Although the Hilton Harrisburg has remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there are few hotel guests these days, and F&B is restricted to takeout. But just as those in quarantine around the globe have sought to connect with friends and family while at a distance, Greenwood Hospitality principal Tom Conran felt it was important to maintain guest relationships even during these difficult times. “As a hotel management company, we are always trying to differentiate ourselves from the competition and stay in touch with our clientele.” In this spirit, he says, GM Joe Massaro and sous chef Anthony Bianco of the Hilton Harrisburg found a way to re-enforce the special place their hotel has in F&B in its local market, developing an engaging F&B experience that leverages the video technology used now for everything from news shows, business meetings, and celebrity concerts to gatherings of friends and family for social events such as reunions and happy hours.
The idea of using the popular video conferencing platform Zoom to connect with quarantining customers, says Massaro, came to him while seeing it used in a different way borne of the stay-at-home orders issued during the COVID-19 crisis. “Watching my daughter, who is a second-grade teacher, conduct lessons via Zoom, it occurred to me that maybe we could also use it to engage guests with food and beverage.”
Massaro discussed this idea with chef Tony Bianco, and together they created an innovative F&B concept that went beyond catering and takeout to intrigue and engage guests. “We settled on creating virtual food and beverage events whereby, in partnership with our wine suppliers, we would provide everything needed to host a special meal,” he explains. For this, the lead chef of the restaurant would create a market basket of goods with everything needed to prepare the meal—including bottles of wine or cocktail mixers—to be picked up the day prior to the event or the day of. The package would also include an instruction booklet on both how to set up and conduct the Zoom meeting, as well as an overview of the preparation and cooking steps to follow during the event for reference.
The especially engaging aspect of these events, he says, would be that the featured chef would appear on camera to guide guests, all of whom would be connected via Zoom in their respective homes, throughout the meal.
Saying that the wines are typically the cornerstone of most of these events, Bianco stresses the role of their wine partners in selecting and procuring wines to complement the menu—or, as is often the case, a menu that will work well with the wines. “After we described the type of experience we wanted to create, Caroline White at Trinchero Family Estates helped us identify what wines were available, how we could get them shipped to us here quickly, and how we could craft a menu around it that would reach our goals.”
Their first event was basically planned as a kind of focus group, says Massaro, to test the concept and gauge interests. So, after the wines were selected and a simple menu created, they floated an email to existing clients. The level of interest quickly became apparent, he recalls. “Within two hours, we had sold out the event, which we limited to 12 households for this first time out.”
Bianco describes these events as “interactive wine-specialist and chef-driven experiences,” saying the experience is far more social than a cooking program. “It’s sort of like being together in the kitchen on the holidays where someone is cooking but others are sitting around the island with a glass of wine,” he describes. Yet, he reminds, there is a definite educational aspect. “For example, from the chef, attendees are learning about things like plate composition and picking up little ‘chef tricks’ and, from the wine specialist, they learn about developing a ‘wine notes and pairing .’”
As with any carefully choreographed event, planning and timing are paramount. Menu creation, he says, takes into account how the meal should be paced and consumed. “We need to produce a multi-course meal and time it so when the program ends, you have four complete dishes—none of which has lost its culinary integrity by becoming too cold, sitting too long.” For that reason, he says, the prep work has already been done—as it would be in a professional kitchen—for many of the meal components provided.
Massaro says it was clear they were onto something from the time they sold out that first event, which was followed by a flood of requests for more. In response, they’ve planned a roster of such events, including a meal and pasta-making class on May 16, a four-course meal with fine wines on May 22 with Banfi, one called Chill’n and Grill’n featuring Mojitos as well as wine on May 23, a Pinot Picnic on May 29, and ending the month with Bianco’s Brunch Bash on May 31.
Conran says he expects this niche they’ve created in the F&B market may well survive the pandemic that inspired it and will surely spread to other properties. “This has been a big hit—it’s an elevated experience that is better than takeout and different from a restaurant experience; it has become far more interactive than we imagined it would be. For now, the fun is in seeing everyone on their own screens, all viewing each other in their individual kitchens and dining rooms, with Tony demonstrating the food preparation. It’s taken on a life of its own. We are gratified in seeing the wonderful collaboration and interest we have experienced during this difficult period.”