November 2009

Starwood: Our Hotelier of the Year 2009

By: Lana Bortolot
In difficult market conditions and with the challenge of creating a program that must encompass multiple concepts, Starwood Hotels has made it possible for all of its brands, across all markets, to be successful.

With properties ranging from Four Points by Sheraton hotels to the luxury St. Regis destinations and every tier in-between, Starwood deserves this important new award─THE TASTING PANEL’S first-ever Hotelier of the Year─in recognition for innovation in all its F&B directives.

The Starwood food and beverage management, under the direction of Brian Abel and Michiel Bakker, has the vision and ability to draw upon personal experience—and, most importantly, to draw upon the expertise of their team—to identify customer needs while enhancing relationships with their purveyors and partners.

 
     Brian Abel. PHOTO: LANA BORTOLOT
 
     Michiel Bakker. PHOTO: ERIK S. LESSER


In their collective 19 years with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, F&B directors Michiel Bakker and Brian Abel have evolved from a single-brand focus—each started his career at Westin—to a multi-faceted leadership over one of the world’s largest hospitality and leisure companies.

Both with extensive hotel backgrounds, the two have merged their talents and experiences to lead Starwood’s F&B team though times in which lifestyle consumers have become more sophisticated and demanding. Their combination of creative product choices and skilled financial management has helped keep the company—now nine brands strong—competitive and distinctive.

More attention to global food trends, less emphasis on trendy drinks and a dedication to staff and customer education are but just some of the ways in which Bakker and Abel will continue to drive the Starwood brand. Each has a distinct role in the corporation. Atlanta-based Bakker travels five days a week, meeting with key decision makers, from chefs and beverage directors to hotel owners and developers, reviewing products and presentations that best suit each market, while at the same time making sure Starwood stays ahead of the curve and within the margins. His philosophy? Less is definitely more.

“It’s more about having a smaller variety of quality products and not so much about having 100 different spirits on your bar to be successful,” says Bakker. “It’s not about pushing products through the distribution channel, but about finding strategic placements."

Both Abel and Bakker pay close attention to trends such as the farm-to-table movement, and each predicts that customers will seek the kind of personal food experience in a big brand such as W that they have in their local fine dining. Based at the corporate headquarters in White Plains, NY, it’s part of Abel’s job to be apprised of such trends, make them work financially for the corporation and make sure customers receive the value-to-quality ratio they expect.

 

“It all goes back to the consumers’ knowledge, and not substituting price for quality,” says Abel. “Obviously it’s different for the different brands. But, across the division, I think the customer is much more knowledgeable about food and beverage and sophisticated about cost, and that keeps growing."

Promoting upscale goods and services during a global recession has not been an easy task, but Bakker and Abel have succeeded by revamping the F&B programs to focus on experiences with more meaning to customers, such as wine portfolios that emphasize approachability over pretension, and training staff to be knowledgeable about wine and food pairings. And, while the cocktail—a mainstay of W Hotel bars—will never go away, there will be a shift, says Abel.

“I think wine consumption will continue to grow and spirit consumption might go down. The trend with ‘frou-frou’ cocktails will move more to specific high-quality spirits and created by mixologists,” he says.

Bakker agrees. “Cocktails will be more about the holistic experience and integrated personal expression. As a company, we’re seeing that people are much better in defining the type of experience they’re looking for. So it’s not longer ‘everything goes’; now they say, “I want this because of my personality . . . I want a food and beverage experience that stands for who I am.’ ”

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