What is going on with in-room dining? The pandemic put extra pressure on room service, but as things normalize what is next? It is an exciting area to ponder, especially in luxury resorts like the 443-room Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which is why we were intrigued to chat with Nga Ly-Henschen, a certified sommelier who recently chose to move from managing the hotel’s wine-focused CAPA restaurant to try her hand at the complexities of in-room dining (aka room service.)
Before we get into room service, where are you from, and what brought you into hospitality?
I grew up in Southern California, in a Vietnamese-American family, and moved to Florida in the mid-'90s. I moved to Orlando to study microbiology at the University of Central Florida, thinking to become a doctor. But a glass of riesling on a blind date at one of Orlando’s wine bars changed everything. I started in food and beverage at 19 in a small cafe. Once I started learning about cocktails, I transitioned to the nightclub scene where I developed my knowledge in mixology. I can make a mean Martini or Manhattan!!
After two years of the nightlife scene, I moved over to the Eola Wine Company, an upscale wine-focused restaurant in Orlando, as a server and eventually became the general manager. I was the general manager for seven years, along the way I became a certified sommelier. In 2018, I decided I wanted to look for a company to continue my growth and development on a bigger scale. That is when I joined Four Seasons Orlando as Capa Assistant manager and became the General Manager a year later. My hope in joining Four Seasons is that I might be able to live and work abroad one day! Hopefully Italy!
You’ve gone from running the CAPA restaurant at the Four Seasons Orlando to running in-room dining. CAPA was named Best 100 Wine Restaurants in the US by Wine Enthusiast magazine, what was your role in that honor? CAPA has been recognized with this honor before I joined, so while I cannot take any credit, I take pride in having assisted our resort sommelier with looking at trends and sourcing harder-to-find wines. I like to empower my team to speak about wine tableside, so training is very much a part of continuous learning.
As most sommeliers are still men, are guests surprised when you come to the table?
Yes, they generally are surprised but they also really welcome having a female sommelier! You can see their eyes light up, and they start asking questions. Usually, they were even more surprised that I was also the restaurant manager.
Have you experienced any barriers as a woman in wine?
Historically wine has been male-dominated, but more women are stepping up into sommelier roles. I haven't experienced barriers but have heard of other women. When you showcase your knowledge, I find any barriers break down.
How did you get into wine, having never grown up drinking it?
Once I started working in a bar, it piqued my curiosity as I already had a microbiology background. Beyond the science of it, wine is like history in a glass. You can understand the climate, terroir, or if the grapes are picked too early or too late. There is so much you can learn from tasting a wine once you have the training.
Why did you switch to in-room dining? Did your bosses tap you to do this as another important area to learn on your way to becoming an F&B Director? I wanted to challenge myself in an unfamiliar area. I have always worked in a restaurant or bar so I have mostly been in the front of house. Switching to in-room dining is like the mystery of not watching the kitchen from the guest's perspective, but food just magically gets delivered to their room. There is a lot of planning and logistics to making surprise treats happen when guests are checking into their room.
How do you like in-room dining?
It’s been a lot of fun. The restaurant was only open for dinner, now I’m running a 24-hour operation! While breakfast and dinner are fairly predictable, the in-between slots are very interesting. Sometimes people want a pizza party at 11 pm and we have to make sure that happens. The hardest change is from being able to observe people in the restaurant where you can anticipate their needs to kind of having to guess a bit more in-room service. Like adding jams to a waffle order with butter and syrup, just in case.
How many people are on your in-room dining team?
We have about 30 team members in In-Room Dining.
What are the shifts like and when is the busiest time?
The shifts in In-Room Dining are great as it is high energy during busy hours and task-oriented during our quiet hours. It's all about planning ahead and anticipating our guests' needs. You want to have everything a guest could ask for when delivering the food as it could cause a delay if you forget to bring ketchup, for example, to the room.
