Wynn’s Secret Weapon in Banquets is the Human Factor
Success starts with hiring fine-dining talent, then raising the scale.
It could be easy for the average mid-market hotelier to dismiss any study of the F&B operations of Wynn and Encore in Las Vegas as apples to their oranges, in terms of what they might stand to learn. The Sin City properties, after all, benefit from deep resources. They can get any piece of equipment their F&B teams could need, and they boast the space and ability to make nearly everything from scratch.
But as with most offerings in Vegas, there’s a lot more than meets the eye to impress groups across the footprint that currently houses Wynn and Encore. In all, Wynn totals meeting space of roughly 200,000 square feet, and Encore has 60,000. They will be adding about 300,000 more with an event space expansion in 2020.
But the real ace in Wynn’s winning hand for banquets is its determination to have the right people doing the right things. The gear and purchasing capital would go to waste without staff who are both specialized and driven.
“That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the biggest resource is personnel,” says Brandon Berger, VP of catering and banquets. “We can’t make excuses for not having the equipment or the people. So, we put the pressure on ourselves to deliver that experience all the time. The biggest differentiator between us and everybody else is the multiple different levels of the experience. Most of all, the overall team philosophy is having a team of professionals who are passionate about what they do and are type-A people.
A Restaurant-Minded Mission
While hotels in other markets may have more seasonal business, with staff coming and going based on need, Berger admits Wynn Resorts is fortunate to have a staff committed to its culture. But it’s more than just being able to afford to hire more warm bodies. The mindset is the rub.
“We bring in chefs with restaurant backgrounds,” says Kelly Bianchi, executive chef of catering and events at Wynn Resorts. “That’s who it starts with. We have people who are continually trying to improve the product. From an operational perspective, we operate very similar to a restaurant, just on a much larger level. Like in a restaurant, you have a meat station, a poissonnier, an entremetier, and a saucier … All large group dining operations say they are providing restaurant quality. It’s one thing to say that; it’s another to execute it. What sets us apart is our staff.”
In recruiting F&B, they look for “classical, high-end experience,” says Bianchi. All of the nine chefs who work under Bianchi come from a fine-dining background. “We don’t necessarily hire people with a lot of catering experience, because that’s something that can be taught,” she says. “We can teach people how to execute events for 3,000 people, but you can’t always take a seasoned chef and go back and teach them the foundations of good cuisine … In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of interest from restaurant chefs, and I think it’s due in part to our reputation. Chefs are really curious to see how we’re operating.”
What they discover in the banquet realm is essentially the biggest restaurant with the most guests they’ve ever seen—and staff may have a different role depending on the day and the group. Bianchi uses no rigid, set teams for each event. Rather, she assesses each event individually and puts the “correct” personnel on them.
“We look at it from a very specific standpoint,” she says. “If we have a chef or cook who is very passionate about something at that event, whether it’s a plated event or a reception with a station, we’re going to make sure that person has their hands in the event.” Back-of-house support for a plated meal for 300 would be around 25 staff; front-of-house would be another 30, Berger says.
Director of Banquets Leslie Keating manages the assistant banquet managers, banquet captains, and the banquet service team, who “take on all the roles, from server to busser to runner,” Keating says. “We have a banquet beverage manager who manages bartenders and cocktail servers. We also have a director of banquet operations who handles setups—tables, chairs, rooms. All these managers and directors are ensuring the success of their team, hands-on. As we go down to the banquet captains running their events, they are responsible for managing individual events.” Each banquet has a designated captain.
“It takes more labor than a reception with just chef-attended stations and passed hors d’oeuvres,” Keating admits. “That’s a concern, but we’re seeing a push toward more sit-down, plated events. Two years or so ago, we saw lots of receptions with small plates. But now, Chef Kelly ensures we have the freshest quality and that the food isn’t on the plate more than 60 seconds. You have to have the right staffing ratios to execute that.”
Those ratios are down to a science. Berger points to synchronized service in which all 10 people at the table are served their salad or entrée at the same time.
“We do team service where when it’s time to go pick up the meals from the kitchen, there are still two food servers on the floor maintaining those four tables they’re assigned to while the others pick up the food,” Berger says. “The others bring it out, and the team serves it all in one shot. There’s always attention around the table, anticipating what the guest might need so they don’t have to look for a server who has gone back to the kitchen to retrieve food.”
The front- and back-of-house staff stay on their toes to coordinate service. “Kelly’s team is talking to Leslie’s team, and Leslie’s team is communicating back to Kelly’s team, saying, ‘Okay, we’re now fully seated, you can fire the entrees,’” Berger says. “Other properties know that dinner service starts at 7 and anticipate serving the first course at 7:20 and the entrée at 7:45. So, they know that at 7 they already have that entrée plated and in a hotbox on the way to the room to be distributed by two or three stewards. For us, it’s more like a maître d’ in a restaurant or a waiter, saying ‘Salads are in now. We’re ready for the entrée in about 20 minutes,’ and that’s when the chef is cooking it. When the guest receives the food, it might have been on their plate for a total of two or three minutes. At other properties it may have been on the plate anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.”
Product and Precision
Wynn Resorts gives its personnel what they need to execute on that restaurant vision in banquets. Ingredient- wise, they use the same quality of product in banquets as in their restaurants, says Bianchi; they don’t use bases or bagged or pre-made dressings, for example. The main kitchen on the property produces a lot of product for across the hotel, but Bianchi says the banquets department has the resources to make almost everything they need themselves, allowing them more control over the product.
