If you're looking for an example of what makes Omni Hotels & Resorts' commitment to food and beverage education so special, start with the company's annual food & beverage trips for managers and chefs. Last year, 46 of them went to Italy. Next month, 31 of them are going to Chile. And New Zealand is on the calendar for 2005.
During these trips, which last from a week to ten days, Omni personnel explore different regions of the country, visiting wineries and food manufacturers and learning about its distinctive foods, drinks and traditions.
"This is not a vacation or a tour, although traveling is always fun," says Fernando Salazar, corporate food & beverage director for Omni. "This is food and beverage education."
During last year's trip to Italy, for example, the group learned in particular about Chianti wines, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, proscuitto and balsamic vinegar.
This year, in Chile, the group will be visiting wineries in a number of the country's wine-producing regions and will then head south to the country's salmon region. Also on the schedule are visits to olive oil makers, a smoked salmon firm and a pisco distiller.
"We are absolutely committed to training," says Salazar of Omni, winner of the 2004 Cheers Best Hotel Beverage Program Award. "It is the only way that a server is going to feel comfortable suggesting beverages to customers. If you don't know how to sell it, what it is, how to pronounce it, you're going to shy away. You're going to immediately offer the iced tea instead of suggesting a sauvignon blanc to go with that chicken."
Omni, headquartered in Irving, TX, near Dallas, is comprised of 35 luxury hotels and resorts located in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The newest resort is still under construction in Orlando, FL.
GOING ALL OUT
Salazar is particularly excited to introduce his staff to the wonders of pisco. This spirit, a distillate of grapes somewhat similar to Italy's grappa, is the eponymous ingredient in the Pisco Sour cocktail. Already gaining in popularity in Los Angeles and New York, the Pisco Sour, Salazar predicts, will be "as popular in the next few months as the Mojito is now." Unfortunately, however, not all of the Omni properties are going to be able to obtain pisco in their markets.
Once back, the Omni chefs and food & beverage managers will launch a special three-month promotion, "The Luscious Flavors of Chile," company-wide. The promotion runs from December 1, 2004 through February 28, 2005, in part to coincide with the growing season for Chilean fruits Omni plans to feature.
The chef at each Omni hotel will use what he or she has learned to craft a special menu to be featured throughout its restaurants, bars, room service and catering venues. These menus will be paired with Chilean wines.
The opportunity to offer Omni guests, many of whom are repeaters, something new and exciting is, of course, a benefit.
But so is the impact on the managers and chefs themselves, says Salazar. "People come back so motivated, so knowledgeable, so excited," he said. "It creates loyalty. It's easier to spend the money this way than to spend it on turnover and recruiting."
ANNUAL TASTING CONFERENCE
In addition to the annual trips, Omni also sends its food & beverage managers and chefs to annual conferences, held at one of its own properties. Salazar uses these conferences as vast tasting panels. At the last such conference, held on July 24, attendees tasted a total of 192 wines from 34 wineries.
During one particular blind tasting, the food & beverage managers tasted wines, sent in an open submission, from 20 different wineries. Each manager filled out a ballot, ranking their favorites in each varietal. The results are being tallied at headquarters and will be used to help determine the company's core wine list.
Chefs and managers aren't the only recipients of fun and motivational training. In October, Omni will run a conference for its sous chefs and assistant food & beverage directors, sending them to the Omni Hotel at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a four-day immersion course in food and beverages.
"They work hard--food & beverage people," says Salazar. "I know, having been in the trenches myself. I think, if you have an opportunity to make it more fun, you need to do it."
Omni also keeps its employees in the know with daily "training capsules." "A training capsule is presented at every pre-shift meeting at every restaurant at every property," says Salazar. For example, a restaurant might devote a week of training capsules to two or three new wines: tasting them, talking about them, comparing and contrasting them.
Salazar does use the presentations provided by wine, beer and spirit companies. "But I want it to be training, not a commercial," he says, "and I do check up. I will call or email our managers after a presentation and ask how it was. If the manager says it was lame, I will call the supplier and tell them I want them to do it again, with a different person."
At one point, before Salazar became the corporate food & beverage director two years ago, each Omni property ran its own beverage program. "My primary goal has been to make sure that all our guests--many of whom are repeat guests, through our Select Guest program--get the same high-level quality whenever they stay with Omni," says Salazar.
A new company-wide drink menu was just launched on September 1. Meanwhile, Salazar is working on the company's core wine list, to be carried at all properties. The next project: a required core selection of wines-by-the-glass.
Omni has harnessed technology to help ensure that the employee training that supports these new programs is uniform. Every four months, 10 to 12 Omni properties will tune into a web-based video conference. At each property, a moderator will lead that hotel's session, but the material being covered will be supplied by headquarters and will be the same for each property.
"The computer screen might show directions like. 'Taste the sauvignon blanc, then follow with a squirt of lemon on an apple,'" explains Salazar. "Then the people at each hotel will have a discussion, and the next screen might explain why it tasted the way it did."
NEW MENU INVESTMENT
In September, Omni launched its company-wide drink menu. It was six months in the making. The menu's photography and design alone cost $48,000. "This is our core list for spirits and beers, ports and sherries--the best selection we could assemble," says Salazar. "Why spend so much money? It's worth it. These are the very best products. We need a piece presenting them in the very best way."
The menu is comprised of several sections. There is a two-page Martini section. A "Favorites" page showcases classic cocktails such as the Manhattan, Rob Roy, and Old-Fashioned. The "Party Drinks" section lists Margaritas. Daiquiris and Pina Coladas, followed by a page devoted to selections of nine "sipping" tequilas. Another page showcases 10 rums. The "Platinum Series" page lists the company's 13 vodka brands and three gin brands. A "Classic Spirits" page is devoted to cognacs, single malt Scotches, single-barrel bourbons and Irish whiskeys and, followed by a page devoted to after-dinner drinks, especially ports and sherries.
"I love after-dinner drinks," says Salazar, "especially ports and sherries. And sherries, in particular, are vastly under-appreciated in America. I want to expose our guests to them."
But producing the drink menu itself is only part of the project. Each property will also receive full-color recipe books, which include photography, measurements and methods of preparation for each drink.
"Each bartender is going to practice and practice making every drink in classes," says Salazar, "so that they can easily make every single one."
E PLURIBUS OMNI
Each property will also determine the prices for the drinks on the menu, entering their particular costs on a calculation sheet for each drink recipe, sent from headquarters. "What we don't want is to offer a $12 Martini--which would be okay in L.A. or New York--in Charlotte, North Carolina, where there would be some sticker shock," explains Salazar.
Each property will use the inside front cover to list its wines-by-the-glass and use the inside back cover for its own promotions or perhaps for an appetizer menu. Even this has been thought through. "They send their text to us [at headquarters] and we format it, using the same colors and typeface as the rest of the menu so there is no discrepancy," says Salazar.