Millennials: Changing Preferences & Priorities of Hotel F&B
Coming up as a Boomer, we simply did not have many choices when it came to what (and even where) we ate. For most of us, dinner was on the table every night, and there was a structure and familiarity to the ritual-not to mention the menu-that was very different than today. Boomers grew up in a time when life for most families was more structured and regimented, (usually) with more limited funds to devote to food shopping, and a budget that made eating out a relative rarity. And yes, of course, that's a generalization, if not a stereotype, but it's an anecdotal observation that's been backed by some convincing sociological research.
Given that context, unsurprisingly, the hotel dining experience was not much more diverse or invigorating. F&B offerings were fairly basic and (by today's standards, at least) unimaginative. The staples-steak, chicken, pork, fish-were covered, and recipes rarely strayed from familiar and time-worn recipes and traditional preparations. Even when palettes and menus began to slowly expand to encompass new and different flavors and foodstuffs, most hotels were reluctant to extend themselves too far away from the same set of tried and true options.
Gradually-oh so gradually-hotels began to introduce new options and new cuisines, with Mediterranean-inspired dishes gradually joining Mexican and Italian on the approved list. To their credit, Boomers did begin to pull food out of the doldrums and take us from boring and uninspired to somewhat more diverse and appealing. About ten years ago, however, the impact of the influential and much-discussed Millennials generation began to be felt. While no one demographic group deserves all the credit, it's clear that Millennial influence has played a significant role in transforming the American culinary landscape over the last decade. Millennials have taken the baton and run with it, pushing hotel dining forward out of its comfort zone, and forcing chefs, F&B professionals and hotel guests alike to embrace food options that are not only more creative, but also healthier, more organic, and often supplied through local, sustainable, and socially responsible methods.
For hotel owners and operators-not to mention the F&B professionals responsible for making decisions about everything from menus to on-trend equipment-these are exciting times. But they are also challenging times. As an industry, we need to make sure that we provide something for everyone, and building menus that achieve that goal has only become more complicated in recent years. We need to feed the Boomers, who these days have a great deal of disposable income and buying power; we need to stay on-trend for those all-important Millennials, who are rapidly ascending to the top of the demographic pecking order as literal and figurative taste-makers with disposable income to spare; and we even have to be cognizant of new trends and future possibilities, with Generation Z coming right behind their Millennial forebears.
In what ways has F&B changed-and how will it continue to change in the years ahead? What are we as industry professionals going to do to continue to make our food and beverage options more interesting, exciting and delicious, and how will we need to evolve to pique the interests and satisfy the tastes and preferences of guests of all ages and culinary preferences?
Millennials are already the most coveted and catered-to consumer group in the nation. They have long since passed Boomers in population and they recently surpassed them in buying power, as well. Remarkably, Gen Z potentially will be even more influential, with $143 billion in direct buying power and on track to make up over 40% of all consumers by 2020.
What are the implications of this generational shift for hotel F&B, and what can we do to prepare?
Menu-Making and Tastes
It is no secret that the tastes of younger consumers have driven an industry-wide shift toward healthier organic and sustainable food choices. These concepts are so ubiquitous that it is fair to ask whether we might have we reached the ceiling on the healthy-organic-local trifecta. While these terms might feel somewhat overused, the reality is that they are not going away anytime soon. If anything, they will continue to become more entrenched as the standard, rather than an exception.
With that in mind, culinary and F&B professionals should continue to strive to embrace and evolve these ideas, working to find new blends, utilize unusual vegetables, and creative new ways to keep things fresh and interesting. One of the best ways to do just that is to adopt a seasonal menu rotation, changing things up based on what is fresh, locally available and in-season at least twice (but ideally four times) a year. Buying locally gets you the best prices and the freshest in-season product.
Whether you are behind a desk or behind the line in a working kitchen, F&B professionals have been afforded a great deal of flexibility when it comes to building out a menu. Menu-making is most definitely an art, but even masterpieces are built on a familiar foundational canvas. Familiar standbys are still the building blocks of many menus, and chefs will generally start with pork, beef, pasta, chicken and fish, building out from there with seasonal variations and creative specials and side dishes. Infusing seasonal menu options with local flavor is always a great way to add something special to the menu, and chefs looking for periodic inspiration can turn to suppliers, who will let them know what's fresh and available. It's important to note that fresh, creative and regional cuisine doesn't mean complicated or "fancy". Simple and savory concepts and preparation styles are almost always best, and there is plenty of room for innovation and experimentation with subtle new flavor profiles and combinations.
