Authentic Travel Experiences: Growing Culinary Tourism and F&B Strategy
By Andrew M. Sims Chief Executive Officer, Sotherly Hotels | August 07, 2016
Recent research shows that more and more travelers, especially among younger generations, are forgoing familiar but often cookie-cutter hotel brands in favor of boutique properties that promise unique, authentic local experiences that connect guests to the destinations they visit. This trend dovetails with the recent growth of culinary tourism – in which guests make travel decisions based on available culinary options – to put significant pressure on hotel food and beverage operations, which represent the second largest source of revenue for full-service hotels according to PKF Hospitality Research, to shift strategic focus toward culturally relevant, experiential offerings that resonate with today's modern traveler.
In 2012, Sotherly Hotels commissioned a market segmentation study that confirmed what other industry research had begun to show: Travelers are becoming increasingly interested in cities that are rich in culture and offer a diverse selection of activities in which to engage, and they want authentic experiences above and beyond the offerings typical of national chain hotels. In addition, the study revealed that many travelers are likely to mix business with pleasure – extending their stay beyond the duration of their business trip – and seek hotels that can deliver on both. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, researched showed that travelers appreciate Southern hospitality and consider it a key differentiator when making their hotel decisions. These trends were especially prevalent among millennial travelers, who at the time – and still today – were increasingly gaining market share and driving change in the travel industry as a whole.
The Sotherly segmentation study coincided with the emergence of another growing travel trend: culinary travel. According to the American Culinary Traveler, the percentage of leisure travelers in the United States who travel to experience unique dining grew from 40 percent to 51 percent between 2006 and 2013. Furthermore, a University of Florida report estimates that annually 39 million U.S. leisure travelers choose a destination based on the availability of culinary experiences, while another 35 million seek out culinary activities after a destination is chosen. The same report estimated that tourism expenditures on food services in the U.S. topped $201 billion, making food service the highest-ranked category of travel. Moreover, recent PKF Hospitality Research estimated that food and beverage sales represented the second largest source of revenue for full-service hotels, making F&B strategy critically important to hotel operators.
Drawing upon these learnings as well as first-hand observations of shifts in the travel industry, the leadership at Sotherly Hotels developed a strategy to invest in independent hotel properties located in culturally vibrant centers of commerce across the Southeastern United States. Starting with The Georgian Terrace in Atlanta and now with The Whitehall in Houston, Sotherly's strategy is to abandon cookie-cutter hotel service in its independent holdings and instead embrace the unique Southern hospitality and historic charm innate to each of its properties, from decor to amenities to guest service. Not surprisingly given the aforementioned trends, Sotherly's new independent-focused strategy includes specific plans for the hotels' F&B outlets as well. All outlets – including in-house restaurants, bars, and casual coffee bistros – are to have a strong and unique culinary & brand identity centered around local flavors, locally-sourced ingredients, and craft beers & spirits.
Sotherly's F&B strategy first took hold at The Georgian Terrace, purchased in 2014 as the "crown jewel" of the company's growing independent hotel collection. The Georgian Terrace's Livingston Restaurant + Bar, named in an homage to Livingston Mims, the former mayor of Atlanta, offers elevated classic Southern dishes in the main dining room and signature cocktails and small plates in the bar and lounge, all of which reflect the city's strong culinary traditions. Previous to Sotherly's ownership, the restaurant served West Coast and later French cuisine in an attempt to appeal to business travelers with a generic "upscale" offering. Unsurprisingly, neither menu was particularly popular with hotel guests or local Atlantans, with the latter group being of utmost importance given the hotel's location across the street from Atlanta's popular Fox Theatre.
As part of the hotel's renovation and rebranding under Sotherly's leadership, Livingston's menu was overhauled under the direction of the hotel's culinary team. Southern classics such as Shrimp & Grits and Fried Chicken are now featured along more adventurous dishes like Sweet Tea Pressed Crispy Duck, all of which offer guests a taste of Atlanta's culinary traditions with a modern twist. Extremely popular with visitors and guests alike, the new menu won the restaurant the 2015 Diners' Choice award from Open Table.
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