Prism Hotels’ Lori Crowley on designing a sensory experience

F&B director of Prism Hotels in conversation with hT

F&B is hotter than ever. Hotel guests are expecting more in that department, and hoteliers are paying attention. On the scene is Lori Crowley, blazing a trail as the new—actually, the first ever— corporate director of food and beverage for Prism Hotels and Resorts. As the company has added several full service hotels to their (previously select service focused) portfolio, there was a need to provide F&B support to the properties at the corporate level.

“Our leadership team recognized the need for someone to head up the food and beverage division,” Crowley says. “And because it is a new position, the exciting thing is that I’m getting to develop programs based on the needs of our owners.”

Crab Tower Hilton in Tucson

Crab Tower, Epazote Kitchen, El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson.

Crowley has been in the hotel business her entire adult life. “It’s the only thing that I’ve ever known,” she says. She worked in casino hotels in Atlantic City for 10 years before being recruited to work for Hyatt Hotels in Hawaii. She stayed with Hyatt through positions in at least eight cities, including serving as corporate food and beverage director in Chicago, before being transferred to Los Angeles to do renovations at the Century Plaza Hotel. From there she was picked up by Prism Hotels as their corporate director. “It’s exactly what I wanted,” she says, “because it’s a smaller company, and a generational company. I wanted to be in an environment where I could have a direct effect on the future success of the company.”

Prism Hotels and Resorts has 27 properties, with several in the pipeline. “It’s a very entrepreneurial environment,” Crowley says of her new company. “You can directly affect every single hotel and be personally involved. Every opinion is welcomed and together we’re developing the future of Prism.”

Getting up to speed is critical in any newly-created position. In her first few months on the job, Crowley has been visiting the hotels, learning each brand’s specifications, reviewing financial

Ceviche Hilton in Tucson

Ceviche, Epazote Kitchen, El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson.

results, ensuring visual presentation and superior food quality, and reviewing purchasing processes.

“I have to see what are they doing, what are they serving, how are they selling, and what the staffing levels and training look like,” she says. “I’ve visited most hotels, and I have a good handle on what our priorities are in order to keep all of the outlets in the hotels on trend with what’s happening in food and beverage.”

To that end, in her own words, Crowley does “anything and everything.”

She offers support with business operations, of course, but she also concerns herself greatly with the guest experience. “That has to be memorable,” she says. “It has to be visual, exciting, and a little on trend, but it also has to be very close to the local community. We want an authentic geographical experience for the customer.”

Food and beverage can be profitable if managed correctly. The beverage side is where the real money is, and Crowley makes it clear that good wine by the glass, an expansive craft beer selection, excellent coffee, and serious cocktails are all must-haves. But people need food, and food brings pleasure. And hotel owners are paying close attention to what customers want in order to maximize the bottom-line benefits. According to Crowley, what the customer really wants is “something that’s comforting, local, and fresh.” Most hotel stays are not very long, but during the course of their stay, she says, “guests want to have a local experience where they can make themselves at home, put their feet up, have a drink, and get something to eat in the social environment they crave.”

Weddings at Hyatt Regency LAX in California.

As Prism Hotels is building—and taking over—larger hotels, one of the challenges is how to create a streamlined feeling of seamlessness within the entire guest experience. When it comes to food, Crowley says, “It’s no longer about guests just grabbing something to eat. They want to be visually stimulated and also smell delicious things from the kitchen.” It is her job to create an environment that invites an experience. “It’s ultra sensory, what we’re doing these days, in order to keep our customers at the hotel, and I seek a lot of inspiration. When I see something cool and new, my challenge is to figure out how to take some aspect of that and bring it to our hotels and make it work.”

Of course, this is not a onesize-fits-all sort of task. Some hotels have 140 rooms. The largest has 580. “Each one needs a different kind of inspiration,” she says.

A good example is El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson. Billed as “uniquely Southwest,” Crowley calls it “a magnificent resort.” With five food and beverage outlets, she explains, the chefs are what really drive home that local feeling. “Every restaurant is different,” she says, “but everything is made fresh and reflects what’s truly Southwestern in its origin.”

Indeed, for one of the restaurants, Epazote Kitchen, Chef Joshua Willett has his own organic salsa garden. “We have fresh basil, rosemary, lemon thyme, mint, coriander, tarragon, some chili peppers, and in season, tomatoes, poblano, jalapeño peppers, chives, habanero, and Anaheim peppers,” he says.

Epizote Kitchen El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson

Epizote Kitchen, El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson.

It’s no longer about guests just grabbing something to eat.

On the property they also grow oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, dates, and prickly pear fruit. “We use it all in recipes or as garnish,” says Executive Chef Jan Osipowicz.

If guests are interested, he will even take them out for a tour. “He’s very proud of what he’s done,” Crowley says, “as he should be. There are items in Tucson that are indigenous to the area, whether it’s prickly pear or habaneros, ingredients that the customer may not have an opportunity to see growing. So it is very interesting for the guest to be able to see the foods firsthand and then taste it when they come for dinner.”

Salsa garden El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson

Salsa garden, El Conquistador Hotel & Resort by Hilton in Tucson

It has to be visual, it has to be exciting and a little on trend, but it also has to be very close to the local ommunity.

Unity LA at Hyatt Regency LAX California1

Unity L.A. at Hyatt Regency LAX, California

The staff feels a connection to—and takes pride in—their home community, and those feelings of specialness are conveyed to the guests in a subtle but very real way. “It is an educational process, as well as stimulating in an emotional and sensory way. “I think the entire resort buys into the uniqueness that they have,” Crowley says, “and the customer goes home with a really fabulous memory of the experience.”

Unity A at Hyatt Regency LAX California

Unity L.A. at Hyatt Regency LAX, California

Another example is the Hyatt Regency LAX, an airport hotel and extremely busy 580-room property where the average guest spends just one night. Prism Hotels completed renovations about a year ago, and the challenge there is to keep the guests on property and make that one night a great experience. “We love the word ‘community,’” Crowley says, “and we strive to give the customer a cultural, community experience. Chef Charles Fusco decided to go out into the L.A. community and find hot and trendy cuisines and incorporate some of these influences into his menus, so the guests can visit L.A. without ever leaving the hotel.” Crowley’s team ventured into places like Silver Lake and East L.A. in search of the most “authentic, cultural” foods.

Back at the hotel, they incorporated their findings into four Asian and Latin inspired F&B outlets in the lobby, dubbing the entire enterprise “Unity L.A.,” from the word “community.”

The makeover of Hyatt Regency LAX has been a huge success. In fact, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts just presented Prism Hotels and Resorts CEO Steve Van with the 2017 Operational Excellence Award for the property. However, this opens up a whole new set of challenges for Crowley: how to change it up and keep things fresh while staying on top.

If anyone can do it, she can.

Prism Hotels & Resorts Corporate Director of Food and Beverage Lori Crowley began her hospitality career as a food and beverage manager in Atlantic City when the city became a gambling and tourist destination. Over two decades, opportunities to travel and manage upscale properties and resorts across the country made her a valued food and beverage executive. Crowley's extensive experience brings fresh perspective and creativity to new restaurant concepts while keeping them market appropriate. She has demonstrated a commitment to

Lori Crowley

bring locally sourced food, environmentally safe practices, and community support to her workplace.

A native of New Jersey, Crowley graduated Rider University with a degree in Business Administration and has completed several post graduate courses in her career. She currently lives in Dallas, Texas.

By Ashley Atkins