How Cooper Hotels Captures Significant Offsite Catering Revenue
Hotel group gets cooking outside their comfort zone, for big results.
What’s become a burgeoning revenue channel in offsite catering began as a simple conversation, at a time when Cooper Hotels hadn’t even contemplated anything of the sort. In 2006, Andy Laubscher, now corporate director of F&B at Cooper headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, was living in Naples, Florida, where he helped open the Hilton Naples. Myra Daniels, then managing director of the Baker Museum, where the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra performed in the Daniels Pavilion, was a frequent customer of Shula’s Steak House at the Hilton at the time, Laubscher recalls.
“She was thinking of opening a pre-theater dinner called Dinner at the Dome,” he says. Daniels envisioned an upscale buffet for around 120 people and asked Laubscher if he had connections with a caterer who might be interested. “We were brave. We said ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got to do it.’ She looked at us a little funny, and said, ‘I know you do catering in hotel banquets, but this will be six blocks from the hotel.’”
But soon enough, the Hilton began catering there four or five nights a week, during the orchestra season. “They didn’t have a kitchen at the venue per se, but they had a small prep area we could use,” Laubscher explains. “We purchased a combi oven with a hood so we could rethermalize dishes in there. We built a small kitchen in that space. Everything was pre-prepared at the hotel, then finished and put into chafers and presented nicely in an intimate setting at the venue. We had an offsite team that would run that piece of that business—a supervisor and one or two cooks who would leave the hotel at 1 or 2 p.m. to go over there and start prepping.”
Laubscher says that at the height of the arrangement, which ran into 2010, the job brought the hotel about $500,000 in business. “At the time, our operation was making $3.5 million to $4 million, so all of a sudden, for about six or seven months during the season, we added this business,” he says.
Soon, the Hilton Naples was spreading its flavor all over town.
“It was clear to us that catering doesn’t have to happen just in our four walls,” Laubscher says. “We did an event at the Naples Zoo for 600 or 700 people, with cooking stations throughout the zoo. We then also tapped into limited-service hotels like a Homewood or a Hampton that might have a little board room for meetings but no kitchen. We catered to them as well for small business luncheons.”
Dinner at the Dome and the other smaller jobs around the city became the warmup for offsite business for Cooper. More recently, an opportunity arose that had the Hilton Orlando, Altamonte Springs, swinging for the fences.
Opened in early 2016 with tourism development dollars, the Seminole County sports complex, later rechristened the Boombah Sports Complex Seminole County, opened in Sanford, Florida. Its goal, says Park Supervisor Steve Daughtery, is to bring in economic-impact events, such as baseball tournaments, from around the nation on weekends, as well as local-oriented events during the week. It sprawls across 102 acres, with 15 fields that can be adapted to baseball, soccer, lacrosse, and other sports uses. “The competition surface equates to about 30 NFL football fields that we maintain daily,” Daugherty says. In its first year, the complex held 66 events, generating $25-plus million.
“The county has several other parks and facilities, but this is the diamond and by far the largest, built primarily to go after the economic-impact events,” Daugherty explains. “The concept is to out-service other facilities in the country with this business model and drive an intent to return. We want to make sure that, from start to finish, for the event owners we bring in to utilize the facility, when their guests, coaches, umpires come, everyone has a great experience.”
Part of that experience is the food. The county put out an RFP for bids and had multiple respondents, some with experience at some of the smaller parks or with food trucks, Daugherty says. The Hilton Orlando was the only hotel that put in a bid.
“Nobody really had the experience at that time—including the Hilton—of a sports venue this size,” says Daugherty. “A hotel is a fish out of water for these kind of events,” says Laubscher, but it still made complete sense. “We were brave and didn’t think how we would make it happen. We just said ‘yes’ and figured it out.”
