Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » January/February 2007 Issue

Go with the Flow
Embassy Suites revamps a classic.
by Michael Costa

Embassy Suites breakfast area signage: floorstanding sign, countertop, and hanging banner.

Three-tiered bread and pastry cases.

Bulk cereal dispensers.

Three- and four-tiered condiment stands.

Seven-inch egg ring.
ome of the most famous paintings in the world start to fade if they’re not restored with fresh colors after a few hundred years. So shouldn’t a famous breakfast program that has existed for a mere 23 years be in line for the same “restoration” to adapt to customer needs?

Embassy Suites has had tremendous success with its complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast program since 1984, consistently ranking at or near the top of J.D. Power’s annual guest satisfaction survey. Using that achievement as a stepping stone, Embassy Suites decided to add some “fresh colors.”

“We would be silly not to put breakfast under a microscope, given the fact that it’s such a driver of the customer’s decision to stay at Embassy Suites,” says Jim Holthouser, senior vice president, brand management, Embassy Suites Hotels.

Embassy Suites spent two years and $2.5 million on research, menu, and equipment upgrades, followed by a gradual rollout of an updated breakfast program to its nearly 190 properties, starting in April 2006, and finishing this year.

They also surveyed customers to find out what needed to be changed.

“One of the overwhelming responses we got from our regular guests was, ‘don’t screw it up, because it is a winning formula,’” says Kris Beck, brand director of food & beverage, Embassy Suites Hotels.

More than 200 changes were made to create a standardized experience for all Embassy Suites properties. Since the rollout, Holthouser says the overall breakfast scores have increased by at least four points.

“When we’re able to see a four- to six-point increase, that really tells us our guests have noticed the changes that we’ve put in place,” Holthouser says.

More than 90,000 guests take advantage of Embassy Suites complimentary breakfast each day, which amounts to more than 2.6 million breakfasts each month. Because of those enormous numbers, it was easy to spot what needed to be improved.

“Flow was probably one of the biggest challenges. We spent a lot of time watching guests and how they assemble their breakfast,” Beck says.

Embassy Suites has primarily a self-service breakfast layout. Without an optimal flow system in place, waiting times could be frustrating. Part of addressing flow problems at Embassy Suites was simply to give the guests more room to work at their own pace.

“People like clean lines, they like uncluttered appearance. So where most of our hotels had, for example, some greenery, some plants, maybe some olive oil jars, maybe some extra linens used to decorate a buffet, we’re saying take all that stuff out. Completely eliminate it,” says Beck.

Combining aesthetics with practicality was the next step. What do guests see first? And can they navigate their way around the layout quickly?

“We had to determine what kind of signage would identify these key stations around the breakfast area,” says Beck.

Embassy Suites commissioned Memphis-based artist John Robinette to design three different types of signs for the breakfast area: A floor-standing sign, a countertop sign, and a hanging banner sign. Robinette created icons that represent each section of breakfast, painted in an Impressionist style.

“It has provided an updated, almost Mediterranean feel,” says Dawn Ray, senior manager brand communications, Embassy Suites Hotels.

“You look at these iconic images of breakfast and they immediately say to the guest, ‘oh, I should go there for cereal.’ They’re not hunting around the breakfast area going, ‘where’s the cereal?’” adds Ray.

Now that guests have more room to move, and signage to guide them, how do they gather their meals as quickly as possible?

“We had to break the entire breakfast down into its components, which came down to stations,” Beck says.

Breakfast stations at Embassy Suites consist of:

  1. Cooked-to-order and hot buffet stations (omelets, pancakes, bacon, sausage).
  2. Beverage stations (coffee, milk, juice, soft drinks).
  3. Cereal station.
  4. Fruit station.
  5. Toast and pastry stations (muffins, bagels, donuts, Danish, bread).

Each station was given new equipment and a fresh layout designed to erase flow problems.

“We looked at a lot of ways to speed up that process by making sure all of our hotels had interchangeable pieces. Most of the displayware on the market was never designed to work with the back of the house,” Beck says.

Embassy Suites worked with Cal-Mil to customize specific pieces of equipment to meet the new standards, including:

  • Three-tiered bread and pastry cases. The cases have display trays customized to a half-sheet pan size so they can be swapped immediately with full trays from the back of the house, creating a seamless exchange.
  • Bulk cereal dispensers. Empties are swapped with full containers from the back of the house, just like the pastry trays.
  • Three-tiered pitcher racks to hold pitchers of half and half, skim and 2 percent milk.
  • The racks create a streamlined appearance, and eliminate the need for PC creamers.
  • Three-tiered tea caddies with removable inserts. Duplicate inserts are filled in the back of the house and exchanged for empty ones.
  • Three- and four-tiered condiment bowl stands, which hold everything from sugar packets to omelet ingredients. Extra bowls are filled in the back of the house and swapped for empty ones. Beck says using tiered stands brings everything closer to the customer’s eye level so they can spot what they need faster, and cuts down clutter and mess at each station.

Other notable changes include:

  • Custom seven-inch omelet rings by American Metalcraft. These let chefs create more omelets simultaneously in less space and fit perfectly on the nine-inch Embassy Suites plates.
  • No bundled silverware. Each station gets only the silverware needed there. For example, the cereal station gets spoons, and the toast station gets knives. This lets the guest “one-stop shop” without waiting in line.
  • The coffee station was split in two. One is for the actual java, the other is where customers can add cream, sugar and all the extras. Guests who just want their coffee black don’t have to wait for other guests to finish customizing their beverage.
Embassy Suites introduced the Embassy Ambassador program to coincide with the rollout. The Embassy Ambassador is a manager who acts as a “walking concierge” during breakfast, greeting guests and answering questions. Beck says this has had the biggest positive impact on their scores since last April.

The “fresh colors” applied to the breakfast program have not only raised guest scores but, according to Holthouser, have also raised employee satisfaction scores. They’re excited to be part of the buzz surrounding the changes.

“At the end of the day, we’re in business to maximize profits. You can always get better. I don’t think we’ll ever be satisfied until we’re at 100 percent occupancy, at the highest possible rates, and we’re drawing the highest possible level of customer satisfaction,” says Holthouser.

Michael Costa is a Chicago-based freelance writer covering the hospitality industry.

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