IHG Updates EVEN Hotels, Looks Ahead to Avid Brand
A look at F&B tweaks and what's to come.
In our March/April 2015 issue, we examined InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG) EVEN Hotels—a 2014 entry into the upscale, mainstream-priced market. EVEN vies against brands such as Hilton Garden Inn and Courtyard by Marriott, with a wellness- and holistic-focused positioning. That philosophy manifests itself in F&B in the form of Cork & Kale, a 24-hour program in which all items are à la carte (no buffets) and reasonably priced, prepared using labor-saving kitchen equipment. Offerings include hot breakfast dishes, smoothies, build-your-own yogurt bowls, lunch selections, hot dinner items, desserts, and a bar with signature cocktails, wine, and craft beer in the evenings. Outside of those mealtimes, there are “wellness-approved” packaged items such as yogurt, granola, fruit, etc., in a grab-and-go pantry.
Guest awareness and buzz are mounting, says Anthony Torres, director of global upscale F&B solutions at IHG, as EVEN continues to spread. Its roster of nine hotels includes recent openings in Sarasota, Florida; Eugene, Oregon; and Seattle—where EVEN’s first dual-branded hotel (with Staybridge Suites) launched next to Amazon headquarters. Since the concept’s inception, which was born from market research and advisory board member input, IHG has had plenty of time to measure feedback from operators and guests. We touched base with Torres about the progression of Cork & Kale.
“For breakfast, we realized our guests were looking more for wellness on their terms and more variety,” Torres says. “Wellness on your terms means sometimes our guests may want a superfood acai bowl, but sometimes wellness may mean the turkey sausage breakfast sandwich, which is not as niche or super-healthy. We wanted to make sure we added variety and balance. We still have a really great brand framework for wellness but we wanted to add items that are familiar and thoughtfully prepared.”
A revamped menu at Cork & Kale, Torres says, is key to moving forward, allowing EVEN to be more flexible in different markets with labor. The markets who have seen more growth may have to add staff accordingly, but overall it’s efficient, he says, thanks in part to cross-utilization of ingredients.
“We had about 230 SKUs and took it down to about 170,” Torres notes. “Our owners were excited. If we had an ingredient in a menu item, we wanted to make sure it was also used in something else—not just one ingredient for one menu item. We looked at prep time and gathered feedback from our teams and GMs and looked at what was selling and what we could change. We made quite a few refinements and also upgraded quality of certain items.” The bar component of Cork & Kale also received a reworking.
“We realized our bar program was very niche, with some products not everybody was familiar with, so we brought in some more familiar products, such as Tito’s vodka, putting them into some cocktails that were very much what we see everybody drinking, such as a Moscow Mule,” says Torres. “We also added Bulleit bourbon. We made our style of an Old Fashioned, which is a maple-apple Old Fashioned. And then we redid our wine program with some great wines such as Hogue and Meiomi.”
While some guests may want to sit down and dine, Torres notes that others are just trying to make it to a meeting, so EVEN expanded its Marketplace (24-hour pantry) offerings.
New training at properties has followed the tweaks, over six months from late 2017 into 2018, with new service. “We’ve seen great performance financially and in guest service since launching the program back in September,” Torres says.
Torres says EVEN has seen, on average, 15% to 20% growth year over year, but the overall goal in these first few years has been to open more properties.
With continued attention to guest feedback, says Torres, EVEN is looking at new potential additions and concepts such as breakfast bowls and layout changes. “In the new Cork & Kale, you’ll see an entirely new layout of the bar and kitchen space, to be a more efficient model.”
IHG is even discussing the possibility of a pre-ordering system for guests, based on feedback.
“There are a couple different models of Cork & Kale,” Torres says. “Now, we’re looking at our new model moving forward, as well as how to give guests breakfast on their terms with pre-ordering. We’re still in the development phase of that. Marketplace provides a quick grab-and-go, but we want to make sure they can get something more substantial.”
Late third quarter 2018 will see the launch of a new brand from IHG. The new Avid flag will enter the limited-service, midscale space, championing “everyday travel at a fair price, focusing on things that really matter to today’s midscale travelers,” says Jennifer Gribble, VP of Holiday Inn Express and Avid Hotels at IHG.
“When we use the term ‘everyday travel,’ we’re talking about the one- or two-night stay where the guest doesn’t really need much from the hotel, but they need a great night’s sleep and to get off in the morning,” Gribble explains.
Avid officially became franchise-ready in September 2017, meaning owners could start signing; so far, the brand has more than 100 signings in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico; the first property broke ground in December and the first opening will be this summer in Oklahoma City.
“When we first started identifying opportunities to grow, we realized there were 14 million underserved midscale travelers, representing over $20 billion in annual travel revenues,” Gribble says. “As we got to know these guests, what they were telling us is that there are no brands they trust in this segment, because no one is delivering a consistent, high-quality experience. We realized we need to do things very differently to deliver the basics well. They said they need a grab-and-go breakfast with high-quality items and breakfast choices that mimic what they have at home. High-quality means having brands our guests recognize and trust.”
Avid’s breakfast will feature seven different categories of items, each designed to do something different for guests: an easy egg option (hardboiled), an energy boost (breakfast bar), a dairy selection (healthy yogurt), two fruit options (bananas plus a seasonal fruit), a bread basket (selection of muffins and bagels, with a toaster), and hearty classics (oatmeal and favorite cereals).
“What’s unique about the experience is we built it in the round,” Gribble notes. “We learned from guests that instead of having a standard buffet lineup, where things could appear missing, it feels like a complete offering.” Accordingly, Avid calls the outlay “A Good All-Around Breakfast.”
Gribble says IHG consulted its Avid Hotels Owner Advisory Board (“They’ve helped us make sure we deliver this experience at a cost that makes sense for their return on their investment,” she says) to determine the appropriate staffing model. “It’s a rather simple breakfast experience,” she says. “We landed on having a single, dedicated host because we feel that host plays such an important role in the overall service experience in the morning—greeting and helping guests.”
To answer demand for quality coffee, Avid will have bean-to-cup coffee brewers available 24/7 for guests. In the morning, they also supplement that with coffee in a carafe for guests who are more in a hurry, Gribble says. The 24/7 coffee station also features still and sparkling waters on tap.
The “everyday travelers” the brand seeks to serve are “looking for basics done exceptionally well,” says Gribble, “and that’s what Avid is designed to do.”