Spotlight Retailer – Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray

Vice President, Food & Beverage
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)
Atlanta, Georgia

Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray has been in the food and beverage industry since he was 13 and has worked in hotels and restaurants on four continents and in more than a dozen countries. As VP of Food & Beverage for IHG, the world’s largest hotel company by number of rooms, Jean-Pierre—better known as JP—guides the concept development and operations of the F&B programs at company-managed hotels in the Americas.

In the Mix talked with JP about trends in the industry and his passion for the business.

ITM – We hear you are planning to get IHG’s food and beverage teams more involved in social media. Can you explain?

JP – We’re looking at how to use various social media to communicate with targeted clientele on a local basis. The idea is that if you connect with each hotel’s community, they will support you and help create buzz. It’s a virtual replacement for the old “wassail bowl” in the restaurant where people could toss in their business cards. Only now, rather than conducting a marketing monologue where we “talk at” our customers through direct mail and advertising, we can instead engage them in a dialogue for more authentic interest and buzz around our offerings.

So, we are looking at Facebooking, Yelping, tweeting, and other types of social media. We’re working with an expert who is helping us monitor what’s going on in each market and tailor focused, precise, and consistent messages that will drive food and beverage business for our hotels’ restaurants and bars. We’re also launchinga blog, to be called FB Confitdential to further harness the messages and encourage feedback. Finally, for the InterContinental Hotels’ signature bars and restaurants, we’re refreshing and/or creating websites that are lively, sexy, and interactive and deliver targeted messages. We are diligently focused on these new media, moving slowly but surely and with respect for the rules of engagement in this new frontier of social media.

ITM – How do you think food and beverage fits into the social media world?

JP – There’s a revolution taking place, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential for social media in F&B. No one is yet really accountable or responsible for these new viral channels of communication, and while they represent enormous opportunity, they are also potentially high risk. For example, in the past if someone ate in your restaurant and didn’t like the soup, you might get two or three complaints. But with social networking, suddenly 10,000 people may learn about your soup, and within a day or so, you’re dead—and you won’t even know why. This means we have to up our game and be consistently at our best, all the time. On the positive side, social media can be incredibly powerful promotional tools. We have one longtime bartender who regularly tweets on his laptop from behind the bar—things like, “Hey, we have a new Mojito, come on down!” And instantly 3,000 people, who already know and like the bar, get the message.

ITM – What type of F&B trends are you seeing within your own hotels?

JP Our guests are expressing a great deal of interest in what I call “casual nostalgia.” Recessions make people long for simpler times when they remember things being easier, less stressful and more comfortable. For Baby Boomers, this was their teenage years. So this summer, we are launching a promotion in conjunction with Coca-Cola that will involve several nostalgic elements: think jukeboxes, Coke Floats, Brown Cows, and more! There’s even  more nostalgia in the beverage arena, with the current return  to classic cocktails—the drinks of our parents—such as Bloody Marys, Rusty Nails, and real martinis without all the flavoring  and excess garnishes.

We’re also seeing much more sharing of dishes, from appetizers to main courses to dessert. People are going back to the comfort and enjoyment of family-style meals.

ITM – You’ve been in the business for 34 years and with IHG for 24 of those years. Do you still get excited about creating and leveraging new industry trends?

JP – Oh, yes! Food and Beverage to me is the most exciting industry because it’s inclusive: it touches on all the senses, involves our emotions, and provides huge opportunities for creativity and diversity. One of the many growing trends I’m passionate about is the “farm-to-table” movement, which focuses on knowing almost firsthand exactly where and how the food you’re putting into your body was grown and prepared for market. However, there’s a real need to define the words “natural” and “organic” to disclose the parameters for such labels, and to put in place monitoring procedures for compliance with the stated parameters. Right now there’s a lot of false and misleading information out there from suppliers, distributors, and government entities.

ITM – Describe a favorite F&B experience.

JP – I’ve had thousands of outstanding F&B experiences in my life, but I’ll describe two that were extraordinary—one casual, one elegant. Years ago I had lunch outdoors on a farm in Landes, the part of France famous for producing duck and goose liver. That fabulous meal lasted six and a half hours, with a succession of exquisite dishes using all natural products. Each one was prepared and cooked differently, including a sublime duck confit.

The other outstanding culinary experience was when I was invited for dinner at the Connaught in London, a very sophisticated restaurant that was a favorite of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, among other notables. The presentation that evening was an absolute ballet of maitre d’s in tails, tableside carts, silver cloches, and waiters cutting, slicing, poaching, flambéing, and serving with amazing professional zeal.

But the best F&B experience of all can happen any time I am together with good friends and good people, and we open a perfect bottle of wine and break bread together. When you make the time to do that, everything stops around you, and you are able to reset the world and time. We should all be doing this more often!