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Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: Brian Rolfe

“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.

These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that Shackman Associates is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.

In today’s episode; New York Hospitality Professional Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates talks to Brian Rolfe, the Director of Sales for the Tao Group Hospitality in New York.

Karen: Hello Brian, thank you for taking the time. Tao Group is a leading hospitality company that develops, owns and operates many extremely successful restaurants and entertainment venues in New York and elsewhere. I am very glad you found the time for this interview. For those who don’t know you, please give us a short introduction and a little overview of your current situation.

Brian: Thank you, Karen I appreciate the invitation! My name is Brian Rolfe, I’m the Director of Sales for Tao Group Hospitality, New York. I have been with the company for 15 years.

I’m currently working from home in New Jersey. Our main offices have reopened and it’s nice to know they are available if needed. But for now, I’m home. Approximately half of our restaurants have been open for a while now although only those with available space for outdoor dining.

Karen: We were so happy to hear the announcement last week that restaurants were soon to be able to offer indoor dining. How has this process, now that we are in Phase 4, affected Tao Group?

Brian: It’s been a learning process, but we are thrilled to be back open. And, we are so eager to start operating our indoor dining, now that the Governor has announced this for September 30.

Karen: There are so many changes taking place. How has your work life been affected? Is your new work routine the same as when you were in the office?

Brian: Not even close. My wife is pregnant, and our 3-year-old is with us all day. So needless to say, our routine is very different. We try our best to take turns. One of us upstairs working and one of us downstairs with our son. Divide and conquer is key.

Karen: Oh wow! That is certainly a challenge, and one that many families with young kids are having to work through. I imagine the ability to continue to work from home is an asset at this time, to keep your son engaged and active. What does a day in your life look like right now?

Brian: Our new “alarm clock” is our son - which is actually much nicer than being awoken by an annoying ring tone. Then the usual morning routine of breakfast, walking the dog, then a few hours of work. We all have lunch together then I take my son for some outside time. Usually scooters, a playground or our town lake. A few more hours of work in the afternoon then its dinner time. I’ll do the dishes while my wife gives our son a bath. Then it’s either story time or we go for a walk/stroll until he falls asleep. Then a little more work / catch up on emails, followed by some Netflix or straight to bed. The days seem to go really fast!

Karen: That is certainly a full day. It truly seems that the days and weeks are flying by, and many of us seem to feel that we are packing more into a day than previously. How do you connect with your team members? It has become so vital over the past few months to stay connected.

Brian: We use Microsoft Teams internally. It’s been great for us. We have done multiple Happy Hours. It really helps to keep you sane. Being able to “vent” with colleagues is so key and something that you can easily miss working from home. That’s why I don’t think the office scenario will ever truly go away. I think humans need the social contact. I think it will end up being like everything else: a hybrid of work from home and the office. Maybe the office is smaller or a shared / coworking space, but a physical presence will be beneficial.

Karen: You bring up an important and rather controversial point right now. I also happen to believe that it is important to ensure that the human element of our connections doesn’t disappear. I imagine over the next few months, hopefully we will all settle into a different routine of working which is a hybrid of the two. What are your three personal essentials at home to get through this?

Brian: Exercise, my back deck, and wine (it is essential right?)

Karen: Haha, a good glass of wine is essential, and I believe that wine and liquor sales have skyrocketed around the country - so we are all in agreement. What are you doing to keep sane from a physical and mental wellness perspective?

Brian: Getting in some personal quiet time is so key. I take long walks while listening to music or a nice podcast and just zone out. It’s my meditation.

Karen: Time away from the screen on a walk is important, I agree. You mentioned listening to podcasts, Is there anything you are listening to or watching that you would like to recommend?

Brian: Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. “Sapiens” is a fascinating history of humankind and “21 Lessons” dives into what our future will look like. Then I also read Jonathan LeCarre spy novels. His novels are my “happy place” books that just zen me out.

Karen: “Sapiens - A Brief HIstory of Mankind” is a fascinating read. I am slowly working my way through the book. So insightful and eye-opening. Yuval Harari is quite a compelling author. Thank you for sharing. What is the first thing you want to do once travel restrictions have eased?

Brian: Ugh so many things. I obviously want to travel but first I think I want to enjoy some of the true New York. I’d take my wife for Oysters and drinks at the Mermaid Inn on MacDougal followed by a concert at The Garden. I miss shows so much. The energy of a great concert is irreplaceable.

Karen: Live shows in New York - whether on Broadway or a great concert – are interwoven into the fabric of our city. It is not the same without them – and us locals and the tourists to the city alike, miss all that great energy. So hoping it will return soon. Are you still dealing with cancelations, rebooking?

Brian: Everyday. It was a cascading effect. Many events originally tried to reschedule for the Summer or Fall but as the new dates approach, they are forced to push back again and again or cancel entirely.

Karen. It is such a shame. Of course, we were all pushing for #postponedontcancel, and hopefully, things will calm down in the upcoming few months. Are any of your clients considering virtual or hybrid events?

Brian: Yes! We’ve had some great traction with our Online Chef classes. Our team has put together an incredible package for a virtual event. We can send all the ingredients directly to your house. Then you are led along buy our Executive Chef on how to cook a variety of TAO Group favorite dishes like the Filetto di Pomodoro or Honey Glazed Salmon.

Karen: That is a great “pivot’. We have recommended Tao Group’s signature dishes many times to our clients and the feedback was always great. Any thoughts about social vs. corporate events coming back soon?

Brian: We’ve seen plenty of social. Groups are comfortable going out with people they know. Corporate will take a little longer but I’m confident it will return.

Karen: How has Tao Group pivoted to accommodate the current dining circumstances?

Brian: Currently we are operating outdoor dining. Which means we had to create that from scratch and adapt to the different style of service. And in some cases, construct actual seating platforms.

Karen: I imagine you are developing new protocols for social distancing and health and safety measures?

Brian: We have an industry leading program in place for health, safety and hygiene. We are known as the best in the business when it comes to operating our restaurants. The safety program is no different. We have very thorough protocols in place.

Karen: What does that mean for your pricing structure, having to accommodate these additional services? How flexible are you being with regard to booked/postponed events, and, hopefully, new bookings?

Brian: Flexibility will be key coming out of this. We were extremely flexible with rescheduling and when necessary refunding. As for pricing, when it comes to special events, we have always had a “make it work” philosophy. While I do think there will still be a demand for a luxury product and high price point it may require us to find new ways to add value. Whether that’s additional F&B, time, contract terms, etc.

Like everywhere there will be a cost associated with maintaining the health & safety protocols. But that is now a fact of doing business. Like everyone else in New York especially we’ll have to find the right balance of using our space effectively while maintaining the right distances.

Karen: And I am sure clients will appreciate the fact that health and safety is a priority. How are you positioned for reopening of indoor dining, now that the Governor has announced the September 30 start date? What are the priorities you are focusing on in order to get back to business.?

Brian: Making sure our guests FEEL safe is the biggest thing. In terms of being ready for reopening, we are lucky. We are a big enough company that we have the infrastructure in place to reopen very quickly and are ready for September 30. After that it is delivering gracious hospitality in a fun environment. The way we always have.

Karen: Thank you Brian, we too are ready to deliver gracious hospitality in a fun environment and can’t wait continue working together! Any parting words or insights you want to share?

Brian: I love our industry. Especially in New York. It's heartbreaking to see what restaurants have to go through. But it will come back. It’s part of who we are.

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