Creative Meetings Through Food & Beverage

By Katie Davis Director of Sales & Marketing, Le Meridien Chicago - Oakbrook Center | September 17, 2017

I had a bit of an “out of body” experience recently. I was attending a corporate meeting, which was held in a hotel meeting room. As usual, I was multi-tasking for most of the meeting. Doing my best to remain engaged with the meeting content, while simultaneously managing an ever-growing email inbox and “To Do” list. During a break, I was pacing outside the meeting room, on the phone with my office, when I noticed some snacks and beverages set-up adjacent to the meeting room entrance. Coffee, sodas, cookies, fruit – your basic “break”. As I approached the beautifully displayed selection of caffeine and sugar, I was contemplating if I should or should not ingest my 10th legal stimulant of the day, when a moment of panic came over me. I stared at the perfectly placed apples and bananas, carafes of coffee creamer and packets of raw sugar, and froze. My feet were like cement blocks and my heart was racing. I couldn’t remember where I was. Am I in Chicago? Denver? Boston? The prior evening, I enjoyed a blissful night’s sleep in the hotel where my meeting was hosted, why couldn’t I remember? I racked my brain... was it a Hilton? Marriott? Hyatt?

My anxiety spiked as I realized that it was official; I had lost my mind. I always knew this day would come. I pictured the terror on my colleagues faces as I stripped naked and danced like a banshee, with care not to trip over the projector cord. What would be my fate? As the professionals took me away, I imagined commentary from my teammates "I didn't know straight jackets were actually a thing" or "I always knew she was nuts". Suddenly, I was jolted back into reality by a voice on the other end of the phone "Katie? Sorry, you're breaking up". If they only knew. "I said, how's Minneapolis?". Ah Ha! Minneapolis! My fears subsided as I noticed a napkin branded with a prominent hotel logo, and everything came flooding back.

As a 20-year hospitality veteran, I have spent the majority of my career walking the halls of a hotel. I could not help but wonder, if I was susceptible to this kind of temporary lapse, how often does this affect the road warrior from other industries? But more importantly, as a hospitality community what can we do to help? The answer is simple; differentiation. It is our job to develop a differentiation strategy to create unique and memorable experiences for guests and meeting attendees. These experiences need to be genuine, and they need to be authentic. It is the only way to create an emotional connection, and what I have discovered is once these experiences become branded, once they become turn-key, it can back-fire on you. Once the experience is no longer authentic, it can be viewed as contrived or artificial, which goes against what you are trying to accomplish.

Within my organization, differentiation is part of our DNA. Our goal is to drive return to owners and investors through ADR premiums, typically $30-$40 above the competition. We do this with a three-pronged approach, or differentiation strategy. The first being guest service. Guest service as defined as driving a service culture of excellence and guest satisfaction results within the top 10% of the brand. Secondly, we differentiate by providing exceptional product design and functionality. Third (and my personal favorite) is providing unique and memorable Food and Beverage offerings. Enter "Creative Meetings". Take my experience as an example. What if I had approached a meeting break which brought the destination to life, not only through food and beverage offerings, but also with sight, sound, smell and interaction? This is an opportunity to create a memorable experience, to create an emotional connection with our guests and meeting attendees. What if we took it a step further and customized each experience to speak to the organization. An organization with strong guiding principles will be genuinely engaged in content that brings its DNA to life, creating that memorable experience and that emotional connection.

Did you know, at one time Chicago candy makers churned out one-third of all candy manufactured in the United States? In fact, the immense candy production in Chicago led to the nickname “America’s Candy Capital”. Picture a reinterpreted candy shop, featuring assorted Chicago candy (Snickers, Milk Duds, Tootsie Rolls and Lemon Heads, just to name a few) displayed in vintage glass candy jars. Choose to fill your “penny candy” bag personally or have the attendant, dressed in a vintage soda shop uniform, assist you. The song “Sweet Home Chicago” is playing, an homage to music legend Robert Johnson, who originally recorded the popular Blues standard in Chicago circa 1937. Lastly, the air is filled with a comforting smell of sweet cotton candy. This experience is unique and memorable, activating the senses, and bringing the destination to life.

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