Hospitality Industry

The Future of F&B: Interview with EHL Alumni Philipp Blaser

EHL Insights
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With revenue in the Food and Beverage industry expected to generate 76,467 million USD, those interested in entering this area of the hospitality sector have the potential to set themselves up for success. We sat down with Philipp Blaser, 2006 graduate from EHL, to discuss his thriving career in the industry, gain his insight on important trends he sees, and learn more about what graduates today can do to set themselves up for success after graduation.

Career Journey

How has the past 14 years of your career been so far?

Philipp: It’s gone in a wink of an eye. I feel like I just graduated EHL not too long ago. My career has been a fantastic ride and I am very grateful to the experience and career moves I have made.

I joined a non-existent hotel company post-graduation, Swire Properties, which was contemplating developing a hotel arm. Because it was a start-up, I got access to the birth of a hotel brand. So not only was it an MIT (Manager-in-Training) program but it was access to financial modelling, budgeting, marketing, branding, development, operational development, design; it was really encapsulating. It sounds bigger than it is, but we started Swire Hotels at the time at the Hong Kong office with my boss, myself, and an admin. I was a F&B Manager in three years, then F&B Director, and at six years, Hotel Manager. I was very fortunate, being able to see different facets of a hotel company and doing small, boutique and luxury concepts.

And then it was to the Corporate Office after?

Philipp: The one thing I hadn’t done was join a big corporate organization, so it was great to later join Marriott International in a Design Development role. I was creating concepts, being that operational eye in the development process, making sure we have the right concepts in our restaurants and bars as well as growing operational efficiencies linked to design. Marriott International had at the point 22 brands; creating differentiation from select service all the way up to luxury was an eye opener.

Toward the end of my stint at Marriott International, I took on a role as Senior Director, Restaurants and Bars for Asia-Pacific, going back to F&B and managing the operations from a corporate perspective. If you think about where I have started in small luxury hotels with 100 to 150 keys, to then managing 2500 restaurants at 591 hotels, that was a bit of an eye-opener. I had to be very pragmatic in assessing issues and challenges and take a macro-approach of the industry.

It was a great surprise to me that I was then approached by Four Seasons. It was great to come back to luxury. Four Seasons as a brand is phenomenal, the way they look at culture and people management. It is the biggest luxury hotel brand in the world with 117 hotels at the moment, and yet it’s feels like one big family; you are a person, an individual, not a number.

In my current role, there is huge emphasis on F&B; it’s one of our key priorities. Over the last nearly three years, we’ve launched our F&B strategy, we have made huge progress in accolades in terms of Michelin stars and Asia’s 50-Best. Talent progression is also a focus: How to attract the right talent in the industry, as well as looking at boosting new graduates coming into the system and how we can build their careers with us. And of course, my true passion is really trying to be creative and to develop F&B to the next level.

F&B in hotels

F&B in hotels are not always the most exciting places to be – How do you see that evolving?

Hoteliers are the nicest people in the world. And I mean this genuinely because it’s very difficult for a hotelier to say “No”. And that is why we are our own worst enemy. Just take the example of the international All-Day Dining, a restaurant where you have multiple cuisine types, served in large quantities, cooked by non-local or non-native chefs. This is really contradictive of having a high-quality experience. You may have on occasion great restaurants that cater to everything, but in most cases, you will have a mediocre food experience in that restaurant because it’s not authentic, it’s adjusted to the local taste, it’s in large volume.

30 years ago, if you were in Hong Kong or Singapore, the places to go for a great non-local meals were hotels. And now the free-standing restaurants have caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, the hotel restaurants. So, there is a bit of a catch up to do from our side. What are we doing at Four Seasons? We made restaurants and bars a focus point in our hotels. We are a fantastic hospitality company, great hotel company, and we wanted to put that focus on restaurants and bars. We did that by developing a restaurant and bar strategy, coming up with a vision that is understandable from an entry level employee all the way up the corporate ladder: To set our restaurants, bars and lounges as the heartbeat of our hotels and the gateway to the Four Seasons experience.

