through the drink options at AC Lounge—the most profitable of AC’s venues—where the Signature Gintonic and ACGT are the top-selling cocktails. The Gintonic is made with Hendrick’s Gin and Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic, served in a brandy snifter, which is the custom in Spain. The ACGT features Bombay Sapphire East Gin, and AC’s proprietary tonic exclusive to AC Hotels.
Elsewhere on the menu, iconic Spanish wines such as Tempranillo and Albariño are featured by the glass and bottle, while the tap showcases three wines and a pre-mixed cocktail. “We have about 20 cocktail recipes to choose from, and we rotate every three to six months,” notes David Belk, manager, B&F operations, AC Hotel Phoenix Tempe/Downtown. On tap at Belk’s property in early 2017 is a Spiced Blood Orange Margarita, made with 1800 Silver tequila, lime, Mexican spiced syrup, and San Pellegrino Blood Orange mineral water.
On the AC Lounge food menu, Spanish tapas is the format—small plates and small portions—and includes Manchego cheese with quince paste; La Quercia prosciutto with either white beans and thyme toast, or cornichon; and cilantro/lime pistachios and pepitas. “The menu is set up so the guest can have a drink and a snack before they go out for the evening, then come back for a nightcap and a bite to eat when they return,” says Heksch.
The top-selling food items at AC Tempe include tomato-braised eggplant and ricotta toast, herb-rubbed roast chicken with tomato and olives, and crispy sea salt potatoes with smoked paprika and aioli.
At AC Chicago—one of the first Stateside AC properties—sales leaders on the menu include the Signature Gintonic, Ramon Bilbao Tempranillo, and Prosecco on tap. Top sellers for food include the crispy sea salt potatoes; Parmesan and sea salt kale chips; and arugula, grilled salmon, olive, and green bean salad. They also offer Chicago brews from Revolution Brewery and Half Acre Brewery in cans at AC Lounge, reflecting the growing trend of canned craft beer.
The Spanish template transfers to the next morning with a European-inspired breakfast buffet in AC Kitchen. A large selection of meats, cheeses, breads, croissants, pastries, fruit, coffee, specialty teas, juices, yogurt, and more are offered in a sleek and stylish residential-style presentation.
Spanish items include pan con tomate (similar to bruschetta and a traditional breakfast item in Spain) and at European AC properties, the iconic tortilla española is on the menu, but not in the U.S. yet. Belk says they’re adding a Spanish-inspired dish in a traditional terra cotta cazuela using La Quercia prosciutto, crushed tomatoes, Manchego cheese, cage-free eggs, garlic aioli, and chives.
AC’s breakfast doesn’t feature chafing dishes of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, waffles, or other staple North American options, but so far the lighter menu and variety of tastes are resonating with AC’s target lifestyle demographic.
“It’s a chance for us to educate our customers on a different style of breakfast, and it’s set up in what looks like a home kitchen,” says Patti Hunt, GM at AC Tempe. “Our guests tell us they feel energized after eating a healthier breakfast, which is important since we have so many business travelers staying with us.” Prices for breakfast vary depending on the market, but are generally in the $15 to $19 range.
More at the AC Store
Rounding out the lobby-located B&F is AC Store, the grab n’ go, retail option open 24 hours, and also acting as the midday offering since AC Kitchen and AC Lounge are closed then.
“AC Store is our market, so we have popular packaged snacks and showcase our Spanish heritage too,” explains Heksch. Some of those items are from renowned Spanish chef José Andrés, including his branded potato chips, Picos Camperos breadsticks, jarred pisto, and his cookbook, Made in Spain.
But AC Store is also a place where “we offer local products to our guests, because it’s important for travelers to have a sense of place,” Heksch continues. “Although our hotels all have the AC brand name, their AC Store offerings are different in each location. We encourage our GMs to study where they are and find products that are special to their area and offer it at AC Store.”
