Before the Covid-19 pandemic, winter signalled a cosy turn indoors: trips to pubs with roaring fires, roast dinners in candlelit restaurants or cups of hot chocolate in snug cafes. But the virus changed all of that. More than three years after the first case of Covid-19, pubs, restaurants and cafes may appear to resemble the old normal, but many people remain wary of crowded indoor spaces. As the cold weather settles in, one important question arises: how has the hospitality sector adapted, long-term, to a post-Covid climate?

It is a question that weighs especially heavy on hotels, who have had to countenance the additional factor of the return of travel. “Looking back, especially between March and April 2020,” says Tom Walters, senior vice-president of food & beverage operations at Hilton Americas, “customer, hotel and restaurant needs changed suddenly and dramatically. Our hotels – along with the food and beverage venues – needed to find ways to drive revenue while much of the world was locked down.

“As a company largely made up of thousands of small businesses,” Walters continues, “we knew we needed to listen to our general managers, executive chefs and team members, and quickly innovate to evolve with the changing needs of guests.” So, in June 2020, Hilton developed Hilton CleanStay, an “industry-leading programme” that was “designed to deliver elevated standards of cleanliness throughout the entirety of [a guest’s] stay”.

As well as prioritising cleanliness protocols for guest rooms and event spaces, the Hilton CleanStay programme also introduced innovative solutions within food and beverage. “During breakfast, restaurants offered a range of options, including grab & go, pre-plated covered items, à la carte and assisted service,” Walters explains. “When ordering room service, where provided, guests could experience contactless delivery.” Over the following months, the programme expanded to include “physically-distant event sets and unique solutions to areas like buffets as well as sit-down services”.

As restrictions lifted and travel began to return to a more familiar pace, the provision of outdoor dining spaces became a property across the Hilton chain. “Throughout the pandemic,” Walters says, “hotels maximised their outdoor spaces, showcasing outdoor dining and event areas if they had existing venues or, in some instances, creatively reimagining available outdoor space.” In a number of venues, Walters explains, an “increased focus on experiential travel” has led the development of “outdoor food and beverage experiences at individual properties with offerings like ‘Table to Tide’ at The Reach Resort Key West – Curio Collection by Hilton, which allows guests to enjoy meticulous service and white-tablecloth dining on Key West’s only private, natural sand beach”.

“Throughout the pandemic, hotels maximised their outdoor spaces, showcasing outdoor dining and event areas if they had existing venues or, in some instances, creatively reimagining available outdoor space.”

Left out in the cold

Outdoor space has been essential for the success of a number of venues – but it is by no means a one-size-fits- all solution. “As travel, dining and events returned,” Walters says, “hotels with outdoor dining options or event venues, especially in warm-weather locations, fared better and recovered more quickly than others.” For venues in colder climates, or without the capacity to create new outdoor seating, Hilton had to think laterally to develop alternative solutions.

Walters offers the example of the Sakura Club at Conrad Washington DC, which reinvented the way guests can access food and beverages with the introduction of a 24/7 Magic Fridge. “[The] 24/7 Magic Fridge concept… provide[s] those needing a pick-me-up snack a way to satisfy their appetite without having to wait to be served. The concept includes a cabinet featuring half refrigerator, half freezer, offering up a buffet of sweet treats, beverages and other options ideal for snacking.”

The uptake of innovative technologies like these has been essential to the survival of hotel bars and restaurants since the pandemic and has, in turn, brought about a change to the way that menus are imagined. “We shifted the way we present room service menus in the guest rooms from paper copies to QR codes on the TV screens, which allows us to update our menus daily and implement a sense of seasonality that wouldn’t come with a static printed room service menu,” Walters explains. “This seasonality also addresses the rising interest in locally-sourced food and healthier menu options, creating a win-win scenario for our guests, with 32% reporting that they will prioritise locally-sourced food and beverage products in 2023.”