What was the biggest challenge for you going from being in a restaurant to in-room dining? Timing is probably the biggest difference. With in-room dining, the guest orders beforehand and we have to do everything to get it right before the table leaves to go up the elevator. This requires more planning. In a restaurant setting, I can walk by their table and see if they are enjoying their food. When the guest orders from in-rooming dining, we would get a call from the guest to say they did not enjoy their meal. That in itself is a very big change and challenge. There is also no time to get to know the families dining, as the server delivers the food and leaves the room. In the restaurant, the guest spends at least an average of two hours dining, which gives me the time to spend getting to know my guests and their preferences, and time to make their dinner special. Once the food order leaves the back of house and goes towards the room, we have to trust all of our training has set the server up for success and ensures the guest receives everything they need, and to anticipate anything they may request at the moment.
Over the last few years, especially during COVID, people started ordering in from restaurants to eat at home. Do you think the increase in people eating restaurant food at home has changed their expectations for room service meals? I do not think it has, as guests are looking for the interactions. We do encounter guests who request to have limited contact and we have learned how to best provide that with what we have observed during COVID. Our guests are appreciative of the care our team takes to make them feel comfortable.
What is different between in-room dining today vs pre-COVID? Before, we would always bring the table inside the room. Now the guest has the option for the server to bring it inside their room or knock on the door and watch the guest bring the table inside. We want to ensure we provide a luxury service at the guest's comfort level. If a guest requests for the service team to wear a mask before entering a room, we are happy to do so. We also have guests who like to dine on their balcony to enjoy the weather, sunset, or fireworks. We try to double-check how they prefer service. Having more of a wellness check-in with tea or whatever if they are feeling unwell, for example. We make notes at check-in for guests that are more ‘COVID sensitive.’
Fun fact: I worked room service at the Sheraton Steamboat Springs when I was 19 for a winter season, it was the best job ever because the tips were great and breakfast shift was over by 10:30 am and we could ski all day! Also, breakfast was the most popular meal service. What is your most popular meal service? Also, breakfast from 7-10 am and then dinner from 6-10 pm. However, our Florida rain showers can bring a surprise rush from time to time.
You must get lots of families, any special considerations you offer? We offer room amenities for families who travel with kids. We offer popcorn for teens, fruits, and gummies for the little ones. It's always a joy to see their faces light up. The parents also get excited to see the surprises too.
What are the 3 most popular menu items? I would have to say our classic egg breakfast, kids' chicken fingers, and chocolate chip cookies–all items kids like as we are on Disney property!
What is your personal go-to room service item when you travel? Avocado Toast, Pizza, and a bottle of wine, either champagne or something Red.
What items do you think people miss out on / or that you wish people ordered more?
Desserts are a room service item that more people should order! It's always nice to splurge on vacation and indulge in some of those sweet treats we don't normally choose to enjoy on a regular basis. Our In-Room Dining menu offers an incredible Chocolate Cake made from single-origin cacao from Venezuela near Lake Maracaibo. This strong cacao flavor comes through with licorice and roasted coffee notes. Our Executive Pastry Chef, Rabii Saber, is a James Beard Award semifinalist in both 2022 and 2019 for Outstanding Pastry Chef, so his desserts are not to be missed!*
What trends do you see coming up next, if you had to make a prediction?
I am predicting an increase in technology... use of mobile apps will continue to increase as the convenience and ease of delivery are seamless. More on-demand items that are readily accessible in-room. We currently offer the Plum wine machine, which provides on-demand wine by the glass, in all of our Park View guestrooms and suites. The wine can be customized inside the room prior to arrival with a specific bottle, based on preference, and this adds a level of convenience and ease.*
Last question, what are your three personal favorite types of wine?
Champagne, there is never a wrong time for champagne, anything from Laurent-Perrier and Bollinger!
Pinot Noir from Burgandy-these are often underrated, they have an elegant nuance of the environment and are less fruity.
Tempranillo from Spain, I like them because there are different regions. Rioja is lighter but the Toro region wines are a bit richer, higher in tannins, and have a heavier mouthfeel.
* as Nga is relatively new to her position, Jennifer Rama, Director of Food & Beverage, Four Seasons Resort Orlando also contributed to these two questions.