Shangri-La Hotels and Resort's F&B Director
Jean Michel Offe Is Fighting Back
Hotel Asia Pacific
As hotel restaurants come under increasing pressure from innovative outsiders, Shangri-La is fighting back with an arsenal of cutting-edge concepts. In an exclusive interview, group F&B director Jean Michel Offe tells Steve Shellum what lies ahead
The knives are out – and hotel restaurants are falling victim to street-wise competitors intent on taking a big slice off their bottom lines with funkier concepts and more adventurous cuisine.
F&B directors are feeling the pressure from
free-standing restaurants that are eating into their profits as customers
turn their backs on stuffy hotel outlets in favour of trendier dining experiences.
Offe and his team have taken a long, hard look at the intense competition from culinary free-spirits – and are coming out fighting, with up to 40 new F&B concepts at various stages of planning that will redefine the essence of dining at Shangri-La hotels throughout the region.
“By 2003, we will have 25-30 concepts that will really make an impact and bring Shangri-La to a new level,” says Offe.
Setting the tone, and the scene, are recently opened restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia that have raised the bar for competitors – and dispelled the myth that hotel outlets have to be stuffy, insipid or uninspiring.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Offe, of the new concepts in the pipeline. “I want Shangri-La to be recognised as the leader in the industry, both for the quality of its food and its culinary concepts.
“It is not acceptable to be number two.”
Offe is under no illusions about the essential ingredients needed to ensure that a restaurant is not only trendsetting, but also achieves a healthy return on investment (ROI).
“The focus of most free-standing restaurants is more on the design element than the food. But good design is not enough to survive. You have places that are beautiful, but you go back six months later and they are empty.
“But there are always others waiting to take their place, and they are drawing custom away from hotels. The sad thing in our industry is that we have a lot of fine hotels, but the restaurants are often mediocre.
“It is a very important part of being hoteliers that we reflect lifestyles, and an F&B strategy has to involve a lot more than just a design concept.
“There are a lot of beautiful restaurants around, but what about ROI? No matter how stunning or innovative a restaurant may be, success today still depends on the quality and consistency of the food.
“We can achieve ROI faster in Asia than, for example, the US, so we can come up with a lot of new ideas. We must try to keep the lead in new concepts.”
Offe cites the phenomenal success of the recently opened café Too at the Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong as an example of what lies ahead with the group.
“Youngsters don’t normally go to a hotel to dine,
but they go to cafe Too in droves. It’s a funky design with an ‘outside’
feel to it, and the quality of the food is not only outstanding but also
consistent. People stay longer there than in any other outlet.
“We can’t take cafe Too and cookie cutter it in all our hotels. It would not work in Jakarta, for example – we could never get our investment back – but it might work in Singapore. It is very much the market that dictates what we do.”
One of the problems facing Shangri-La is the sheer geographical spread of its hotels throughout the region. “It’s very difficult because we have two main markets – Southeast Asia and China - and the requirements are different,” says Offe.
“For example, 70% of guests in our hotels in mainland
China are Chinese, but in Hong Kong and Singapore 60% are Western. We have
city and resort hotels, as well as the Traders brand, and guests’ buying
power is not the same at all our properties.
Service is crucial to the success of any restaurant, but Offe believes that, over the years, it has become too stiff.
“With fine-dining rooms or French restaurants,
the decor became too intimidating. Service has become too heavy, with two
or three waiters and sommeliers spending too much time changing knives
and forks when people just want to be left alone.
He gives as an example the Cheval Blanc at the Shangri-La Makati. “It doesn’t work any more. After eight years, the market is no longer there.
“We are trying to keep some of the elements, but modernising the look. Lighting is extremely important today, and we are waiting for the designer to come in with new ideas.”
But Offe does not entirely dismiss the concept of the haute-cuisine signature restaurant.
“In five years, they might come back, but the service element will have to be drastically adapted. For instance, the ubiquitous restaurant pianist will disappear – it’s too stuffy and repetitive, and the repertoire is limited. A good sound system works better.”
What trends does Offe see developing over the next few years?
“The biggest challenge is to anticipate what the market will be in 2005. It is changing so rapidly – today, there are a lot of open kitchens, but five years from now they could well be passe.
“It’s very difficult to predict how fast the market will develop, but it can’t be too avant garde. We have to find the right balance.”
Meanwhile, the group is spending considerable time, money and resources on training local F&B staff. “In 1997 [during the Asian financial crisis], a lot of expats left, and the quality of the food dropped because the industry didn’t develop local talent to fill the gaps. Today, we are paying the price.
“There is more and more pressure to develop local staff to take over from expats but, if we don’t have the right tools in place to train them, there will be high turnover.”
The group is opening a training centre in Shenzhen in June to train core kitchen professionals at its Chinese hotels in Italian, Indian and French cuisines, as well as pastry skills. Executive sous chefs and managers will undergo eight hours’ training a day for 24 days.
The group has also developed a sophisticated intranet to share information, ideas and recipes and increase communication. “I don’t want to kill the creativity of the chefs, but I do want them to all be going in the same direction,” says Offe.
The intranet is also designed to eliminate paper work and get executive chefs back into the kitchens. “The role of the chef is critical, but a lot of them don’t spend enough time with staff actually cooking.”
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