The decorations—or lack thereof—don’t tell the entire story. Behind the scenes, many companies and organizations are already planning for the holidays, and have been, in some cases, since the last glass of champagne was toasted in 2014.
As the economy continues to improve, those party plans, typically imagined in wide-open ballrooms and banquet halls with prix fixe menus, are more frequently involving restaurants—offering a personal, intimate feel that diners seek out in their daily lives.
Hotels are finding creative ways to meet those demands. Mike Chouri, the general manager of the Sheraton Tysons Hotel in Virginia, says the hotel’s Brix and Ale Restaurant underwent a renovation in 2012 to keep pace.
The classic comfort food–themed restaurant now has two entrances and can be split to accommodate parties and hotel guests, as well as walk-in diners.
“It’s great ambiance,” Chouri says, “because all of a sudden, you’re not only taking up half of the restaurant, but you’re looking over to the bar area where the [other] attendees are and thinking ‘OK, I’m here with my own group but I’m seeing the public close by in the lounge area.’ It’s kind of fun.”
The room can satisfy a sit-down dinner of 110 guests comfortably, and 150 for a cocktail reception. “It’s not unusual [for a guest to request a restaurant space]. It was unusual in the past, but I would say, for the last three, four, five years, there’s been a trend that people would prefer to have an event in a restaurant,” he adds. “There’s an atmosphere of fine dining in the restaurant, and you’re sitting in an atmosphere where there’s other people dining at the same time.”
Krista Perregaux, the catering sales manager at The Westin Reston Heights—also in Virginia—says the hotel will rent out its entire Vinifera Win Bar Bistro concept if a patron wants. But the three-space setup typically offers enough flexibility.
The dining room can accommodate a party of 28, while the Blue Ridge Room seats 40, and the lounge area is geared more toward receptions. “I am seeing that people are definitely looking for something that’s less structured,” she says. Perregaux explains that there are three emerging tiers blurring what used to be a common mid-point between extravagant and budget-friendly bookers. For instance, she sees some guests who want to bring in furniture, disc jockeys, or even portable casinos, and others who want to arrange a simple luncheon, or a small get-together. One common thread, however, is that people appreciate the flexibility and personal touches a restaurant setting can offer.
“At Vinifera, you pick your package price and we send you a menu and you kind of have free rein to choose the number of items based on your package, but it’s not necessarily limited,” she says. “It’s that feeling of being in a restaurant—that atmosphere. It takes a little bit of pressure off the planner, and still allows everybody to eat what they want, which is always a nice thing.”
As the name suggest, Vinifera Win Bar Bistro is also a popular pick due to its beverage selections. The brand has been honored with six straight Award of Excellence distinctions from Wine Spectator. Perregaux says party guests get to peruse the same list as diners, which means picking from over 300 selections that cross the gamut from a bottle priced $26—the 2014 vintage of Mittelbach, Rose of Zweigelt, Tegernseerhof, Wachau, Austria—to a $700 bottle of 2011 French Red vintage Burgundy, Domaine Clos de Tart, Grand Cru, Morey-St_Denis, Cote de Nuits.
“I have a lot of clients, especially for some of these smaller dinner events who, instead of doing a full-bar situation, choose a wine off of our menu, or a couple of bottles of wine. So it can be a little more specific. Or they’ll have our sommelier choose the wine based on our menu. We have lots of options that people can utilize to enhance the experience.”
The Hilton Crystal City at Washington Reagan National Airport has taken a different approach. Its restaurant, Relish, is on an upper level of the hotel and is open for breakfast and lunch. That leaves a blank slate for possible dinner-time bookings. The hotel also has the Oasis Bar, where guests can order from a full menu if they would like, and The Marketplace, a grab-and-go venue open until 11 p.m. Like the Sheraton Tysons Hotel, a renovation in 2013 helped extend the possibilities.
“We gave ourselves more outlets because we could see more and more people wanting to come over,” says Tammy Browser, director of sales and marketing, of the $15 million renovation. The goal, she adds, is to offer options at all times, to all people. On the same note, the hotel promotes an “Early-Bird Special” to any group that books a holiday party before September 30. Browser says the promotion, which they’ve been doing for “probably 10 years” continues to attract prospective guests.
At the Westin Arlington Gateway in Virginia, the Pinzimini Restaurant & Lounge is a multi-unit brand that’s been around for about a decade.
Chris Zindash, the director of sales and marketing, says it’s been a hit at the hotel, even fostering a local following in the area, which has some guests booking for the holidays based on name value. There’s a private dining room in the restaurant that seats 25 to 30 people. Also, an additional semi-private room can be temporarily separated by a divider.
“We have folks that want to utilize the dining room because they have had the Pinzimini experience and they like the food selections. It makes sense,” he says. “It really kind of works to our advantage because we have the hotel here with full banquet and catering menus and we also have the Pinzimini Restaurant with its own unique menu. It’s a nice feature to have because we can be a little more versatile for everybody depending on what their needs are.”
Despite the changing trends, people sometimes want to stick with the tried-and-true, Zindash adds. In addition to the restaurant options, all four hotels have multiple spaces that can accommodate large parties in different settings. For instance, in the Westin Arlington Gateway’s case, the Fitzgerald Ballroom can serve 450 guests. Each of the hotels have different food service staffs—restaurant and banquet—and make sure menus and decorations are fit to the holiday theme.
Discounts and pricing changes based on packages, food options, and, in some cases, when the event is booked. Mainly, it’s about making sure that the perfect space is secured before it’s too late.
“We have people from last holiday season who have already booked for this year,” Zindash says. “If they have a great experience, they will book early because they know prime space goes quickly.”
News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by FSR, Food News Media, or Journalistic, Inc.