Hilton’s Emma Banks on creating clean, not sterile environments

The vice president of F&B strategy and development talks looking after guests and team members without losing sight of the experience

Emma Banks
Indigo Productions
Emma Banks

Sitting writing this article in early May, I am in no way qualified as an analyst, economist or health professional to forecast where our great industry of hospitality and the sphere of food and beverage in the Middle East will be exactly positioned in a month's time.

We have all become used to terms such as “unprecedented times” and the “new norm” and the significant impact COVID-19 has had on the food and beverage sector amongst many industries.

As industry professionals, we have gone through career challenges we never imagined we would face, see our F&B outlets close, our teams having few guests to serve and devastatingly seeing the direct impact of this virus on our colleagues, friends and families. All this, whilst finding new ways of working from home, embracing virtual technologies and the mental anguish of how this disease has affected our loved ones.  

We are starting to see the green shoots of recovery in Asia, parts of Europe and the Middle East that our political and business leaders have guided us towards.   

“There is no education like adversity” (Disraeli) and whilst we are very anxious about the impact of social distancing and consumer fears on our industry, there is now more than ever a chance to reinvent ourselves and come out of the crisis as stronger F&B operators.

Steve Jobs once stated “Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future” and this can be said of the strategies and actions that we are putting in place to respond to the impact and fallout of COVID-19. No one can predict 100% whether the physical distancing measures, face coverings, clever apps to prove that you are healthy and heightened awareness of cleanliness are here to stay for good.

However, what is for sure is that we can adopt some intermediate cost-effective solutions to take care of our guests and team members and longer-term look to permanent design and changes to our business models to meet societal changes. So, what are some of the positive ways in the F&B industry can we implement and embrace these changes?

As industry professionals, we are all accustomed to implementing local government and health authority guidelines regarding cleanliness, disinfection, physical distancing and other post COVID-19 modus operandi.

How can we adapt some of these vitally important measures implemented to keep us safe into the world of restaurants and put the soul back into the experience for the guest? Never has music and lighting been more important to assist with the atmosphere of a space that is overcoming the challenges of physical distance between diners and hopefully thoughtful and created “less contact service “rather than robotic “contactless service”. The effective use of planters, sculptures, beautiful pieces of furniture can assist in improving the feel of physical distancing and the restaurant still being safe for diners but not void and empty.  

Restauranteurs have always known that beautiful outdoor spaces are key to a great experience when the weather is pleasant and now more than ever consumer perception is possibly that outdoor spaces are safer. Operators should look to maximise these spaces and create covers to make up for the lost seats in a restaurant due to physical distancing when demand does ramp up. Consider external spaces, or pop ups, weather permitting in outdoor areas that you have traditionally not utilised to create a dining or F&B opportunity. These external spaces could be an extension of your brand and allow for signage and communication opportunities with passing footfall. There has been for some time a trend of biophilic design which promoted a more natural feel to restaurant design, and this is likely to become stronger, embrace your external opportunities more than ever and if possible, provide solutions such as coolers, shading and heaters.

Post COVID-19 consumers are likely to become even more purposeful and mindful of their choices and brands that embrace some of the restrictions placed on F&B such as extra packaging and single use products by utilising disposables that are environmentally friendly and recyclable will resonate with guests concerned over the impact on the planet. Customers will become even more concerned than before with regard to sustainability, local, vegan, authentic and genuine authentic restaurant operators, so whilst doing the right thing may seem a little more costly at a time when the pressure is massively on the cost base, longer term it will strengthen and build your brand. Consumers may be social distancing, but they will not be distancing from their core purpose.

In a world of personalisation offering customers a choice will still be prevalent. Options such as offering a menu or QR code provides the guest with the choice and puts them in control. An open kitchen should not be viewed as a weak link in this ultra-sanitised environment but an opportunity for transparency.

Show how clean you are whilst guests can still enjoy the theatre of working chefs.  If we do not revert to physical contact and handshaking use the opportunity to develop a bespoke and personalised greeting for your team and brand. Your team can still personalise and greet your regulars by name and remember what choices they like and personal customized service like this will go even further as we aim to win consumers’ confidence to dine out again from the safety of their homes.  

Many of us work for the big global hospitality brands who have launched hygiene and cleanliness programmes such as Hilton’s industry leading CleanStay initiative which will make our guests and team members feel safe and secure in our properties. I hope to have provided some of the smaller touch points to assist operators retaining the magic of F&B in a safe and clean environment but one that is not sterile of “the light and warmth of hospitality” words from Conrad Hilton.

Based at Hilton’s regional office in Dubai, Emma Banks is the vice president of F&B strategy and development across EMEA, supporting Hilton’s trading and future pipeline of hotels.

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