(Repeats story first published on Thursday, pix now available)
By Dominique Vidalon and Pascale Denis
PARIS, Oct 23 (Reuters) - From its swanky Sofitel to budget Ibis, France’s AccorHotels is pepping up its food and drink products to draw in diners and help compensate for room business lost to online booking sites.
In a shift mirrored at rivals InterContinental and Marriott, Europe’s largest hotel group is aiming at a smartphone generation courted by companies such as Airbnb which allows owners to rent out let their homes.
AccorHotels last month appointed Amir Nahai, a former Bain & Co consultant, to lead the initiative, the latest move in a three-year shake-up started in 2013 by Chief Executive Sebastien Bazin.
“It’s a medium-term plan to make Food & Beverage (F&B) a window into AccorHotels,” Nahai told Reuters.
F&B made up 25 percent of total group revenue of 12 billion euros ($13.6 billion) in 2014, but margins were far lower than the room booking segment. Nahai identified food and drink as “obviously a critical lever of earnings enhancement”, across the world number-four hotel group’s 3,800 hotels.
Analysts say the strategy makes sense as consumers devote more of their disposable cash to eating out.
“You see a lot more of the foodie culture with a lot of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, but also lot of amateur cooking shows. Food has become more important, from a demand point of view,” said Euromonitor analyst Wouter Geerts.
Hoteliers are trying to come up with restaurants and bars that meet demands for more local and personalised experiences.
“With the arrival of new rivals such as booking websites or Airbnb, offering a personalised service has become more and more necessary, particularly in the last two years,” said Stephane Botz, KPMG France Associate and head of Real Estate & Hotels.
AccorHotels’ boss Bazin has warned that revenues were under threat from Airbnb and booking websites. His response has been to enhance his digital business and now his range of food and drinks.
With average profit margins of 25-35 percent, the restaurants business of hotels have lagged the chunky 70-80 percent delivered by the rooms business.
Hoteliers who have in the past relied mainly on hotel guests for trade are now offering separate entrances for restaurants, partnering with a celebrity chef to add some glamour or hiring specialist restaurant designers.
AccorHotels’ Sofitel Arc de Triomphe in Paris is an example. A gastronomic restaurant there lasted only two years has been restyled and named “Les Cocottes” — the cooking pots.
French chef Christian Constant serves his trademark caramelised potatoes with pig’s feet there in cast-iron pots, on tables or at a counter, aiming at a simpler bistro feel.
At lunchtimes now, 70 percent of the customers are outsiders rather than hotel residents.
“If it doesn’t appeal to the local community, people won’t come,” said Jeremy Dodson, vice president of food & beverage at Marriott Europe.
Marriott has been running a trial called Canvas where locals set up shop in under-used hotel spaces.
Vacant barber shops have been converted into charcuterie and cheese outlets, while in one Budapest hotel a space that was empty for 12 years is now a craft beer bar.
At InterContinental, Simon Burdess, vice president food & beverage Europe, said developers wishing to set up a group hotel must have a valid plan for the restaurant or bar before their projects get approved.
InterContinental has gone for local dining experiences at upscale brands such as Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza and Indigo.
In the cheaper category, Holiday Inn owners are offered a choice of formats that managers can pick from and enhance with local flavours. In the Holiday Inn due to open in December in the southern English city of Brighton, craft beers will come from local brewers, with coffee provided by a local roaster. ($1 = 0.8812 euros) (Additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Callus and Keith Weir)