Marcus Hotels & Resorts Pumps the Breaks

Meeting break competition rejuvenates creativity.


Last fall, Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels & Resorts challenged all 17 of its hotels to invent inspiring meeting breaks during a nine-week internal contest. “We wanted to push creativity and the customer experience and inspire our properties to out-do themselves. In banquets, the one place that you interact with your guests the most is in the break category, so it was low-hanging fruit, but it’s easy to get complacent,” says Mark McDonald, corporate director at Marcus.

Because Marcus Hotels has a national contract with Pepsi, McDonald designated Pepsi marketing funds as prize money for the first-, second-, and third-place winners ($5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 respectively). No funds were given to the properties ahead of time to assist with the contest, McDonald adds.

“We wanted to see what each property was going to do and how they were going to use their own resources, so that we could see where the gaps were and where improvements needed to be made,” says McDonald. “Then, we could drill down into those areas and identify training needs.”

Each Friday during the competition was submission day, so the properties would create their breaks, snap pictures, and upload them to a Dropbox folder, to which they all had access and could peruse each other’s submissions. For each week, they could get a maximum of 100 points, in which McDonald and Susan Terry, VP of culinary and F&B operations at Marcus, judged the properties using prescribed criteria.

“They had to use Pepsi products [beverages or foods] in their break, which really leaves an enormous variety of options,” explains Terry. “Other aspects that could win properties points were design, color and style, accent pieces, use of new Pepsi products, product choice—including healthy choices—and of course, punctuality. Submitting late would lose you points.”

Overall presentation was important to McDonald.

“I really stressed to everyone that design and balance are really key ingredients,” he says. I also wanted them to be true to their hotel’s identity and use accent pieces that personalized the break, such as florals, picture frames, clocks, or trays. What the hotels came up with were way beyond our imaginations, and we were blown away.”

Ashley Allen is an author and writer based in Leesburg, Virginia, whose work also has appeared in The Huffington Post.

Local Apple Break

Executive Chef Brian Frakes took home 1st prize and says that the healthy spirit of competition and a thirst for creativity were both driving factors in his victory. He created the Local Apple Break by working with an apple farm in New Berlin, Wisconsin, which brought more than 16 varieties of apples for the break. Apple cider mulled with cinnamon and clove, apple and rosemary-infused iced teas, apple tartlets, fresh-cut apples topped with house-made hazelnut and pistachio butters, Nutella, and roof honey were just some of the treats available. A pastry chef stood by, cutting different apple types and dipping them in caramel and chocolate, encouraging guests to taste. The Pepsi products used were a variety of Snapple Straight-Up Teas.

“The display was inspired by a farmer’s market sort of feel,” Frakes says, “and I procured all these crates from a convention that Kroger grocery had here. They really didn’t want to take all of them back with them, so I bartered with them to keep those crates. We put all kinds of pumpkins and gourds, along with the apples, in the crates for this break, and I happened to have things such as an apple cookbook to use as an accent piece, with metal bowls and earthenware serving dishes all helping to make it look really rustic.”

Eat, Drink, and Be Scary Break

Executive Chef Sean Pharr worked alongside Kara Johnson, banquet manager, to bring the Eat, Drink, and Be Scary break to its eerie fruition. “We wanted to make it like the Halloween parties you’d go to as a kid, where you’re blindfolded and you have to stick your hand in a squishy bowl of eyeballs or something,” explains Pharr. The break consisted of peeled and cored apples to look like heads floating in a carafe of apple cider, apple wedges with peanut butter and marshmallows to resemble teeth, pig-in-in-a-blanket mummies, peeled Clementine oranges with a small celery stalk as sweet “pumpkins,” a tower of pumpkin-and-chocolate cupcakes on an old index card filer, a basket of typical trick-or-treat candies, and a metal tub of Amp energy drinks (to fulfill the Pepsi requirement). “We worked hard on the presentation too,” adds Pharr. “We put black taper candles in wine bottles, found some black and white mesh fabrics to resemble webbing, painted pumpkins black and wrote on them, and got some skeletons and bones from a Halloween store to bring the full effect of a haunted break.”

Holey Moley Break

“Holey Moley is a popular donut shop in Milwaukee, so this fun mid-morning break was built around this local specialty,” says Jeremy Nelson, director of banquets. Nelson had the unique donut display, a recycled window frame appointed with dowel rods, custom-built by the family of a staff member. Boxes from the Holey Moley store itself brought a “pop” of color to the dark wood risers and copper-topped serving tables. Vintage glass milk bottles held chilled plain and chocolate milk from a local dairy, with housemade strawberry, orange, and pineapple smoothies as a healthy alternative. A glass refrigerator was stocked full with almost every beverage Pepsi has to offer, including Starbucks iced coffees, Aquafina water, Snapple juices, Amp energy drinks, and others. “We were proud of our third-place win, and the $1,000 will be used for more creative serve ware and displays,” adds Nelson. “But more importantly, the competition rejuvenated and revitalized our team, which is priceless.”

Welcome to Wisconsin Break

This break was all about cheese, which Wisconsin is known for,” explains Pharr. “We set out local cheeses, honey, some walnut, local fresh baked breads, apples, and, of course, cheese curds. Our Pepsi addition was the 1893 cola beverage that fit in nicely with the style of the break. It was all done with a rustic, farm-to-table feel.” Pharr says this break is now being offered on the break menus, and a client chose it the very day after Pharr first submitted it for the contest. “It’s bound to be our most popular break from now on, and I think it really falls in line with the Marcus Hotels credo, ‘Serve, Create, Deliver,’” Pharr says.

Cookies ‘N’ Milk Break

Pfister submitted the Cookies ‘N’ Milk break in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. In honor of that, Frakes served cookies on small baking sheets lined with pink parchment paper. The name of each cookie type (chocolate chip, M&M, toffee, sugar, or oatmeal raisin) was scribbled on the paper, for a simple, bakery showcase effect. Pepsi owns Quaker Oats and Ocean Spray, so Frakes created a deep-dish oatmeal-and-dried-cranberry cookie especially for the break. Small ceramic chilled milk bottles were adorned with a pink breast cancer ribbon. Toppings including nuts, M&Ms, chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and raisins were available to mix into housemade vanilla yogurt or to pile on top of a dollop of cookie dough, which was served in small boxes. “Who doesn’t like eating cookie dough?” says Frakes.

Trick or Treat Break

For its Trick or Treat Break, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa used a collection of classic Halloween candies, fresh-dipped caramel apples covered in toasted pumpkin seeds, Boo Berry cereal balls, and Pepsi’s 1893 cola were presented atop tree stumps, bales of hay, and an old farm table.