At the end of February 2020, Lance Perkins left behind the glamour of West Hollywood – where he had been overseeing the opening of an EDITION in Beverly Hills, US – and embarked on his next adventure, this time heading for London, UK. Two and a half weeks after starting his new role as Ennismore’s director of restaurants and bars for the UK and Europe, however, the capital went into lockdown. Trade plummeted overnight, shutters went up, and the streets became eerily quiet as the food and beverage industry felt the brutal force of Covid-19.

Perkins already had a lot to contend with. The new job entailed the daunting task of working out how to overhaul Ennismore’s entire food and beverage offering. Throw a pandemic into the mix and a unique opportunity was created to pull the business apart, reanalyse the market and start again. “It’s given people the impetus to make change,” he says. “Covid-19 has been the biggest instigation of innovation that we’ve seen in a generation.”

Mixed feelings

That isn’t to say that it has been straightforward for everyone, and Perkins is painfully aware of the devastating impact the pandemic will have for many. Those suffering, he says, are the single operators that have invested their life savings into businesses that won’t be able to reopen, or the thousands of faceless staff that have lost their jobs with the mass closure of chain restaurant outlets. Still, for those that are able to adapt and re-examine their business models as a whole, it is an exciting time. The pandemic, he says, has breathed entrepreneurial spirit into the hotel industry that “hadn’t really existed before”, as many traditional hotel offerings were confined to “box ticking for in-house guests”.

By July 2020, Ennismore had seen its London hotel occupancy rates, that usually sit at around 95%, drop to just 13%, dramatically changing the company’s priorities. The focus shifted to transforming its food and beverage offerings into destination restaurants and bars that just happen to be sitting within hotels. Perkin’s business strategy has, in many ways, gone back to basics. “We’re employing a start-up mentality where we have X budget and if we’re not making a bottom line on a week to week basis, we scrap it and think of something new,” he explains. For the time being, operations across Ennismore’s restaurants and bars have largely gone down to five days a week. Food and beverage is no longer being run as an amenity. Quite simply, says Perkins, “if we’re not able to break even, we won’t operate.”

One of the main challenges has been catering to the different types of guests the pandemic has created. “You almost have these two big camps; there’s the people who don’t care, they just want to get out of the house and get their normal life back,” explains Perkins, “and then you have the very safe people who don’t want to risk being exposed to the virus.” Both of these groups, he says, are starting to overlap as restrictions ease. Of course, it isn’t possible to make everyone feel completely comfortable the whole time, but it is crucial to consider both mind sets when adapting food and beverage offerings.

For Perkins, the hardest task is figuring out how to retain the sociable atmosphere and buzz guests expect when they walk into a bar or restaurant, while keeping them safe. “Hospitality is all about the warmth, the welcome, the fond farewell,” he says. “If that’s taken away and service becomes robotic, you may as well stay at home.” This is especially difficult in Ennismore’s smaller, more intimate venues where around 40% of covers have been lost.

To counter this, Perkins and his colleagues have been considering ways to personalise the service at their venues. It has been no easy task, especially as each space is completely different. “It’s literally a case of sitting in every seat, trying to order everything from the menu and saying ‘what does this step of service look like? How many times do we have to touch a table?’” he explains. “We’re trying to eliminate interaction while keeping a level of personalisation, which, of course, are two very contrary ideas.” Nevertheless, after a “clunky” start in July and August 2020, the kinks have been ironed out and Perkins is confident that his team has managed to achieve the right balance going forward.

A break with tradition

Over in Dubai, Emma Banks – Hilton’s vice-president for food and beverage strategy across Europe, the Middle East and Africa – has welcomed the opportunity that Covid-19 has presented for businesses to stand out. She has been examining varying guest attitudes towards the virus, figuring out how to adapt hotel offerings accordingly. Ultimately, she says, it is important to respect the fact that some guests still do not feel comfortable returning to hospitality venues. A top priority for Hilton has been ramping up already stringent hygiene and cleanliness protocols, and putting physical distancing measures in place.

Banks is proud of the way the industry has come together to support those most in need. “Here in Dubai, we were delighted to contribute to the ten million meals campaign, helping to cook and distribute meals during Ramadan to help those who were really suffering,” she says. Meanwhile, in the UK, Hilton gave support to Open Kitchens – a non-profit social enterprise set up to provide meals for those struggling to access regular food – by opening up several of its kitchens to accept deliveries of up to 10t of surplus food per week, which, in turn, helped the initiative to provide an extra 50,000 free meals a month.