At AC Tempe, artisan Arizona specialties including Queen Creek Olives, Hayden Flour Mills Crackers, and Goldwater’s Salsas are sold along with nearby beers from Tempe’s own Four Peaks and Flagstaff’s Mother Road Brewing Company. Those brews are also available in the AC Lounge.
“The AC Store is really about capturing both the thoughtful purchasing and the impulse purchasing in our lobby space. Since we don’t have room service it’s important to offer items people can grab easily for snacking,” says Susan Terry, VP of culinary and F&B operations at Marcus Hotels & Resorts, which manages AC Chicago.
Low Labor, High Tech
AC embraces a low-labor, high-tech model in the front and back of the house, with a simple kitchen foundation built on Rational and TurboChef ovens and requiring just one or two cooks to produce the menu, even during peak times.
“When we opened our hotel last summer, the brand training team came here and had a flash drive with all the programming and menus and downloaded it right into the Rational. Our hot food and baked goods are the same consistency and quality at every AC Hotel, because it’s been programmed by the brand,” Hunt says.
“Heksch adds that “our owners can’t afford too many employees because there’s fierce competing for business in their markets. It’s very expensive to operate hotels, so you have to have help from technology, otherwise you’ll have problems. Because our labor model is lean, and our food cost is manageable, we’re competitive and price our menus accordingly—we don’t gouge our guests,” Heksch says.
In the front of the house, the same template applies with a maximum of two servers at breakfast in AC Kitchen and two bartenders in AC Lounge during busy times. The front desk clerk doubles as the cashier for AC Store as well.
Another way AC manages its labor efficiently is through a device called Kallpod—a three-button tabletop gadget that the guest uses when they want service or a check. Staffers wear a receiver on their wrist telling them when a customer needs assistance. This eliminates the need for FOH staff to hover around guests, and those employees can help with other hotel tasks until the Kallpod is used.
A lean labor model combined with competitive menu pricing in line with similar options at each location (AC Lounge tapas prices in Tempe range from $4 to $13, for example) means AC’s B&F model is profitable, says Heksch.
“We always operate at profitability but we have to operate in the right framework of profitability. What I mean by that is we focus on profit margins. We’re never going to make the same amount of money that rooms does, but we focus on having a similar profit margin relative to our costs. Let’s concentrate first on having a busy lobby, a busy bar, and busy outlets—places where people want to hang out—then we can manage the costs, but let’s not do it the other way around.”
Those at AC Tempe and AC Chicago also verify that their B&F programs are in the black, but decline to provide exact numbers. At AC Tempe, the capture rate for its B&F has been about 55% during its first year of operation, and that number is growing. Meanwhile, AC Meetings is another area that provides a boost to the bottom line (see sidebar) creating a B&F option for groups.
Heksch concludes that a brand as distinct and defined as AC Hotels plays an important role in the current Marriott landscape after Marriott’s merger with Starwood last year.
“We have 30 brands now, so we need a strong DNA for each one,” he says. “We definitely found the select-service lifestyle brand we were missing and can attract travelers in that category now. AC is not a Courtyard or a Residence Inn. It’s something different.”
See how AC Tempe reflects the surrounding community through the Hoptail cocktail, made with Tempe’s own Four Peaks Hop Knot IPA.
Flexible space and cross-utilized menus combine to grow group revenues.
AC Hotels features a trio of beverage and food options for guests—AC Lounge, AC Kitchen, and AC Store—but another exists that encompasses elements of all three core programs, reinforcing revenues along the way: AC Meetings.
“When we created our opening budget last year, we had no idea what the profit potential of our meetings and events business would be, and it’s far exceeded our expectations,” says Patti Hunt, GM at the AC Hotel Phoenix Tempe/Downtown.