When you look the hospitality industry 15 years ago, you’d have large design firms that design the hotel and the restaurants so we have an experience that is sort of the same throughout the building. Nowadays, we select specific restaurant designers to develop and design the restaurants within our hotels so they have a distinct differentiation to the design of the hotel. So, it feels like you are dining in a restaurant that so happened to be in a hotel instead of a hotel restaurant. Guests who frequent the very successful restaurants we have in our portfolio globally will say they’ll go to the restaurant, not Four Seasons. Now it so happens to be in the Four Seasons, which is great; you are stepping into a world of luxury where you’re looked after and it’s genuine.

We are working on making the experience as well as the offering more attractive. For example, 71% of all luxury travelers want to travel because of restaurants and bars and local dining options. So, we make sure we have that as an option. Let’s say if you go to our Chinese restaurant Lung King Heen in Hong Kong, the majority of our guests are locals, about 85%. If you have more locals than hotel guests in your restaurants, the hotel guests will follow, because hotel guests want to go to where the locals eat.

We also look at talent in the restaurant and bar strategy. It’s a very lonely way up to the top in the F&B industry. If you are on the F&B side, you work your way up from a MIT to an F&B Director, make that transition into Hotel Manager, General Manager and above. If you’re on the culinary path, it’s up until Executive Chef, and if you make that transition into an F&B Director, then it would be the same, so it’s ultimately one path to success. We’re creating different avenues for craftsmen to join us, for example, having a Restaurant Executive Chef for example or a Restaurant GM who then reports directly to the Hotel Manager or to the General Manager. That’s where you attract the right talents and build on a great experience for our guests, with someone who has really got skin in the game and feels empowered to do good to our guests.

What is the favorite concept you’ve worked on?

I’ve done so many concepts now! But the one I really like hasn’t opened yet. It’s in a resort hotel: When I look at a three-meal restaurant in a resort hotel, it’s usually very busy for breakfast, at lunch it’s empty and at times you might be able to activate it at dinner. So, you have that whole gap between after breakfast until maybe dinner if you do a theme night or something like that in your restaurant. So, I worked on a concept recently where I put a pottery atelier inside the all-day dining so that I can attract guests to come and use the space, not necessarily for dining, but as an experience to create something, and for children and families to admire their own art pieces. In this pottery concept within the all-day dining, we would dry the pottery in the restaurant.

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Trends in F&B

How is data being used in F&B, in your daily decision making or even strategic decisions?

Although, F&B is a lot of soft skills and charm, it ultimately is a business. So, we need to look and balance to the two. We’re looking at restaurant revenue management which is actually learning from our peers in the rooms division. Overall, we are looking at F&B as a business: Meal periods, RevPASH, how we manage our inventory. Seamless integration of purchasing systems all the way through to the POS (point-of-sale) is an example, so you can get the data on menu engineering on the tip of your fingers, as well as manage your actual versus potential costs.

What is the potential of healthy dining in the hotel industry?

Huge. We have been doing this for years already. We just don’t publicize it because we don’t do it as a blanket; we do it individually. I can give you an example: Our hotel at Landaa Giraavaru in the Maldives has an onsite Ayurvedic doctor. It is complimentary for every guest to go and see him for a consultation. He will tell you what you are, and in our menus across the whole resort, you will have the different symbols of what you’re supposed to eat according to what your Ayurvedic doctor recommends, and you can cater to that throughout your whole stay. This is what we have been doing for years, it’s not anything new.

How has technology impacted F&B in hotels?

An example would be room service which has always been a bit of a challenge especially with UberEats and FoodPandas of this world: People order into their hotel rooms, even at the luxury levels, and it is disruptive. I think the differentiation comes in “Are you going to order something that is lukewarm, or are you going to get something that is perfectly served to you? Are you going to have a perfect setup in your room with all the amenities or are you going to eat out of plastic containers?

Career Advice

What advice would you give our students and graduates?

To our students on their second internship, that is a crucial internship because that’s where you make an impression on potential future employers. My direct boss at the Mandarin during my second internship gave me my first job at Swire Hotels.

Also, I’ve always had great leaders. I don’t join a company just because of the brand name, but because the person I was going to work with or my direct leader was someone who was a visionary, who would encourage development, encourage trying something new.