As it turns out, the job would draw on the guest-pleasing skill set the hotel team already had. “Our discussions all focused on what the goals were: guest service, quality food, being able to accommodate requests for customization,” Daugherty says. “For example, when softball tournaments come in, the girls tend to eat differently than the boy baseball players. They may want a wrap and so forth. The Hilton has the ability in their kitchen to customize menu requests from event to event.”
The money made it well worth stretching for, says John Trimarche, director of F&B at the Hilton Orlando. “It was a no-brainer for us,” he says. “You have a captive audience there at the fields every weekend—anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 people. We’ve had weekends where we ran Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and have done in excess of $22,000, from a concession stand basically.”
Starting out, the offering was basic: hamburgers, hot dogs, candy, chips, soda, and Powerade. But, in 2018, Trimarche’s team is evolving it into more of a barbecue concept with smoked brisket, pulled pork, and more. “We want to make it less a concession stand and more of an at-park dining experience,” he says. “In the first year, which was only a partial year, we did about $280,000, and about $450,000 in 2017. With the new concept, we think we can exceed half a million in 2018.”
It’s a massive upshot for the hotel, just by stepping outside its comfort zone. “That’s the largest we’ve done,” Laubscher says. By contrast, in Detroit, Cooper has two hotels and does catering for a community center for weddings and other events, annually pulling around $50,000 to $70,000. “Orlando is definitely the biggest impact.”
Making it Happen
Laubscher says that because of the simple menu, profit margins are high on items. “The involvement is simple and limited in infrastructure, labor, and food costs,” he says. The hotel runs three concession stands at the complex, and when the whole park is up and running, each requires three or four line employees, and there is a full-time manager there. The property team created the guidelines themselves, though they do get Laubscher’s opinion on things.
“Cooper’s been a great asset from a purchasing standpoint in doing the business there,” Trimarche says. Originally, they had all food delivered to the hotel, then moved it themselves to the site. In mid-2017, they decided it would be easier to deliver directly to the venue. Each concession stand has refrigeration and dry storage onsite. Large deliveries are broken down into three small packages and loaded to each of the three stands. In a given month at the sports complex, they use $18,000 to $20,000 in food.
“All this volume we do off a six-foot propane grill at each concession stand,” Trimarche says. “We have a couple heat lamps to keep the food hot. There’s not a lot of advanced cooking. It’s constant production all day long, all weekend long.”
Like the Hilton Naples before them, the Hilton Orlando also tacks on more incremental revenue with other, much smaller offsite catering jobs, such as bar mitzvahs and weddings at a local synagogue and at F&B events in the area, such as Taste of Altamont Springs.
The number one lesson in offsite catering, say Laubscher and Trimarche, is to be organized and use checklists.
“If you have an event in the ballroom and you need something, you can just go get it,” Laubscher notes. “But once you leave the hotel, that’s it. Create checklists. At the end (of catering Dinner at the Dome), we were pretty savvy in creating checklists, so the chef could look at the menu and say, ‘Okay, do we have ladles? Soup spoons? Cutting boards?’”
Crunching the costing and projected profitability, before proceeding, is the second key consideration. “It’s much more costly to do these than to do an event in the ballroom,” Laubscher says. “You need logistics, infrastructure, and transportation. You need to factor all that into costing an event before you decide to do it.”
More hotels may want to consider taking a stroll off-property to realize new chunks of revenue. Within Cooper’s portfolio, a few other hotels do offsite catering, including in Detroit and at properties at Oak Ridge and Jackson in Tennessee. But none compare to the Hilton Orlando’s massive contract at the Boombah Sports Complex.
“The thing you run into is whether you can do it,” Laubscher says. “Hotels’ core business generally is not to leave the property and do events outside. But, fewer and fewer couples want to get married in the ballroom. They want to get married on the beach or in the mountains. If that’s not happening in our four walls anymore, we still need to be involved in that business. There’s a point where you have to jump over your own shadow, because a lot of hotels haven’t done that before. You have to be brave and figure out the logistics. Once you figure it out, it’s just like running anything else.”