Taylor Swift has her squad. Vinnie Chase had his entourage. Whether it’s just a bunch of friends, book clubs or a local fiber arts guild, guests are showing increasing preference to mix memberships and dining. Especially for parenting circles, non-profit heads and social networking groups for whom free time is a premium, convening over a meal knocks out dinner and meeting in one fell swoop. And who wouldn’t prefer to discuss the new PTA president or show off the latest alpaca yarn over a hot cup of French onion gratinée and a crisp glass of rosé?
The Algonquin Hotel has been riding the group wave since the roaring 20s from the founding of Algonquin Round Table collective of New York City writers, critics, and actors. The famed troop dubbed “The Vicious Circle” met for lunch over the course of 10 years. That’s a lot of salads, soups, sandwiches, and gratuity.
In this social sharing age, contemporary hospitality leaders have learned the value of welcoming formal ensembles with open arms. And because most of the groups meet on a standing date every week or month, restaurant staff can count on that ongoing revenue. Employing tools like OpenTable’s data-driven technology and the virtuosity of customized service, the following masters share how they attract and keep regular groups coming back.
In what can only be dubbed the capital of fun when it comes to dining out, KINGS Dining & Entertainment has figured out the secret group weapon: give them something to do. Doug Waner, vice president of marketing for KINGS, and his team are responsible for creating this mini-amusement park for grown-ups. With nearly a dozen locations on OpenTable, they use data to track and engage repeat group business and follow up later on.
Waner loves surprising guests with KINGS’ culinary program, showcasing cuisine that more than stands on its own with everything made from scratch in each KINGS’ kitchen, where nothing is frozen but the ice cream. “Among the guest favorites is our buffalo wontons and they are so, so good — handmade every day from chicken pulled off the bone — and our pizza, made in-house with premium ingredients,” said Waner, who started his hospitality career in bartending and stresses the importance of cocktails and beer when planning for group business. “In our Draft Room restaurant, it’s a gastropub feel where we have thirty to forty beers on draft and we have turned back the clock to classic cocktails, plus we offer shareable cocktails by the pitcher.”
Waner’s biggest advice for managers to capitalize on repeat group business revolves around staffing the same groups who reserve standing dates. “Schedule your staff consistently because this will allow each server to build a connection with the groups,” said Waner. “Our venues are socially oriented in the first place, so when guests book dinner reservations on OpenTable, we offer a dine-and-bowl option for them to get bumped to the top for a lane.”
With so many restaurants for guests to choose from, Waner and his team found that food and bowling weren’t enough. Depending on the KINGS venue location, guests could find a live music room, retro video game arcade, or a movie theater. “We are marketing-focused, so we can’t just sit on our hands, and while most restaurants don’t have bowling lanes, which is a big benefit, we want all of our guests to have more reasons to gather at KINGS,” Waner said. “So one of our biggest draws with young social clubs is trivia, which challenges their knowledge, is not too competitive, and we have a huge following of weeknight warriors.”
Hector Diaz and the staff at the utterly chic Le Zoo in Bal Harbour Shops in the Miami suburbs have elevated group service to an art form. In what can only be described as the Beverly Hills of the East Coast, the crowds who arrive every day to shop and eat at the vibrant Le Zoo are as discerning as it gets. For Diaz, it’s all about building a rapport with each group depending on their preferences and the reason for gathering together.
“We are very hospitable to groups and have a large local following which we build a history around – for example, one group brings their toy dogs to sit outside and we include their dogs’ names in our OpenTable notes,” said Diaz, who, along with his staff, greets both the pooches and patrons by name. “The amazing culinary team led by chef Julian Baker is what brings the guests back, and we know that, so we also include the certain dishes they like, where guests prefer to sit, and how they like their food prepared.”
This attention to detail helps define a dining group’s identity and fuels their interest in coming back. Before long, Le Zoo becomes their recurrent meeting place. Bal Harbour Shops employee groups also patronize Le Zoo on a regular basis, meeting there after work for drinks and oysters. Earning one guest’s loyalty can also result in ongoing group business. One of Diaz’s guests celebrates everything and hosts all of her lunches, birthday parties, and everything else at Le Zoo. Welcoming groups does require a little handholding and outreach, but the returns are well worth it.
“In Miami, the market is so diverse so to attract different groups, you need different strategies and one of ours is to work on a special menu for a group so they know they are getting value for it,” he said. “Part of the Starr Restaurants’ culture is having enough managers on the floor to identify any problems and turn them around before anyone leaves the restaurant.”
For Metro-North Railroad commuters, the NY Central Bar in the Hyatt Hotel adjacent to Grand Central Terminal is the place to beat. According to marketing manager Hanna Bankston, monthly ticketholders currently enjoy a whopping 50 percent discount on some of the NY Central’s specialty cocktails. NY Central is the recipient of multiple awards for its outstanding wine program, something that draws oenophile groups back to sample new additions to the wine list. Marketing, food, and beverage teams have honed their regular group prowess on conference groups who occupy the hotel every day.
“Between corporate accounts, finance, technology, insurance, and pharmaceuticals, we see a regular influx of groups between meeting sessions, and after each day’s agenda concludes,” said Bankston. “Our weekend brunch is always a favorite for groups combining business with pleasure being that both the bar and restaurant are suspended over 42nd Street.” That NY Central has one of the city’s best Lobster Benedicts is also a draw for brunching clubs who congregate throughout the city once a week.
NY Central rewards patrons who share on site with the hotel hashtag #LivingGrandNYC by instantly publishing their engagement live on multiple screens throughout the bar and lounge. Then they receive a comment back from the hotel featuring the season’s specials. Diners who book NY Central reservations through OpenTable also get in on the action for wine dinners, dining specials, and new menu alerts. Bankston says enticing groups to return is also about timing. NY Central welcomes repeat group patrons who return annually for themed specials and events based on local events and national holidays.
Photo credit: Heinrich Holtgreve (hero image).