“When it comes down to it, investing in expensive equipment doesn’t matter if the quality of product going into an oven isn’t treated properly,” Bianchi observes. “And if you’re cooking food and then holding it in a hot box for three hours, it doesn’t really matter what equipment you used to cook it. We look at it from a foundational level, making sure we’re bringing in great quality.”
To this end, they have pantries located next to each of the event spaces. And in a case where an event is not in the banquet and catering area, and the team is servicing in a nightclub or other location on the property, they find a location as close as possible to the event space, as a home base, Bianchi says.
“So, we’re not limited to plating something in our kitchen, which could be up to 15 minutes away from our event space, and wheeling it over,” she says. “We’re able to plate that product just as you would in a restaurant. When we arrive to an event, we’re obviously not going to be cooking any of the food until the last possible minute before servicing the guest. That’s determined through timing out that event and communicating so the food is being cooked as close as possible.”
The kitchens and remote pantries utilize restaurant-style conveyer belts. The team has eight belts; each can handle 200 guests, doing 200 plates in under 12 minutes.
“As we expand and our average group size goes up, we’ve planned to purchase more,” Bianchi notes. “We wheel them all over the property and find places to put them. When we can’t use the belt, we use the same setup. It might be on stainless-steel tables we’re rolling into a backbar of a nightclub, with power and heat lamps, making a small, remote kitchen.”
Each step of the process has a dedicated team member; if an entrée has five steps on the plate, Bianchi puts five team members overseeing the product, “making sure the quality is right, making sure it’s hot, making sure it goes on the plate in the perfect position,” Bianchi says. “And then, just as in a restaurant, in expediting the food out, there is a chef wiping the plate, cleaning up the presentation, and putting the garnish on. We’ve just replicated what we’ve all learned in our past restaurant experience. We’re not loading food in hot boxes three hours before an event and rolling it over.”
Still, it’s not about the belts or other gear as much as those individual talents.
“A lot of our line-level employees take strong leadership positions in the kitchen, because they are passionate about what we do,” Bianchi says. “There is no secret weapon. We have amazing equipment, but we also have an amazing team of stewards who help us maintain that equipment. Some of our equipment is 13 years old, but it looks brand new. Having equipment that’s well maintained is very inspiring to the team. We want to make sure we give people the tools to do their job and that it works exceptionally well.”
The team’s type-A organization includes time for reflection, exploration, and development.
“In the past year, we’ve really tried hard to do our research on what our competition is doing,” Bianchi says. “Leslie Keating and I have attended several events around town. We have great guest feedback that we’re providing the best events, but we needed to see it for ourselves.”
And the Wynn team continues to look for new offerings and enhancements. The recently added Pizzeria Bianchi station has injected some excitement.
“One of the most difficult things to produce in this type of environment are sometimes the simplest, like pizza,” Bianchi says. “Everybody loves it, but we had not been very happy in the past about what we were able to create, because it’s something that needs to be served fresh.”
They wanted to create something in-house and purchased TurboChef pizza ovens. “That’s one of our newest toys to enhance a guest experience, as opposed to baking it in an oven in our main banquet kitchen and then holding it in a hot box,” Berger says. “This is more appropriate for a quality product.” Now, they’re able to bake Neapolitan-style pizza in 90 seconds, in front of the guest. So far, the largest group to partake of the stations was 1,100 guests, served via three ovens throughout the room, and it was “an absolute raving success,” Bianchi says.
She also has her gaze forward regarding the 2020 expansion. A large ballroom will accommodate 4,000 or more guests, and Bianchi aims to see that pantries will be where they need to be. “All kitchens need to work cohesively—which items will be produced where,” she says. When they expansion opens, the complex will have three banquet kitchens: one at Wynn, one at Encore, one in the expansion. The new kitchen will be a 10,000 square feet.
Ultimately, attending to every detail in the chain of F&B execution, versus presenting a smoke-and-mirrors “rubber chicken” banquet, fuels satisfaction and growth.
“I’d say 65% to 70% of our business is convention business and repeat business, so we want to make sure we take care of our customers,” Berger says. “It’s not just a customer for today; it’s a customer for the future.”
When people come to book, they may initially balk at why a filet dinner at Wynn costs more than it would at another hotel, Berger says, but the justification is “everything that goes behind that filet, which is a lot of labor and equipment and making sure the event is perfect. We could certainly have a lesser-priced menu item and peel back on our labor and service standards, but it wouldn’t be the kind of event people expect to have when they come to Wynn.”
In an increasingly coffee-centric world, sub-optimal java won’t do in many places, much less in banquets where high quality is expected and paid for.
“Our coffee is not like at a lot of other hotels,” says Brandon Berger, VP of catering and banquets at Wynn Resorts. “Large convention properties on our scale offer what they call liquid coffee, which is like if you were at the bar getting soda out of the gun—it’s a syrup that’s mixed with hot water, and that’s your coffee. We use La Colombe, a French-roasted blend of coffee signature to our property.”
In 2005 when they first opened, Berger says, Wynn Resorts thought through the serving vessels. When using urns with Sterno underneath, the coffee can sometimes boil and burn, but they found a solution. “When we designed our coffee urns,” explains Berger, “we had them install an aluminum disk under the urn, where the flame hits, to disperse the heat evenly across the bottom of the urn, rather than a single hot point.”
They offer buffet-style service for coffee breaks, self-serve meals, or continental breakfast, but typically they serve coffee tableside. For tea service, they don’t use loose tea, opting instead for Tea Forté, which is in a triangular bag. Otherwise, service is standard tableside service.—TW