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Ms. Freud

Sales & Marketing

Qualitative Research: The Guest's Perception of Your Hotel Restaurant

By Johnna Freud, Qualitative Research Moderator, Saul Cohen & Associates

How do consumers think about your hotel's restaurant? Why do people eat there? Is it only a convenience for overnight hotel guests, or is it a destination for non-guests as well? In consumers' minds, what does it compete with, and how does it compare to the competition? Why do some people return after their initial trial, but others do not? Is it the food, ambiance, staff or a completely different reason? What does the restaurant do well? What needs improvement? Qualitative research has been used to answer such questions and gain an in-depth understanding of consumers' attitudes toward restaurants -- elegant, casual, take-out/fast food, independent restaurants and/or chains.

Topics to Explore

Consider the large hotel corporations that have capitalized on the familiarity produced by chain restaurants by creating their own brand of casual restaurant/sports bar chain and incorporating them in their properties. These hotel-branded food spots use the same name and offer similar menus.

This can work to a hotel's advantage if a customer's initial dining experience is satisfactory, or conversely, it can work against them if an initial experience is not. As such, knowing how consumers, especially frequent travelers who are loyal to a particular hotel chain, feel about a hotel's branded casual restaurant/sports bar chain is important, not only for an individual property, but for the entire chain. It is highly likely that patrons' experiences may impact their decisions about whether to recommend these restaurants to friends or colleagues and to eat at these places during future visits to the same or different properties.

So, what kinds of food do consumers want at casual restaurants? Through our research, we have found that casual restaurant customers tend to want quality food at reasonable prices. While they don't expect gourmet food at these types of establishments, they expect a wide selection of food that looks and tastes fresh. The also want healthy food alternatives. But what do consumers consider to be "quality food," "reasonable prices," and "healthy food alternatives?" Qualitative research can uncover answers to these questions.

What do consumers mean when they say they want to "eat in a place with a good atmosphere?" We have found that consumers think and speak about restaurant atmosphere in terms of the d'ecor and interior lighting as well as the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff. All of these factors seem to contribute to the overall "comfortable" feeling that most customers seek. However, qualitative research can provide an understanding into whether "comfortable" means interiors that are bright and afford more privacy by spreading out the tables or dark and "clubby."

Furthermore, although customers seem to take cleanliness for granted and often do not focus on it as a reason for going or returning to a restaurant, it is often cited as a reason for not going back. Others stop going to restaurants or chains because they experience a general deterioration in terms of the quality and variety of food or because they are bored with the food and selection. But, unless restaurants ask former patrons what motivated them to change their behavior, they will not know what needs to be improved.

For resorts and properties that cater to leisure travelers, many of whom may be accompanied by children, how easy is it to get into a restaurant on the property? Are reservations required, and if so, how far in advance? Is the front desk staff helping to drive traffic to a resort's restaurants by informing guests upon their arrival about the restaurants on the property, including any need for reservations and the easiest way to make them? How "child friendly" are the restaurants? How important is the notion of "kids eat free?"

Once again, it is vitally important to understand whether consumers choose to eat at the restaurants on the resort property and why. Favorable experiences are likely to translate into recommendations to family, friends and acquaintances. However, unsatisfactory experiences may escalate from recommendations to avoid a particular restaurant to suggestions to avoid a particular resort.

Structuring the Research

Focus groups are often used to assess how food offerings, prices, atmosphere and cleanliness as well as other aspects of a dining experience affect consumers' restaurant choices. In deciding upon whom to invite to participate in such groups, consider groups with loyal customers, lapsed customers (those who have eaten in your hotel's restaurant in the past, but not recently) and non-customers who have not eaten in your hotel's restaurant but have eaten at similar style restaurants in other brand's of hotels or resorts. Additionally, consider inviting guests to participate in a focus group during their stay at your hotel or resort.

The discussion content should include questions about how frequently members of the group eat in hotel restaurants, motivations for doing so, best and worst things about these experiences, how they determine whether a restaurant is providing them with quality and value and what they mean by these terms, and any factors that encourage/discourage them from eating at a particular hotel's or resort's restaurant, either at one property or across multiple properties. It should also include an in-depth discussion about the restaurant that is the subject of the study, including what this restaurant does well and areas that could be improved.

Conclusion

So, the next time you ask why some consumers eat at your hotel's restaurant and others do not or what can be done to increase traffic into your resort's on-site restaurants, consider using qualitative research to unlock the answers.

Johnna Freud is a Qualitative Research Moderator with Saul Cohen & Associates, Ltd. She has experience in focus group moderating, interviewing, group facilitation and project management. She has worked with service companies, publishers, consumer package goods firms, retail chains, manufacturers, educational institutions, consulting firms, and advertising agencies. Research objectives have included concept evaluation and refinement, communications and advertising assessment, product repositioning, employee/student recruitment and performance evaluation, packaging and displays. Ms. Freud can be contacted at 203-322-0083 or scohenqual@aol.com Extended Bio...

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Food & Beverage: Going Casual
According to industry tracker PKF Hospitality Research, food and beverage sales represent the second- largest source of revenue for full-service hotels behind rooms. Given its financial importance, hotel operators are constantly adapting and evolving their F&B operations in order to remain current with industry trends and to meet (and exceed) guest expectations. Recent food developments which continue to proliferate include the farm-to-table movement; customized menus for those who are vegan, vegetarian, paleo or gluten-free; the appearance of smaller dishes on tasting menus; and creatively- prepared comfort foods served in more casual settings. In fact, there is a growing emphasis in the entire industry on more casual food operations. Customers are eschewing the typical breakfast-lunch- dinner/appetizer-entrée-dessert model in favor of "fast-casual" menus and service (think Panera, Chipotle or Cosi as examples). Even better if these menus are also available throughout the property, especially in social-gathering areas like the lobby, pool or bar. Some hotels are also experimenting with "pop-up" restaurants - a temporary dining option with edgy menus and design served in unexpected locations (like rooftops or lobbies) - as a way to keep things energetic and fresh. Another trend which applies to both food and wine is the option to purchase food and beverages in multiple sizes. Some operations are giving their customers the opportunity to choose - a three ounce pour of wine or a nine-ounce pour; a six-ounce filet or a twelve-ounce - the customers decide their portion size and pay accordingly. The August issue of the Hotel Business Review will document all these trends and challenges in the food and beverage sector, and report on what some leading hotels are doing to enhance this area of their business.