“We’re employing a start-up mentality where we have X budget and if we’re not making a bottom line on a week to week basis, we scrap it and think of something new.”
Lance Perkins, Ennismore

The Waldorf Astoria, where Banks works, is situated within a block of elegant apartments next to a private beach. Initially, Banks and her colleagues focused their efforts on making the in-room dining options as appealing as possible for more cautious guests choosing to opt for room service. She concedes that the luxury five-star hotel’s signature restaurant was not the type of establishment to have a delivery service in the past, however, during lockdown this changed. “We started quite a bespoke, curated offering of food delivery and home kits to the residences,” she says. “Some of our properties have started to look at delivery outside of the hotels, but it’s a hugely competitive space.”


Deliveries of surplus food to Hilton’s kitchen per week as part of the Open Kitchens initiative.


This is an area Perkins is keen to infiltrate. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has been exploring dark kitchen opportunities across Ennismore’s food and beverage portfolio. “We’ve started operating some of our independent restaurants in the kitchen spaces and have created a couple of new brands,” he explains. “That started in June, when we could only do takeaway and delivery, and now they’re an integral part of our offering.”

“We started quite a bespoke, curated offering of food delivery and home kits to the residences. Some of our properties have started to look at delivery outside of the hotels, but it’s a hugely competitive space.”
Emma Banks, Hilton

The Hoxton in Southwark, UK, is currently operating four new dark kitchen concepts, with deliveries running seven days a week. Integral to this is the growing use of technology, which, Perkins says, is “filling the gap where labour can’t anymore”.

Outdoor spaces, which have always been premium for dining and entertainment, have become even more so as a result of Covid-19. Over the summer, Ennismore’s rooftop Seabird restaurant performed better than when it launched in October 2019, because of its large al fresco terrace. Elsewhere at The Hoxton, benches have been added to existing outdoor spaces to give guests more dining options. As the weather gets colder, though, and these areas become less attractive, Perkins is concerned about the impact this will have on the company’s already limited restaurant and bar capacity.

Due to the continued uncertainty, he is reluctant to make any long-term “bricks and mortar” design changes. Instead, he says, “we’ll put in changes we can flex with, because we don’t know if we’re going to hear tomorrow morning that the guidelines are different.”

Banks has also been working with her team to utilise outdoor spaces as much as possible, and Hilton has been hosting a range of pop-ups and open-air entertainment at its hotels in Prague and Warsaw. Like Perkins, she is wary of making permanent changes, however, she believes design, music and lighting are more important than ever for ensuring venues don’t feel void of atmosphere. After all, she says, “you can’t just go and rip the heart out of a restaurant, put a load of sticky tape up and expect that people will still want to go there.”

In terms of menu design, offerings are becoming smaller and simpler, putting quality above quantity. Buffets, at least for the time being, are being removed entirely or modified to operate through assisted service. Banks is excited about the opportunity this has brought to explore innovative new ways of serving food. “I think there will be more individual curated safe portions,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be ugly, there’s really beautiful bento boxes and little cast iron cassoulet pots.” Hilton has been embracing the trend towards healthy eating, which is likely to accelerate post-Covid-19. All the same, says Banks, some guests will still be out for an indulgent treat and it’s crucial the menu caters for them too.


London hotel occupancy rates of Ennismore in July 2020, which usually sit at around 95%.


New horizons

Having worked incredibly hard for several months to adapt operations, Banks – although very much aware the recovery period is ongoing – is now finally in a position to start looking towards the future. Her goal? To make Hilton food and beverage best in class. “I know people often think we can’t compete with the cool cats,” she says, “but I’m trying to convince my team that we really can, so the sooner I can get out there and do it, the better.”

As for Perkins, his aim for 2020 is simply to break even and keep as many people employed as possible. His teams innovative work modifying operations has paid off and business is operating at double what they had expected for this time of year post Covid-19.

As a result, Ennismore is currently in the process of rehiring staff. Inevitably, it is still difficult to predict how the long-term facets of the dining experience may change as a result of the pandemic, but at least Covid-19 has enabled hoteliers to focus back on the essentials and cut away a lot of unnecessary layers of service, streamlining the guest dining experience.

For now, at least, Perkins sounds cautiously optimistic: “I’ve accepted now that we can do this, we can actually pay our bills, so I think, yes – touch wood – we’re moving in the right direction.”