Since its inception in the 1960s, premier hospitality company Four Seasons has become an iconic player in the delivery of high-end, bespoke luxury experiences. Capturing the hearts, minds and appetites of its guests is something which the business strives to achieve each and every day as it seeks to operate in key locations to provide outstanding concepts on an international scale.
“I think it’s really important, that the concepts in our outlets become alive,” says Gerd von Sierakowski, Director of F&B at Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel in Budapest. “If there is a big trend on eating ice cream in southern countries and we're in the middle of the winter here in Budapest I'm not going to follow that trend,” he adds with a chuckle. “I would look more at the kind of trends in hot beverages, to stay relevant.”
Part of the renowned brand for more than a decade, von Sierakowski has successfully managed Gresham Palace’s food and beverage operations for three years, overseeing its restaurant, bar and lounge as well as its banqueting and room service. Everything guests touch, feel, taste and smell fall under his domain. Having worked in the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Europe, von Sierakowski’s experience is vast and his knowledge from catering to the needs of clients is wide-reaching.
“Europe and the US are very different from a clientele perspective. In North American markets, everything has to be immediate; it feels like people have less time so they want services and/or tasks to be completed instantly. People in Europe, however, prefer for things to be precise. They like to have engaging conversations regarding where you're from and where you're going. Nonetheless, expectations are much the same, particularly in our luxury environment.”
Catering to high-demand guests, feedback is predominantly received on the floor as employees interact with guests, who are empowered to act on all received feedback. “It's hard to cater for so many people with a cookie-cutter approach, but if you gain feedback and work with that knowledge, clients are much happier. That's how you create that luxury feel and that personalisation,” states von Sierakowski.
The food and beverage industry has completely changed over the past decades, he explains. Four Seasons Budapest has localised its services to cater for its target audience and to define clear concepts within its operation. Collaborating with local designers, winemakers and food farmers is equally important to von Sierakowski, as well as working together with local art galleries and entertainers. “We work with a local gallerist partner to exhibit seasonal collections in our restaurant, which then becomes part of the guest experience. These strategic partners help us in building trust within the community. By using valuable locally manufactured china or glassware, local clientele come to our outlets to experience a world-famous product that was produced for royalty. This also becomes an attraction,” he says.
With such growing competition, from traditional rivals to innovative start-ups such as Airbnb, guests are routinely looking for increased value for money as they search for the perfect travel destination or a place to eat. Whilst hotel restaurants are traditionally perceived to cater solely for hotel clientele, making up 80% of its volume, von Sierakowski has faced additional challenges at Gresham Palace.
“One of the challenges with Four Seasons here in Budapest is its misguided reputation of being created for the older generation. This may come from the iconic palace and location the hotel is situated at. Our challenge is to change this perception and our aim is to bring in the younger generations,” he adds.
“Guests no longer have the time to spend two or three hours if they're just coming for lunch. They seek a great lunch experience but expect to leave within 30-45 minutes. That's the regular guest, unless they're celebrating something special. Technology has also impacted our industry and I think for the better. We cannot be blindsided and continue servicing our guests the way we used to. Guests have changed and so have their expectations.”
Previously housing a more traditional dining room with a fine dining concept, Four Seasons Budapest has jumped on the wave of change. Introducing French-Hungarian restaurant, KOLLÁZS – Brasserie & Bar three years ago, the company has worked with designers, invested in music styling to complement its diverse audience and overhauled its food and beverage offering to cater to guests from all walks of life. Appointing consultants to undertake essential market research, a new pricing strategy has also been established, enabling the business to remain competitive and enabling new guests, particularly millennials, to take advantage of what it has to offer.
“We named the restaurant KOLLÁZS (Hungarian for collage) because it's like a collage of different emotions. It's very alive, young and trendy. Anyone can come in dressed in a tuxedo or jeans and a t-shirt and still feel that they belong. KOLLÁZS has vibrant music and is engaging. The design was very important as well as our food offering. It's no longer fine dining but the quality is exceptional,” he explains. “I think this is what young diners are looking for.”
The restaurant’s successful concept has attracted local clientele, tourists and even those passing by, placing the restaurant firmly on the map. Up to 80% of diners now originate from outside of the hotel, something von Sierakowski is immensely proud of. Further attracting customers, Four Seasons’ investment into marketing, digital and social media platforms has also played a key role where the hotel has gained a greater understanding of guest requirements and needs.
“In this ever-changing industry we have to be a step ahead and say, ‘What are we going to do at Valentine’s Day? How can we promote it? Who do we want to target?’ You have to constantly rethink your game plan, which is why marketing is so important,” notes von Sierakowski.
Retaining brand transparency will consequently remain paramount, leading Four Seasons to invest significantly in its digital presence. Whilst businesses have embraced social media to provide a bespoke customer service, guests at Gresham Palace can also download and utilise the Four Seasons app, further complementing its commitment to delivering a service with a personalised touch.
“On the app, guests can check in, check out and have a guest experience managed through technology. We also have a chat function where guests can chat directly with our concierge, and therefore make restaurant bookings,” he adds. “Guests like to do online bookings and have smart access, so we work with a reservation system, where on our restaurant website they can directly book for a table, for example. When you have the right POS system that communicates with the kitchen, employees can also communicate quicker. I embrace technology because they make our day-to-day life easier.
“Having the right balance is very important. Not everything needs to be digitalised in my opinion, but I embrace it if it's for the good and in the interest of guest service.”
Despite the advantages technology can bring, the business is acutely aware that investing in its employees will continue to place it above the competition. “We like to have employees that are driven and like to work with a great attitude. Autonomy of employees is important. We have a thorough selection process, as we believe you can teach people how to carry a plate, take an order or gain food knowledge, but it's really the attitude and aptitude that the employee brings along that is important for us,” he explains.
Retaining talent is a continual battle across the food and beverage industry. This, on top of Gresham Palace’s close proximity to Germany and Austria, has further convinced Four Seasons Hotel Budapest to stave off the competition by committing to its employees personal and professional development by implementing exceptional training and incentive programmes. The company is keen to create future career opportunities for employees and is renowned to promote from within.
“Take me for example,” reflects von Sierakowski. “I've been with Four Seasons close to 15 years and went through the ranks. Worldwide, employees have opportunities where they can grow their career. My executive sous-chef started here as a student and we also had a pastry chef with a similar background. We have just transferred him as an executive pastry chef to the Four Seasons in Prague.”
However, where does von Sierakowski see Four Seasons Budapest’s food and beverage operation headed in the long-term? “Sustainability remains at the forefront. Removing straws and plastic bottles across our food and beverage outlets is just the beginning and finding recyclable resources for other examples would be the next step. This has been driven by our generation as we are all becoming more environmentally-cautious,” he says.
Additionally, we are now looking to transform our lobby lounge into a more exciting and attractive outlet. This is the next step for us as we continue on our journey to deliver an outstanding luxury guest experience.”
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