Because each AC Hotel has fewer than 200 rooms, they cater to small groups, often in the 50-person range. This allows their streamlined kitchen model (see main story) to reproduce menu items from AC Lounge and AC Kitchen at a higher volume for events, without putting a strain on staff, since ingredients are cross-utilized. Cooks are also free to create new dishes just for groups—such as Southwest Tempe Breakfast Tacos at AC Tempe—because they’re saving time elsewhere on core banquet production. Meanwhile, the AC Store provides many of the packaged items used for meeting breaks.
“We created our events menu based on the availability of food options within AC Lounge, AC Kitchen, and AC Store, so our brand voice is the same for meetings as it is everywhere else,” Hunt says.
Flexible space is another attraction for potential clients at AC. For example, at AC Tempe, they offer 3,444 square feet of “communally inspired event space” which includes the AC Kitchen, AC Lounge, the rooftop pool deck, and three dedicated meeting rooms.
“We let attendees know they’re welcome to enjoy the entire property once their meetings are over, so they feel more like a resident of the hotel,” says Hunt. “We encourage them to visit our rooftop pool, our library, or come into AC Lounge for our nightly porron ritual (see sidebar on page 19.) Because they’re smaller groups, they can assimilate into our public areas without overwhelming them.”—MC
How AC Hotels uses the lobby to communicate to core customers.
AC Hotels is a select-service lifestyle brand (see main story) that targets more than just the Gen Y masses. “I know a lot of lifestyle brands are Millennial-driven, and we are to a large extent, but lifestyle traveling is a mindset, so we also attract some Gen X and Baby Boomers because they enjoy the collaborative environment in our lobby. Our guests are entrepreneurs and well-traveled individuals, so we’re reaching into a higher income bracket,” explains Patti Hunt, GM at the AC Hotel Phoenix Tempe/Downtown.
When an AC customer checks in, the lobby is used to “really show them the lifestyle experience here,” Hunt continues. “We show them where they’ll have breakfast in the morning at AC Kitchen, then introduce them to AC Lounge with our shareable bites and craft cocktails in a sophisticated atmosphere. We also have different art activations throughout the lobby with 14 original public art pieces created just for our hotel by local artists.
“And then we emphasize how our lobby is a community gathering place and show them we’re a technology-driven brand. We have free Wi-Fi, USB ports, and electric outlets throughout all our public spaces, and we want them to use our lobby for both work and play. I think the benefit of a lifestyle brand is you can do both.”
AC’s refined décor, European flair, and well-lit public areas resonate “especially well with our female business travelers—they love it. Our hallways are bright and it feels very safe,” says Guy Heksch, VP, Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group, Marriott International. “Overall we have an intimate environment and we’re thoughtfully designed. If you look at other select-service brands, you might find it’s not so intimate, or maybe the furniture in the lobby and rooms are low quality. We have high-quality furnishings, beautiful artwork, great music, and the ambience is special.”—MC
Pass the Porron
Catalan-inspired drinking ritual helps activate the lobby at AC Hotels.
Lobby activation through beverage and food is one of the tenets of AC Hotels (see main story), and one way the Spanish-themed brand has been pouring on the fun is through a nightly porron ritual.
“In the northeastern part of Spain there’s a region called Cataluña, and one of the traditions people have is to gather together and pass around a vessel called a porron, which looks like a glass wine pitcher with a long spout. The porron is moved around a circle to each person in the group, and they’ll pour a bit of the wine into their mouths. Because the spout is so long, the porron never touches anyone’s lips,” explains David Belk, manager, B&F operations, AC Hotel Phoenix Tempe/Downtown.
Belk’s property is one of two AC Hotels in the U.S. (the other is Boston) that currently are testing a complimentary porron passing to officially kick off the evening at AC Lounge, and also help reinforce the Spanish heritage of the brand.
At AC Tempe, Belk pours Spanish Cava sparkling wine into a porron, and the ritual happens at 5 p.m. each day. “It’s a shareable experience and a communal way to bring our guests together,” says Belk. “We create a lot of fun social media moments passing the porron, which helps build a buzz about our hotel too.”—MC