Efficient Group F&B Drives AT&T Hotel Expansion
Additional space and smart presentations make Austin property more competitive.
Here’s where one might insert a worn reference to the maxim that everything is bigger in Texas. Whether that’s true or not across the Lone Star state, it’s definitely accurate in discussing the large scope of the recent expansion of the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and, with it, the property’s ability to go wide-open in attracting groups. Perhaps mirroring the mammoth new mural in the facility’s pre-function space, the expanded spaces provide a canvas for the culinary team to impress groups with nimble, creative action stations and efficient service.
In March, the property opened its 30,000-square-foot expansion in downtown Austin—the culmination of a four-year project. The new addition includes the 15,000-square-foot Zlotnik Family Ballroom (with 5,000 square feet of pre-function space) and an additional 10,000-square-foot event space, along with a banquet kitchen, bakery, and nine meeting rooms. The addition brings the total event space at the property to 80,000 square feet of flexible space, which includes 53 meeting rooms, accommodating up to 1,600 people. The space is multi-functional, featuring various layout options and room sizes for meetings, conferences, weddings, graduations, and other social gatherings. The new addition is also part of Robert B. Rowling Hall, which serves as the new home to the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business graduate programs.
“We found groups were looking for larger space,” says Alison Berg, who has been director of sales and marketing at the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center for over two years. Adding space was “absolutely needed,” says Berg. “It has allowed us to remain competitive by being able to take larger groups. Our events were up to 600 in size; now we’re up to 1,000 people. One of the great things about our space is the diversity within it. Prior to the expansion, we had a 10,000-square-foot ballroom and additional rooms, from a flat classroom to a tiered classroom, which provided a great learning environment. But what we didn’t have was another ballroom.”
So, the university turned to New York-based Ennead Architects and Jacobs Architects, headquartered in Dallas.
“We already had beautiful outdoor options, such as a courtyard and areas where we can have receptions, but in addition we’ve added patios and an additional plaza,” Berg says.
Beyond offering over 80,000 square feet of meeting and event space, the 297-room AT&T Hotel and Conference Center offers access to over 500 additional guest rooms through a collaborative partnership with surrounding hotels, known as the Innovation District.
Putting the Tech in Texas
Enabling the people from those rooms to have meetings and events was about more than just creating larger group spaces. The expanded scope meant honing F&B production and service to be efficient while delivering quality cuisine.
“The priority was making sure we can effectively and efficiently feed a large number of people as artfully as possible,” says Executive Chef John Herdman, who came to the property about a year ago. “We have large ovens with very sophisticated technology that allow us to do some really cool plating. We can heat 102 plates at a time, fully plated, and we do the finishing work on them as they go to the room. We don’t rely on hot boxes and plate covers.”
The expansion has become Herdman’s bread and butter—literally.
“The biggest addition is that we have a full-blown bakery now,” he says. “We’re producing all our bread out of that kitchen for both sides—everything from croissants to cornbread to bread we use in our outlets. We have two sets of deck ovens, rotating ovens, and a couple giant proofers over there. That was an integral part to the addition to the hotel and has changed the game of what we can serve to our guests.”
The net result of the property’s new capabilities is the ability to execute just about any type of cuisine. “We have really taken an approach to the market to appreciate and embrace eating vegetarian and gluten-free and people who have specific dietary needs,” Herdman says. “I’m amazed at some of the stuff we put out; it’s impressive.”
One example is a beet “pastrami” sandwich. “It wasn’t really a sandwich,” says Herdman. “It was the elements of it. We did a sous vide pastrami beet cabbage aerated foam, flower garnish from our garden, fried chick peas, beet puree, and a vegan thousand island puree. There’s a lot of really cool stuff we’re able to do when you take the element of last-minute plating out of it.”
In addition to bringing out optimal quality dishes from the back of house for events, the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center is able to execute cuisine with action stations they can configure in a variety of setups and looks. Director of F&B Philippe Wilhelm worked with Australian manufacturer IHS Global Alliance for its new equipment.
“We chose them for versatility and their modular aspects,” he says. “We can move things around and create as we go. Another aspect important to us is being as green as possible; we divert over 65% of everything we do here out of the landfill. They have different colors, and it’s a really clean look that works well with the design of the new building.”
Wilhelm explains that one of the team’s major goals, for the front of the house, was to identify equipment that would be as flexible and as modular as possible.
“Two years out, you may think you need one thing, but by the time you open, the trends may have changed,” he says. “We spent a lot of time finding equipment that allows us to change without doubling or tripling (the equipment we have). Storage is always a concern. Everything we bought had to be as compact as possible but at the same time give us as much diversity as possible.”
Herdman adds, "Philippe did a great job, before my time, picking out some amazing new action stations. We have the ability to grill anywhere, because we have a portable hood. These hoods accompany these really beautiful stations that have inserts that could either be a grill, a cold top, or a stainless-steel flat top. We’ve done everything from laying sushi directly onto a cold top to chill, to house-curing our own bacon and grilling it with an avocado toast. We have a lot of versatility.”
So far, the enlarged property is on pace to meet its Texas-sized goals.
“Since we’ve been open for eight months,” Berg says, “it’s a little soon to disclose and evaluate the impact, but there is no doubt we’ve had substantial growth.”
Photo © Paul Bardagjy
As part of the expansion of the meeting spaces at the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center, the property collaborated with Landmarks, the award-winning public art program at the University of Texas for a mural to greet event attendees. José Parlá, a Brooklyn-based artist known for his paintings, sculpture, photography, and architectural collaborations, created the mural, located in the the Zlotnik Family Ballroom’s pre-function space. The mural occupies over 4,000 square feet of surface area and depicts Austin’s natural environment and cityscape, showcasing Parlá’s characteristic traces of collage, pulled impasto surfaces, and signature calligraphic marks.—TW
This feature if originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Hotel F&B. It is one of our Reader Favorites and is updated regularly.