Last year, Hilton Garden Inn announced plans to refresh the brand and better cater to the evolving needs of the modern traveler. The updates focus on design, food and beverage, and brand culture enhancements across its portfolio of more than 720 hotels around the world. New-build properties have already begun adopting the new prototype and existing hotels will continue to roll out the changes and retrofit their properties into 2019. LODGING sat down with John Greenleaf, senior vice president and global head of Hilton Garden Inn, during the NYU Hospitality Investment Conference earlier this month to talk about the brand’s progress with the refresh and it’s approach to engaging guests and staff to create shareable and localized food and beverage.
How is the brand refresh going and what has been the reaction from owners?
One of the things we’ve done with the refresh is to make Hilton Garden Inn about the guest experience, first and foremost, and when it comes to the elements that need to be consistent to make the hotel a Hilton Garden Inn, we’ve created some flexibility. That gives us the opportunity to do projects with owners that they would never have been able to look at before.
The group we just met with opened a hotel in the last few weeks in Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a redo of an existing, older hotel downtown. They took our style and design direction and the food and beverage offerings, and working with the brand, found a way to make it look, smell, and taste like a Hilton Garden Inn when you walk in—in a very unique market in a building that was never designed to be a prototypical Hilton Garden Inn.
[Under the brand refresh], the rooms will be more consistent hotel to hotel, the public space will be flexible, the food offerings will be significantly improved and varied with also a little more opportunity for the hotels individually to serve what they serve best. Annapolis is a good example—you’re on the bay, so the menu there is going to be different than the Hilton Garden Inn two blocks from Times Square where they have a rooftop restaurant. You’re in New York, you have a clear view from the top floor—so why not?
In what ways did the refresh change F&B and what Hilton Garden Inn is serving on the menu?
What we’ve done is create a very comprehensive menu with more than 130 different items from which the hotels can select. We have a handful on there which are requirements, like our Mobley Burger, which we want to have everywhere. If you travel a lot of different places, sometimes you just want something you know you can have consistently at every hotel.
But then, if those aren’t enough items, we’ve given hotels the ability and encouraged them to develop their own specials. The way the menus are selected, developed, and printed is custom for every hotel—which we require every quarter, so they’re developing their second one of the year now. They can change out the specials they put on their menus independent of the actual menu. So, if you want to do something this week and something the next, you can.
Presentation has always been an important part of the dining experience, but it has become even more of a focus in today’s era of social media and sharing food photography. How did that factor into your approach?
Even the headings on the menu are now different—we have small plates and shared bites. We have different presentation-ware for breakfast and different china for dinner to accommodate the meals that we’re serving. So it wasn’t just, ‘change some of the menu items and hope they fit on the plates we have’—we took a very comprehensive look at what we’re making for guests, what we’re calling it, how we’re presenting it on the menu, and then how we’re actually serving it and presenting it to our guests. It was a pretty big undertaking.
How are you using social media to engage guests around F&B?
Who knows better what the guest wants than the guest? Most hotels figure that out through some limited research, but our public relations team put together a plan where we’re providing the guest the opportunity to select menu items. We’re testing 11 items in partnership with Food Network—the ones that I like best are the Minty Mule Cocktail and the Mason Jar Chocolate Fudge Cake. You see those on a menu and it puts a little smile on your face, it might lighten your day. That’s really our goal.
What are the ways you’ve involved hotel staff in developing F&B for the refreshed brand?
We’re doing things like having small committees in the hotels of hourly team members—one focused on Hilton Honors, one focused on food and beverage, one on community involvement—and those folks work together to get the rest of the team engaged in how to better execute those elements. It’s really working with the whole team to make the hotel better, as different than the general manager saying, ‘here’s the new program—you need to do it.’
Some other ideas that we’re working on would be to give team members the opportunity to submit recipes for our new welcome bites and pick one. It would be your “Aunt Sadie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies,” for instance—it might be another way to use social media internally to get team members engaged in the guest experience. There are ideas like that that we may not have entertained before, but through the new program we have right now, we can.
How are you incorporating more local offerings for travelers who want to experience a sense of place?
If you’re only visiting for a night or two, you don’t want to find a cab and go out and find a restaurant. But if the restaurant in the hotel has some local dishes that are beautifully prepared and served as small plates, guests don’t feel overwhelmed by what they order. In The Shop, our new grab-and-go retail space, we have a requirement that at least 25 percent of the food and merchandise in those shops is locally sourced. That number will move based on what works best for the hotel. But it’s a conscious effort—whether it’s with food, beverage, or souvenirs—to try to get something in the hotel that gives more of a sense of where you are.
In what ways are you changing the concept of room service under the brand refresh?
We’ve had some custom paper products made for bagged delivery to the room. It’s 100 percent biodegradable, there are no plastics used, and the pieces all nest to make storage easier for the hotel. That’s being tested at about 25 hotels right now. Someone at the front desk can take something from The Shop, put together a meal, and take it up to the guestroom if the restaurant’s closed, or someone in the restaurant can package a meal from the restaurant and take it up as well.
The hotels love it. It gives them an option for less labor, potentially more spend, and more flexibility for the hotel to deliver these options, some of which would be available 24 hours a day, from The Shop.
Where does wellness come into play in the brand refresh?
The new positioning of the brand is focused on a single word: bright. Bright was the watchword for all the interior design that we did. So you’ll see floor-to-ceiling windows; light-colored walls; bright fabrics in the lobbies; walls and partitions removed in the lobby, which is now an open space; the bars are in the front of the hotel and there are windows behind them so you’re comfortable having breakfast there—a lot of thought given to taking that word “bright” and bringing it to life in a hotel.
The other thing we’ve done is focus on the ability to add vegetarian meals and gluten-free meals. We’ve focused on our fitness centers—in the prototype, we’ve expanded them. We haven’t come out and focused the brand on health or being health-conscious, but the changes that we’ve made in a number of different areas of the hotel are very clearly something that moves in that direction.
How will Hilton’s new environmental initiative impact the brand’s operations?
We’re going to look at it like all the other brands are. We’ve made great steps with community involvement and engagement already. We’re trying to reduce food waste in our restaurants—if you look at the menu we have, portions are smaller, the number of ingredients are fewer—that’s the trend the food market is going. We’re taking best advantage of that to also reduce food waste in the hotel.