Southern Accent

Hilton's Mark Southern on the future of hotel F&B leadership

Mark Southern (right) and colleague Adrian Kurre were featured in a Hotel F&B 2013 cover story on Hilton Garden Inn’s breakfast program.

We spoke with Hotel Food and Beverage Leadership Association (HFAB) member Mark Southern, director, product innovation, F&B, at Hilton Worldwide, in light of his recent appointment as F&B Committee Chair of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA), for his perspective on F&B leadership and the direction of the industry.

HFAB: What are some of your goals as the F&B committee chair?

Southern: Let’s focus on elevating the exposure and visibility of F&B in the hotel industry and in the hospitality industry more broadly. I think we have ceded ground to the independent restaurant world. They have continued to develop talent and continue to grow and help create the trend around new foodies out there. In some markets and particular regions we’ve done a very good job. In other markets we haven’t done as well.

It’s time to make sure that we are in position to get our fair share of the dining dollar and make sure that our hotels’ F&B venues are relevant for the industry. It’s going to be accomplished through leveraging broader trends and helping the AH&LA members understand what is the right thing to do. How do you tap local talent? How do you tap local trends and macro trends to grow the visibility of your venues and get that fair share of the wallet?

HFAB: How do you go about changing the customer’s mind about hotel foodservice and the hotel industry in general compared to the independent options out there?

Southern: First, we need to be relevant and focus on creating relevant concepts for our hotels and understanding what local market needs are. Hotels are still in the restaurant business. It’s still a street corner battle. People aren’t going to drive five miles out of their way for something ordinary. It needs to be a compelling, unique selling proposition for a hotel venue to work and deliver against.

We just did a project in Hilton about independent restaurant marketing, and we put together a PR guide and really tried to educate hotel F&B about understanding how to do a full analysis on your restaurant menu-[finding] where the holes in the market are that you can sell and then creating relevant marketing materials that are highly consistent. I think it’s about getting your product right, getting the message right, and then delivering exceptional products in your marketplace.

HFAB: From an internal standpoint what are some of your goals to help the industry itself, such as utilizing and maximizing the F&B STAR report?

Southern: Now that we have STAR reporting, it’s helping the industry understand how to use that reporting and grow it. It’s about our internal metrics and being able to compare apples and oranges when it comes to properties. So, in a sense, a large hotel with a medium-sized meeting space and an independent hotel with the same amount of meeting space, truly, they’re competitors when it comes to the meetings market.

So there’s an education process around the metrics of STAR, but the bigger, broader implications of STAR for asset managers and ownership groups are to help them better deliver a relevant product in the marketplace. If I’m building a property, and we’re in an area where every hotel in our comp set is outperforming our catering sales, clearly there’s a reason for that. If every hotel is over-indexing against the industry and against the broader area, then that hotel that you’re developing probably needs more meeting space. But if catering sales are low in that market, and venue revenues are particularly high, then you want to look at adding seats.

HFAB: Anything you’d like to add?

Southern: I go back to where we talk about broader industry metrics and broader industry reporting. We are developing more metrics that help our operators benchmark their own performance against their identified comp set in the broader industry. There are other resources that we can play into that will help us as hotel professionals and F&B professionals in hotels work toward being more profitable and being better business people.

We need to focus on F&B as half art and half science. It’s a business, but there’s also an art element to it getting things right for the guests and how to manage those experiences as well.

We have to continue to teach the business case for what we do while also understanding that we have this sort of soft area with the business as well. When it comes to these big initiatives. We really need support development and mentoring for future leaders in our industry to help people understand why it’s attractive to be an F&B professional. I hope hotel organizations prosper and grow and develop people from an F&B perspective so we can elevate professionals in the industry.

I think there’s a renewed focus on F&B as a revenue center and profit center for hotels. As we went through the economic downturn, we gave up a lot. We certainly saw revenues decline, and we know those are coming back very strong. My belief is that hotel owners and operators want to have vibrant F&B operations within their hotels. It’s incumbent upon the brands. The leading hotel organizations are owners developing relevant products for their space and making sure that their catering, banquet, event spaces as well are in place.

This is where the brands can take a leadership position in raising the level of expectation and F&B within the industry. Our owners are asset managers, and proper resources, education, metrics, and analytics can help them make good decisions about what kind of venues and what type of meeting and event space they want to put into their properties.

It’s a great time to be in the industry. We welcome the opportunity to work with owners and asset managers as well to help achieve the greater goals for F&B and for the hotel industry as a whole.


HFAB Voices
Advisory board members of the Hotel Food and Beverage Leadership Association are on a mission to propel possibilities in hotel F&B.

Marion Edwards
Principal, Creative at FOODTHINgK

“As we continue to evolve the hotel F&B experience that will differentiate and can transform a brand and create a service experience that is genuine and fresh for today’s and tomorrow’s guests, forward-thinking F&B leaders who embrace the value of placemaking and sensory hospitality training will broaden their market appeal and attract and create enthusiastic viral guest ambassadors. They understand that fusing the dining experience into all customer touchpoints is what the millennial executive, the family with Gen Z kids, and the traveling boomers seek in their view of a value proposition that goes beyond the classic hotel experience.

“Hotels will transform into social hubs, gathering places. The F&B experience will be integrated as a visceral part of every guest touchpoint in their hotel experience. The packed adult beverage bar and the fresh juice and smoothie stations fused into the heart of the former “goods only” zones at a new Nordstrom tells you what the impact of placemaking can be. Modern car dealerships now include upscale cafés, gyms, theaters, and barbershops in lobby zones. These are designed with the key principles of placemaking and disrupt and reinvent those brand experiences.”
David Morgan
VP of F&B at Omni Hotels & Resorts

“As the F&B industry is ever-evolving, it’s important to be aware of trends and how they will impact our customer. The key is including those F&B trends, but doing so in a way that will be appreciated by our customer.

“With the number of items on a menu shrinking, it becomes critical for our culinary teams to ensure that each item that is on our menu is truly memorable. Trying to have menus that make everyone happy often results in mediocrity. Staying true to the concept of the restaurant and understanding the customer expectation are critical to sustainable success.

“It is important for us to support our employees and educate them on skills outside of their comfort zone. This is why it’s so beneficial to bring our F&B directors to the Culinary Institute of America to collaborate with chefs from other countries and regions. Creativity is often underestimated. In our company we reward risk, knowing that F&B is supposed to be fun.

“It is crucial that hotel F&B leaders have the chance to collaborate, as we ourselves can learn from the successes and failures of our competitors. We are constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve.”