Stretching your imagination and bringing new ideas to the menu takes hard work, planning and training, but it's increasingly non-negotiable if you want your F&B operation to be relevant and revenue-positive. The good news is, both your team and your customers will enjoy the results, and-when it's done right-a great F&B experience can have a positive impact on the bottom line (a far cry from the loss-leader model that characterized so much of hotel dining in the past). Of course, no matter how creative a new food concept is, if it is poorly executed the hotel loses. While we can all dream, if the talent behind the line and on the floor can't deliver consistently, those dreams will never turn into realities.
Marketing and Communications
F&B occupies an interesting space on the marketing pie chart for hotel owners and operators. Dedicating resources to traditional marketing channels is not likely to be effective, but alternative channels and social media offer some exciting and potentially rewarding opportunities to generate excitement and word of mouth (no pun intended).
Paid Facebook advertising is one way to get traction in front of the right audiences (dollars for a Facebook campaign will go a lot further than a traditional print or digital magazine ad), and some hotels and hotel restaurants are hiring specialists to curate their Instagram feed. Millennials also love to document their experiences, and there is enormous organic marketing potential there. Today's F&B professionals need to be extra attentive to product visuals and plating-when the food looks great, your guests will take pictures of it and share it!
Millennials and members of Gen Z are very visual: they have grown up watching the Food Network and travel programming with personalities like the late great Anthony Bourdain. They aren't typically learning how to cook (yet), but they do see food as fun and adventurous and cooking as interesting and engaging. With that in mind, there will likely be some intriguing opportunities in the future to do creative marketing programming-perhaps some on-site cooking lessons or a YouTube channel where your chef shares his or her latest creations.
Programming and Design
Given the enthusiastic embrace of public and community spaces in hotel bars and restaurants, it's reasonable to wonder whether the pendulum will ever swing back from public to private spaces. While we will likely continue to refine those designs, and we may see more flexible options and greater variety from a design standpoint, the trend for open seating and bar space is almost certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future. The benefits in terms of social engagement and a vibrant, appealing communal atmosphere are significant enough-for both hotels and guests/diners-that a large number of older hotels are being renovated or retrofitted to create or accommodate those spaces. The multisensory impact and the bustling activity of a social hub is part of the reason we are seeing food halls of various sizes springing up around the country, where a wide selection of different vendors and cuisines are gathered under one roof where diners can enjoy communal seating options.
The good news is that this isn't just for younger consumers. These spaces and environments are popular with Boomers, as well. Boomers are living longer, staying healthy longer, and are increasingly enthusiastic about experiencing different cultures, experiences and flavors.
On the operational side, room service probably isn't going away anytime soon-at least not for full-service luxury properties. But the room service concept is shifting gears as it pertains to the majority of hotels. We will continue to see more to-go options and convenient grab-and-go and snack formats. The flexibility of these concepts makes them a natural fit for limited service properties or as a complementary piece to a large restaurant or bar. We also see the inclusion of more local and creative brands, perhaps a package of cookies from the renowned bakery down the street, or organic honey served at breakfast from a local farm. These small touches not only support local vendors, they accentuate the dining experience in a way that guests feel is both meaningful and memorable.
The Future Is Now
What will the F&B workforce look like in 5-10 years when larger numbers of Boomers start retiring in earnest? There are some who wring their hands about "losing" a generation that both expected and embraced traditional notions of personalized customer service. The good news is that those people can stop worrying: not only are Boomers retiring later, but the addition of Millennials and members of Gen Z to F&B programs is already having a positive impact. These are generations of enthusiastic and spirited young people, excited about interesting food and new ideas, and driven by a desire to be a part of something greater than themselves. They are the next generation of great chefs and professional servers. Many of them have been eating like adults from a relatively young age and consider themselves to be passionate "foodies". For F&B programs looking to the future, there is good reason to view the next few generations as the industry's greatest assets, and, if nothing else, I am certain that the future of F&B will continue to challenge all of us to stay out of the comfort zone.