Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » January/February 2012

Passing Fancy
Family-style banquets bring the love to corporate events
at Suncadia.

By Denny Lewis

When Brad Jackson, CEO of Seattle-based business and technology consulting firm Slalom Consulting, booked a corporate meeting for his staff at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington, he was looking for a relaxing resort setting. He wanted to reward his Seattle staff for their hard work and to foster a teambuilding experience to connect and reconnect his 300 employees with their employers, veterans with newcomers, top-achievers with the up-and-coming, and everyone with significant others.

He chose Suncadia, however, not solely for its facilities but also for the resort’s reputation for creating an experience to help meet corporate guests’ goals. One B&C feature in particular, “catered” perfectly to the goal of reinforcing Slalom’s we’re-all-in-this-together corporate philosophy and engendering workplace team spirit: sharing meals with family-style service.

All in the Family
Suncadia has garnered raves for offering family-style meals to corporate groups. Guests—often co-workers accustomed to relating in a business setting or colleagues unfamiliar or completely unacquainted— are obliged to interact in the friendly, informal setting to assemble their meal. Starches and vegetables are served in large bowls and platters on the tables while steak, roasted salmon, Cornish game hens, and other center-of-the-plate offerings are delivered “Russian-style” from platters, directly to each guest by servers. Jackson got caught up in the excitement and instituted a new option—he recruited his executives (and himself) to don server uniforms and serve dinner to their employees. Jackson describes Slalom’s time at Suncadia and the meals shared as “a critical part of building our culture.”

As executive chef, Andrew Wilson opened the brand-new Suncadia Resort in 2008. He began family-style service for social banquets, especially rehearsal dinners and weddings, immediately as an economical food service option and as the perfect method of getting both sides of the wedding party acquainted. Wilson saw the ice-breaking and friendship-forging potential of the service and decided to transfer the concept to business banquets. Now, as F&B director as well, Wilson credits the unique, interactive service for helping to keep his 18,000 square feet of banquet space busy in a down economy, with 60 percent of total business coming from corporate clients.

While nestled under the Cascades between the quiet, small towns of Cle Elum and Roslyn (where the television series Northern Exposure was filmed), Suncadia is actually less than 100 miles from Seattle and the bustling campuses of Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon.com. As director of culinary programs at Microsoft from 1999 to 2007, where he oversaw the company’s expenditures on $36 million of food, Wilson is well versed in what bang corporations are expecting for their buck. Accordingly, he is not looking to reinvent the wheel.

He provides high-quality, well-prepared meals at good value and adds worth through very personalized and friendly service. “No one has thought of anything totally new,” says Wilson. “It is the twists and the turns in this business that make it interesting.”

So Wilson extended those twists and turns to his flagship restaurant, Portals, to make it more interesting. After business guests depart on Thursdays, the 354 rooms at Suncadia and the 3,000 new housing units surrounding the resort fill with leisure travelers. Portals offers a $50 familystyle Friday-night dinner package “just to show our guests some love,” says Wilson.

The “casually elegant” restaurant that serves Northwest and Pacific Rim cuisine as well as locally sourced favorites such as elk, duck, rabbit, or pheasant becomes a little more “family-centric” and breaks out the large serving platters with barbecued chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, sautéed char, homestyle meatloaf, and the like, along with the accompanying veggies, salads, and starches. “Mom and Dad get out of work, pack the kids in the car and skip the fast food along the way to come here, get a good meal, and relax,” says Wilson.

In addition to providing savings for guests, family-style service has multiple cost benefits for Suncadia’s F&B program. It’s a less expensive choice for both social and business clients and for Wilson’s operational costs. By tailoring service, savings can be achieved in several ways; the individual service of protein helps maintain costs through stricter portioning (than if left to guests), while help-yourself vegetables and starches reduces the number of servers needed.

Growing Families
Although Slalom and other firms might add their execs to the server force, Wilson keeps the same number of his own servers—about one per 25 guests or so—at the ready to help out. No additional cost is added for serving equipment, as the same utensils, platters, bowls and trays move as needed from breakfast buffet to family-style settings or to the full-service restaurant.

Cost savings aside, the best way to negate fixed costs and a questionable economy is to bring more guests through your banquet rooms, Wilson says. As evidenced by the resort’s calendar full of repeat bookings, he believes family-style service and personalized attention continue to do that for Suncadia. If Slalom’s employees’ reactions to their stay at Suncadia are representative of all their corporate guests, then Wilson is right.

“We have 10 events around the country like the one at Suncadia every year for our 1,700 employees, and we survey everyone,” says CEO Jackson. “The event at Suncadia has overwhelmingly the best feedback of any.”

Denny Lewis is an eight-year Hotel F&B veteran based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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