This growing interest in locally sourced food is matched by the rise of a new traveller, who increasingly prioritises both sustainability and wellness. Accordingly, “these menu changes also factor in travellers’ growing focus on wellness,” Walters explains, “as more than two in five travellers will be looking for healthier options to eat and drink as they travel next year. Looking to 2023, we know that travellers’ food and drink preferences will continue to change with the times. We are prepared to manage this by staying true to our customer promise of being reliable and friendly, and curating our menus and experiences to accommodate and meet our guests ‘needs’.”

Kicking back, giving back

If the pandemic made people wary about busy public spaces, it also prompted many to reassess their personal values and these changing mores have also been a key aspect of Hilton’s roadmap out of the pandemic. According to their global trends report, 36% of travellers will be looking to learn about local cultures or give back to the community during their 2023 travels. As a result, Walters says, Hilton is committed to “driv[ing] responsible global tourism and support[ing] the local communities we operate in through sourcing sustainable and local ingredients across our global portfolio”. At the Rooftop bar of the Conrad in Washington DC, the chefs even “cook select menu items in a solar oven, and the property’s cocktails feature garnishes that have been harvested from the rooftop garden, which is irrigated through a sustainable rain capture system”.

Walters also notes the rise of the so-called “bleisure” traveller, who, in the post-Covid world, is increasingly keen to combine business trips with leisure. “According to [the global trends report], 85% of business travellers expect to travel as much or more next year, and we’ve seen that the purpose of their trips increasingly blend elements of business and leisure. We anticipate comfort and personalisation will continue to play a significant role in where guests choose to stay and, as a result, have evolved our on-property experiences and packages to meet this demand.

“For instance,” Walters continues, “at Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino, travellers can make the most of the property’s Power Palapas, which are outfitted with everything remote guests need to stay connected on vacation, ranging from charging stations to laptop cooling pads and power bowls with hydrating aloe juice or coconut water.

“We have seen groups gravitate toward all-inclusive resorts in appealing destinations, like Hilton Tulum Riviera Maya All-inclusive Resort, that provide a variety of dining experiences and menus, featuring flavours from Mexico, Asia, Italy and beyond, while also enjoying maximised downtime to interact with other guests and attendees,” Walter notes.

Covid connoisseurs

But the pandemic, as Walters points out, has had an even more fundamental impact on the way that people consume food and drink. “During the pandemic, people became culinary connoisseurs from the comfort of their own kitchens, dabbling in virtual wine tastings and culinary classes. Virtual and self-taught tastings and cooking experiences proved to be an important outlet for relieving stress and building connections. As people returned to travel, we found success in offering hands-on culinary experiences to our guests across our global portfolio.”

This is one trend that Hilton believes is here to stay. “We anticipate that people next year will be seeking out culinary experiences when planning future travel and will prioritise creating deeper connections with the world around them. To answer this demand, we recently revamped our Hilton Honors Experiences to offer travellers unique experiences that allow them to immerse themselves in the local culture and create deeper connections with those they are travelling with and the destination they are visiting.”

For hotels around the world, the journey out of the pandemic has been long and full of challenges, but Hilton have grasped an important truth: that there is no magic bullet for the hotel sector. “Restaurants across the Hilton portfolio were severely impacted at the beginning of the pandemic,” Walter admits, “and each individual hotel had to introduce solutions that made the most sense for them based on not only local guidelines, but also their guest ‘needs’. In other words, hotels need to do more than simply expand their outdoor spaces – as Hilton has realised, real and lasting change comes from embedding a range of innovative solutions.

“There is no doubt that the pandemic was a difficult time for the hospitality industry,” reflects Walters, “but it also proved to us, and the world, that travel is truly an unstoppable force. From the perspective of our food and beverage venues, the pandemic stripped out any noise and distraction from the business. While trying, the events of 2020 provided us with an opportunity to re-evaluate the priorities of our restaurants and strengthen them to best serve the needs of our guests and owners.”

There may still be work to do – and there’s no doubt that the colder months will continue to present challenges across the hotel sector – but Hilton remains confident. “We are stepping into next year optimistically,” Walters says, “and our dedication to fill the world with the light and warmth of hospitality will guide our efforts in and beyond 2023.”