How We Dine and Lodge
The Hospitality Outlook
By Craig Keller
Ecosystems depend on balance to thrive. The hospitality industry, a vast, interconnected ecosystem of mutually dependent parts composed of hotels, resorts, meeting and event facilities, cruise lines, casinos and restaurants, was shaken to its core by the COVID-19 pandemic. A patchwork of pandemic-response regulations that differed across 50 states didn’t help matters, says Nick Thomas, director of DePaul’s School of Hospitality Leadership.
“Our borders are very fluid. People travel from one state to another,” says Thomas. “That’s a challenge every single operator in hospitality and tourism has faced on an hourly basis.”
Nevertheless, competitors came together under duress to devise creative strategies that kept the lights on and promise to augment and transform customer service as the industry recalibrates.
“This is an industry that throughout its history has been at the forefront of innovation,” says Thomas. “But there’s not really a playbook of what to do right now, because this is such an unprecedented time in the industry.”
Off-premises and contactless service became the norm in 2020 as nearly half the nation’s restaurants turned to takeout, curbside pickup and delivery.
The pivot spurred popular innovations many restaurateurs say they’ll keep: streamlined menus with items that travel well and require smaller staffs, full-course meals for families and individuals, meal kits for home preparation, monthly meal subscription plans that offer discounts, and cocktails to go. So-called “ghost kitchens,” delivery only food preparation facilities with no restaurant brand or customer seating, have thrived as they avoid many operational costs and leverage social media marketing ties to services like GrubHub and Uber Eats.
The proliferation of online delivery services and takeout isn’t necessarily a boon to all restaurants. Kelly Cheng (BUS ’00, MBA ’03), co-owner and general manager of Sun Wah BBQ, a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, only uses Hungry Panda, a Mandarin-language app with a transparent fee structure.
“Where the money went was never clear with many of these services. Where did the tip go? What are your fees for? It gets muddy,” says Cheng.
Reducing dependence on delivery motivated customers to arrive at the restaurant earlier to pick up dinner, a trend also driven by more variable work schedules nationwide altering traditional meal times, prompting staff to prepare earlier for rush hour.
As indoor capacity crept back, Cheng also had customers sign a declaration of health and provide contact details, a grassroots tracing system she’ll implement again in the event of a future viral wave.
She took the idea from a 20-page handbook shared in April 2020 by Hong Kong-based Black Sheep Restaurants as a prescient template for reopening dining rooms, covering sanitation procedures, health protocols, economic changes and guest relations.
“It turns out that globally, everyone was using this as their handbook,” says Cheng.Clever outdoor dining design was another innovation that will persist, says Marc Jacobs, divisional president and executive partner at Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) and a member of the School of Hospitality Leadership’s advisory council.
“I think you’ll continue to see the enlarged outdoor patios even in colder climates,” says Jacobs. “I think you’ll see operators and restaurants continue to be creative with how to bring the energy of their restaurant design to outside dining. And I think you’ll also see big streets shut down for weeks or months at a time to accommodate and create these very energetic and fun community meeting places.”
Restaurateurs with resources may also offer enclosed patio options more sophisticated than makeshift plastic igloos when temperatures drop. Atlanta-based design firm ASD|SKY provided one such template last year with its “cozy cabins,” a winning entry in Chicago’s Winter Dining Challenge. The modular cabins, inspired by ice-fishing huts, ADA-accessible and easily replicated, are outfitted with radiant floor heating and fit in a standard street parking space. They include a vent near the ceiling for air circulation and are constructed with simple materials that can be cleaned between guests.
“There’s been so much we’ve learned through the pandemic,” says Jacobs, who also cites stronger delivery sales, meal kits and virtual events as developments LEYE plans to build on. “We’re doing cooking classes and wine dinners online regularly. We ship meal ingredients to participants, and a chef gets online to teach them how to make a dish in the comfort of their home.”
More broadly, Jacobs says bustling indoor crowds, social and corporate party business, and large group dining will continue to expand as more people are vaccinated. Although LEYE has added cold-plasma air-filtration systems, common in hospitals, to its restaurants, Jacobs says the company’s food, employee and guest safety program was already rigorous before the pandemic, necessitating just a few embellishments. He says that even salad bars, a central feature in the Beatrix Market properties he oversees in his LEYE portfolio, will thrive again.
“People are more conscientious, more sensitive to using gloves or tongs, and not putting their head underneath the food shield,” says Jacobs. “As people feel more comfortable, you’re going to see them there. They want to be a part of a community.”
The pandemic also pushed hoteliers to accelerate innovation that is both enhancing and transforming the sector. Ironically, in a field defined by personal service, much of the change is driven by automated technology that lets guests interact more virtually and safely throughout their stays.
Many hotel organizations have further developed all-inclusive mobile apps that enable online check-in and check-out, food and beverage ordering, and digital access to guest rooms and common areas. Smart-home apps and digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, help guests operate lighting, air conditioning and window blinds. There has also been experimentation with visual-recognition and heat-map tech to help operators monitor the distance between guests.
“We’ve seen great success in the economy and extended-stay section of the lodging industry, where people can park their car in front of the hotel, limit their interaction with staff and maybe have a kitchenette in the room so they can bring their own food,” says Thomas. “But we’re still a ways away from the days of the full-service buffet.”
“Typically, guests here would walk in for a site visit. Now I’m doing virtual site tours, Zoom meetings, a lot of FaceTiming, and sending them PowerPoint presentations—and they could be just down the street,” says Steiding. “It’s been an interesting curve and doesn’t always do justice to the property, but embracing these contactless procedures makes guests feel more safe and helps build credibility and trust.”
Limiting contact between guests and staff also extends to the lobby, which she says has been reconfigured to “let smaller groups of people engage at a safe distance without feeling alienated,” and housekeeping staff fully servicing rooms every four days.
The pandemic has also driven redesigns of public areas and guest rooms that blur indoor and outdoor boundaries. Lobbies have been segmented into multiuse spaces with green walls and multimedia stations. Guest rooms have been expanded with decks and terraces. More natural light and creative use of both organic and simulated-organic features help guests feel less cooped up. One such example from the Gettys Group, a hotel design and development firm, enlivens meeting spaces with digital projections of plants moving in a cross-breeze, simulated by an air-circulating system.
Altering user-experience design and pathways is also helping the convention and meeting sector get back on track. Marriott’s Learning Lab program, for instance, teaches corporations and event planners strategies for safely holding meetings, conferences and trade shows. The operational areas covered include on-site rapid testing; temperature screening; occupancy and distancing monitoring using heat-map technology; intricate way finding signage and zones; contactless registration; pre-event seat selection; redesigned coffee, bar and covered-plate buffet service; and social distancing for booths, breakout sessions and dining areas.
The Marriott Marquis Chicago and Hiltons at McCormick Place, hotel partners to the Chicago Auto Show, put such tactics to the test in mid-July when the trade show became the first to return to the McCormick Place Convention Center. Still, most trade shows and large meetings will retain virtual components.
Safely reopening the behemoth hotels that service conventions and corporate attendees is an ongoing work in progress. Big hotels face bigger challenges. When the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago reopened in June after a 15-month closure, it needed to hire back 1,000 full-time and part-time employees to get its 2.3 million square feet and 21 floors back on track as demand increases.
“We’re heading in the right direction, but will everything soon be back to normal? I’m not so sure about that,” says Thomas. “The metrics we use to measure success are starting to go up, but we still see new COVID cases. We still have large segments of the population that aren’t vaccinated or are immunocompromised. We see new strains of the virus. I don’t think we should say the pandemic is over, but I’m very optimistic about the positive trends in our industry.”