As the last of the summer sun leaves the terraces of your business, you’d be forgiven if your thoughts had not yet shifted onto planning for the festive season. But if the first part of our Christmas Planning special featurehasn’t already kicked you into gear, perhaps doing something a bit different this year will remove the monotony of those traditional Christmas events for you, your staff and – more crucially – your customers.
Whether it’s a large corporate party booking, a table of relatives reminding themselves of all the reasons they’re not together for the rest of the year, or a couple looking for a romantic Christmas break, consumers will always be looking for a rewarding and memorable festive experience and the winners will be those that can offer something unique to stand out from the crowd.
So says Caroline Capel, director of retail and shopper insight at food and drink research agency MMR Research Worldwide. “Due to the competitive nature of the hospitality industry, it’s my prediction that the hospitality business will need to be even more inventive to attract customers’ share of stomach’ and wallets this Christmas,” says Capel.
“Themed events are becoming really popular; Christmas-themed and seasonal cookery events, for example also include tastings alongside quality meals, and hotels can combine use of spa facilities with golf days to make visits altogether more of a rounded experience.”
One such restaurant offering Christmas cookery classes this year is the Cookbook Café at InterContinental London Hyde Park. Executive chef Paul Bates and his team will be hosting a series of Christmas masterclasses, allowing customers to prepare a ‘bird within a bird’ or an alternative chocolate log, before enjoying the fruits of their labour.
As Bates explains: “A lot of diners nowadays are really interested in food, so we thought it would be a good idea to do something for Christmas in the form of the masterclasses. We did it with a corporate event and it seemed to work very well, so we thought it would be a good idea to do it for the public.
“The enquiries are already starting to come in and we’ve had a few bookings. Christmas dinners and parties are heading a different direction to a few years back, when a lot of customers were just interested in going out and getting drunk!
“If you’re a restaurant, particularly within a hotel, and particularly in an area as busy as central London, then you have to do something a bit different if you want to stand out. It can be bloody hard work but its good fun and for your staff it relieves the tedium of everyday work.”
In this tight financial climate, Christmas is not the gift it once used to be for hospitality businesses. Prior to the recession, restaurants could routinely expect to do 20-30 per cent of their annual business in December and, year-on-year, hotel prices rocketed. But now, even in London, the situation is very different; prices are static and the era of lavish corporate spending is over.
But many businesses are already on the case, following up last year’s bookings and adding a point of difference in what is an ever-intensifying market. One way of doing this is by running themed Christmas packages and events.
“Providing themes that allow for an unusual Christmas event adds to the attraction of an event space, and can certainly maximise profits,” says Sarah Ahmed, director of sales and marketing at Lancaster London – the hotel is offering four distinct themes this Christmas; ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Las Vegas’, ‘Venetian Ball’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
“The variety of themes we have allows guests to choose something more traditional, such as the Winter Wonderland package (which sees an event space decked out with snow, frosted trees, reindeer and polar bear statues), or something a little different like Alice in Wonderland package (which takes guests into a magical setting, complete with oversized playing cards, pink flamingos, giant mushroom statues and the famous ‘Drink Me’ bottle).
“Providing themes that allow for an unusual Christmas event adds to the attraction of an event space and can certainly maximise profits. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life, and clients are always looking to create a spectacular and unforgettable event,” adds Ahmed. “A hotel really needs to continue evolving if it wants to remain in the forefront of the public’s mind.”
And it’s not just properties in the capital that are seeking to impress with lavishly quirky events. The Rendezvous Hotel in Skipton, North Yorkshire, is this year taking this a step further, running a nautical theme with the hotel transformed into a cruise ship; staff dressed up in sailor uniforms and a professional cruise entertainment company on-board to help run a variety of events.
“We’ve been doing party nights for donkey’s years and we just thought we’d do something a little bit different this Christmas,” explains Karen Weaving, the hotel’s owner, who came up with the idea. “Whatever they do on a cruise, we’ll be doing it in the hotel. There will be a full cabaret, spa days and quizzes.
“We’ve made our party nights a lot cheaper this year to compensate with people feeling a bit hard up. Between Christmas and New Year we’ve only got about 15 rooms left, which is pretty good going for the middle of September. It’s caught people’s attention. I think people want a change, people are short of money these days and they want value for money.”
Word of warning...
There are, however, a number of things to consider before deciding upon a themed event at your business. As Brill Prout, executive chef at Alton Towers Resort, warns: “When people are going to a hotel or restaurant for Christmas, you have to offer them a complete package. So for Christmas parties, the food quality must remain consistent and not be overlooked.
“For parties, customers would want the meal service done and dusted within an hour and a half because they wouldn’t want it to eat into the rest of the evening’s entertainment, so efficiency is key. On the flip side, if there are guests just coming for the dining experience then you need to make sure you're still offering a complete experience and make sure the food and drink you’re offering is memorable.”
The two hotels, restaurants and conference centre at Alton Towers Resort are this year running festive party nights for corporate events under a variety of themes ranging from the traditional through to Caribbean party nights and an ‘enchanted forest’ setting.
“You have to do things like this nowadays,” adds Prout. “More people are looking to go and be entertained as opposed to just standing on a dance floor with flashing lights.”
Whether deciding upon a unique party theme, quirky design ideas or alternative festive menus, another thing to always remember is your brand identity. As Capel from MMR Research adds: “Christmas is an especially busy time where it is important to attract new business, but not at the expense of alienating existing customers.
“You need to be careful to consider how consumers view your brand in every marketing decision; it's good to create a different experience, as long as it doesn't become too far removed from your brand equities.”
The full package
One such business that is managing to give itself a point of difference this Christmas in terms of the food, décor and theming - without compromising on its core brand values - is Kenza Restaurant & Late Night Lounge in London’s Devonshire Square.
The Middle Eastern concept is offering a choice of seven Christmas menus ranging from a selection of hot and cold starters, sharing platters and individual courses. It’s also decked out with the theme of ‘a night out in Marrakesh’, with live entertainment available every night through the festive period including belly dancers, fire eaters, snake charmers and resident DJs.
“With the whole experience here at Kenza, we’re very traditional and in-keeping with the Middle Eastern tradition,” says Elana Loudiyi – sales, events and marketing manager at Levant Group, which runs Kenza restaurant.
“Lebanese food lends itself very well to Christmas, we’ve got lots of chicken and lamb dishes on the menu which allows us to do something a bit different and give our own take on Christmas dinners.
“For Christmas parties, today’s venue organiser will likely want to look for something which is very unique, and the food is also paramount – that’s what people remember when they walk away from the party.”
“One other point to note is that doing something a bit different for the festive season doesn’t necessarily carry a huge price tag - I think a few smaller entertainment offerings can really add to a customer’s evening.”
Quirky Christmas - Five festive tips
- Capel of MMR Research said: "Use social media channels around special Christmas events or promotions beforehand to warm up anticipation and afterwards to reinforce the experience.
- "Don’t forget the basics – service remains paramount to sales, in every consumer environment.
- "Be consistent - Ensure your theme encompasses all elements of your customers’ visit and make sure all communication points are of the same Christmas theme and that staff are clear on the message that needs to be portrayed.
- "Know what your customers want - take time to survey what current customers like and dislike about the business before embarking on something too new."
- Ahmed from Lancaster London added: "Offer a balance – between the unusual and the traditional. For every client that seeks to impress with a lavishly quirky event, there are those that favour an elegant and traditional theme that is bound to please every time."