I’m on a mission to solve the mystery behind hotel restaurants in Halifax. There are so many great chefs working in the hotel industry in our fine city with fantastic menus and ideal venues. I’m talking restaurants with large capacities, great views of Halifax and diverse menus. Yet, for some reason, the average Halifax diner doesn’t seem overly keen on visiting these establishments as frequently as their stand-alone counterparts. I, for one, am confused about this phenomenon. There seems to be only a couple big success stories in our fine city, but overall, I feel I can safely generalize that restaurants located in Halifax hotels do not have as large a following as stand-alone restaurants.
Those that seem to have avoided the “hotel restaurant” stigma have purposely marketed their establishment as separate from main business. Particularly, a separate entrance from that of the hotel seems to help. What is so bad about walking through a hotel lobby to get to the dining room? We try so hard to make lobbies inviting and warm! Personally I think spending time in a hotel lobby pleasurable; staff is friendly and you’re surrounded by happy-go-lucky vacationers.
Gathering Expert Witnesses
So, I decided to gather perspective from a few different types of people involved in the restaurant scene here in Halifax. One, our own executive chef Luis Clavel, from his culinary standpoint; two, an executive member of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (RANS); and three, the opinion of our dear consumers.
Chef Clavel was quick to point out that standalone restaurants “are destination spots for themes. Ethnic foods, specialty items and brand concepts help standalones gain brand recognition and followings.” This is an excellent point. Hotel restaurants, generally speaking, are pushed into a corner when it comes to menu design; there must be something for every kind of guest or traveler available. While this may seem like a con, I actually think it is a pro. This means the menus are diverse, crowd-pleasing and if the chef wants to spotlight risky or innovative dishes, he can have them as a special or feature on an optional table d’hote menu. With such talented chefs manning our accommodations sector, this means all of your favourite dishes (and more) are being done really, really well in our hotel restaurants.
Executive Director of RANS, Gordon Stewart, mentions that traditionally restaurants existed in hotels to serve guests and even in a lot of cases, operated at a loss. This created a philosophy of “hotel first, restaurant second.” Mr. Stewart also points out that this has probably played a part in hotel restaurants traditionally not being frequented at the same level as standalones; as more marketing dollars directed toward key market segments typically means more customers. I think that this is beginning to change in Halifax, as we have seen a few operations marketing independently, or in some cases are even operated independently by a third-party company. This means more focus on the restaurant as a restaurant, and not just another service outlet for hotel guests.
To access the consumers’ point of view, I reached via our Facebook and Twitter accounts to see what people had to say. Ashley MacDonald responded via Facebook that “it’s an interesting topic. Hotel restos were ‘the’ place to go back in the day. Now people forget about them. There are many reasons – awareness, marketing and lack of marketing. People don’t think of a hotel when they think of a resto.” Other Twitter comments expressed the same kind of sentiment, as well as that hotel restaurants have always seemed, to them, to be only for hotel guests. Interesting… it seems from potential customers’ perspectives we haven’t been doing enough to market ourselves and let people know that yes; we want YOU local diners, in our hotel restaurants!
Appealing the Conviction: What can we do?
What can we do to change this behaviour? How can we entice Halifax diners to give more hotel restaurants a try? Chef Clavel agrees that “our hotel restaurants have a great opportunity to develop their product, compete with independent restaurants and be awarded the same status, however, it takes considerable time and effort.” I think that both diners and the restaurants share equal responsibility in this scenario. Should hotel restaurants be reaching out more to prospective customers? Investing more marketing dollars in their dining establishment? Absolutely. In Gordon Stewart’s opinion the key is “marketing; separating the food from the bedroom. Mail drops, flyers, business lunches – get on the radar”. Another key ingredient in marketing successfully is “a plan than can tie in all the various elements that make up and deliver a solid business plan for growth.” In other words, if hotel restaurants were marketing like independents, maybe their business levels would reflect those of independents.
Doesn’t it always come back to this? Create a strong brand image for your restaurant and those foodies and frequent diners will recognize your spot. Gordon Stewart suggests “brand your place with a food specialty that you become known for. Offer unique and regular specials. Put the spotlight on your suppliers.” Basically, create an identity for yourself. He also adds that it would be wise to “emphasize the benefits of dining at a hotel: parking, table service, great chefs, quick business lunches, etc”. Amen to that! I would also like to point out: nice, clean bathrooms. These top-notch facilities and conveniences should be associated with the hotel restaurant dining experience. Let’s change the way diners are thinking about hotel restaurants in Halifax!
Is this “case closed” on the mystery of Halifax hotel restaurants? Not quite. There is still some work to be done to start the revolution of our hotel dining scene in Halifax. I hope to see in the near future our fabulous hotel restos full of adventurous Haligonians, dining along side happy tourists and travelers alike.