Special Events

Service IN Site

PROVIDING STELLAR SERVICE to event groups — a critical competency in today's fiercely competitive hotel market — takes exemplary leadership. In this month's cover story, hotel catering directors, all of whom do double duty leading both in-house teams and local NACE chapters, share their secrets for service success.

SELECTION CONNECTION

For Rachel Chadderdon, CPCE, exceptional service hinges on a diversity of choice for her clients.

As director of catering for the Westins of Washington, Chadderdon helms two properties that hold significantly different appeals. Housed in a historic 1920s building, the Westin Embassy Row offers a more traditional atmosphere, while the “trendy, cutting-edge” Westin Grand boasts boutique-hotel amenities, she explains. Her ability to offer clients a choice between the venues, depending on their guest groups and specific event needs, not to mention her own group occupancy capabilities, is a definite plus. She notes, “It's very nice during the sales process.”

On top of that, Chadderdon and her clients reap the technological benefits of the Westins' parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. For instance, if the catering director lacks space during a client's requested dates, Starwood's “Team Hot” program allows her to access availability information for all Starwood properties in not just her local area, but the entire country. In addition, Starwood's custom “e-proposal” is a service that “functions as a client-specific Web site,” complete with floor plans, menus and images, she says. “It's a phenomenal tool that can be forwarded and shared with other interested parties, saving time and efforts on behalf of the planner. And it's an outstanding prelude to the formal site visit.”

MIND READER

While Chadderdon enjoys the advantage of virtually putting her clients on site, Dianna Shitanishi, CMP, CPCE, practices putting herself “in another person's shoes.”

The director of catering and conference services at Honolulu's Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Hawaii, says that's the key to serving her clients most effectively. For corporate events, she explains, the process may involve asking simple questions to determine the client's level of experience with meetings in general, and her property in particular. It may mean gathering information about audiovisual needs, which “can make a big difference in room allocation,” she says. Or, it may require a more nuanced approach.

One corporate client with whom she had worked through an independent meeting planner entered a banquet room only to voice displeasure with the planned setup. “She was saying, ‘Take out this table, take out that table,’ and at first the banquet staff just said ‘OK,’ and started moving tables wherever her heart desired,” Shitanishi recounts. Instead of simply acquiescing, however, the catering director stopped her for a minute and began to ask questions about the client's overall vision. Once she determined that the client was looking for “a kind of living-room setup, a real homey environment,” she was able to offer an effective balance between intimate atmosphere and seating options for guests who “might not feel comfortable sitting with food on their laps.”

JUMP START

Empathy similarly is an essential part of the service system of Lisa Hopkins, CPCE, as is a focus on in getting the ball rolling.

With lead times diminishing dramatically — “It used to be the pop-up breakfast, the pop-up lunch … now it's the pop-up conference” — the director of catering and conferences for The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, Houston, counts on quick turnover to ensure a good experience for her clients. For imminent events, she instructs her catering sales team to give rough information on group size and requirements to critical departments involved in event production, “even if an event order is not done yet, even if a rooming list is not done, even if we don't know who the VIPs are yet.”

At the same time, she explains, “You have to guide {the client.} If they're having trouble making a decision, you have to say, ‘Let me help you.’ Sometimes we fail to recognize that they're under the gun, too. We're worried about getting the paperwork out, and they're worried about the whole thing.”

Aiding the cooperative effort required to move information is a team-based bonus system. And it helps that the team itself is steeped in cross-departmental experience. “Our AV manager started as a houseman, so he's an expert in AV, but he also understands the dynamics of a meeting room setup,” Hopkins explains. “Four out five of my corporate catering sales people have worked in the social market.” Add to that staff longevity — “Our turnover rate is about 20 percent. Most hotels are quadruple that,” Hopkins says — and her crew offers an exceptional grasp of “the big picture of service.”

ROLE RULE

For Stacy Zeigler, CMP, CPCE, of the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, a major component of sharp service is specialization.

“We have just added a wedding specialist to our team,” the director of catering and convention services notes. “This helps our social catering manager stay focused on site visits and booking weddings. Then our wedding specialist takes over planning the layout of the room, working with vendors and doing the tasting.” The goal, she says, is to make sure that “our prospective brides as well as our current brides are able to talk to their main contact immediately.”

But Zeigler is quick to point out that at her property, specialization doesn't mean limitation. She gives the example of her conference concierge, who recently shucked his regular role for that of a courier when a client's package was stuck at the city's Federal Express office. “He got in his car and picked up the box immediately so it was back in time for {the planner's} meeting 60 minutes later,” she explains. “This is just a normal day in the life of our staff. We worry for our guests so they don't need to.”

BUILT BY ASSOCIATION

All of these hotel catering pros cite leadership positions with professional association NACE as a major enhancement to the professionalism they, and their staffs, are able to offer event clients.

Zeigler, who serves as president of the organization's Atlanta chapter, uses NACE networking opportunities to keep her staff abreast of new ideas. For her catering department's twice-monthly on-site vendor visits, she often brings in NACE member vendors. These have included Atlanta-based designer Tony Brewer, who recently led a presentation on decor showing Zeigler's staff images from corporate, social and fund-raising events. “It gave us an idea of different themes, like ‘Fire and Ice,’” she says. “It really helps with {the catering staff's} creativity.”

Hopkins counts on her role as president of NACE's Houston chapter to help her “keep the pulse of what's going on outside this hotel.” By listening to her NACE group, she can gauge if trends such as a difficulty getting guest-count guarantees are unique to her property or a market-wide concern, and then make necessary adjustments to her service program. Such insights keep her team competitive, she says, “and I like to stay ahead of my competitors.” But also, she adds, “I like to help them out when I feel that's appropriate.”

As president of the association's Honolulu chapter, Shitanishi views NACE meetings as an opportunity for her staff to “get out of the office, see other facilities, different vendors and speakers. And it also gives us a chance to be together outside the work environment.”

Meanwhile, Greater Washington D.C. chapter president Chadderdon says she is able to access “fantastic vendors” for her clients through NACE networking connections. She also uses NACE as a continuing education resource for her catering staff. “If NACE is doing a program I think members of my staff would benefit from, I plan accordingly. Then those people come back and train the rest of us.”




RESOURCES

Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Hawaii, 808/739-8715; Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, 404/659-0400; The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, 713/680-2626; Westin Embassy Row and Westin Grand, 202/955-4400

Dress for Success

What's de rigeur in service staff wear? Hotel catering pros share:

“At the Ritz-Carlton, appearance is incredibly important. Our service staff wears black tuxedos to all events and provides white-glove service. We do off-premise catering as well, and sometimes the client will request a more casual look. Only then would our staff wear khakis and Ritz-Carlton golf shirts.”
Stacy Zeigler, Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta



“Our staff fully understands the importance of appearance and view it as not only a reflection of the hotel, but also of themselves and their professionalism. Our standard banquet server uniform is a full tuxedo for all banquet functions. Our catering and conference service managers are in suits, both men and women.”
Rachel Chadderdon, the Westins of Washington



“Our banquet staff has two uniforms. One is an ‘aloha’ shirt for daytime or evening casual. For evening, we have gray pants, white shirt, white jacket. For special occasions, we might have white-glove service, or special cummerbunds.”
Dianna Shitanishi, Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Hawaii



“If you're going to be serving food, you've got to look the part. Our uniform is black pants and black shoes for gentlemen. Women wear black skirts just above the knee, black hose or tights, and a multi-colored vest with a white shirt and black necktie.”
Lisa Hopkins, The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa



For expert tips on selecting uniforms for hotel staff, visit our Web site at www.specialevents.com.

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