Mr. Wolf

Food & Beverage

Balancing Traveler Expectations of Food with an Experience

By Erik Wolf, Executive Director, World Food Travel Association

What do foodservice outlets in the Eataly stores, the Jamie Oliver restaurant franchise and the Clipper Lounge in Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental hotel, all have in common? They all provide a unique and memorable experience, not just a meal, for patrons, many of whom are visitors (also known as "tourists" to those outside our industry). Providing a unique and memorable experience (and not just a meal) is the Golden Rule when it comes to food tourism success.

We can get a burger and fries, coffee or pizza in almost every city in the world. In fancier restaurants, we can get food towers, foams and emulsions in other fancy restaurants around the world. Why would we visit your specific establishment, especially when we are visiting your city as a tourist? In places like New York and London, there are tens of thousands of choices where to eat. Ask yourself a single key question, "How would a visitor find your business?" If your answer is Yelp, TripAdvisor, Eater or simply walking by, then you are already walking down the wrong path. The most effective and least expensive kind of promotion is word of mouth, and how would a visitor be privy to local word of mouth? Through friends and colleagues living locally. Locals will hear about your business from any number of sources. What will make them want to recommend your establishment and talk it up? The answer is by experiencing it themselves, with a major emphasis on "experience". It's not by simply eating in your restaurant, cafe or pub, but by the full experience, from first impression upon approaching the building, friendliness at the reception, professionalism of the waiter, presentation of the food, attention to detail, room temperature, smells, cleanliness, bathroom hygiene, etc.

Quite a few foodservice outlets deliver well on all of these. Case in point are some of the Jamie Oliver restaurant properties that closed in the first quarter of 2017. Eateries fail for countless reasons, one of the most dangerous of which is fierce competition. Consider two hypothetical upscale eateries, maybe a block or two away from each other. How do you as a consumer decide between two great restaurants offering similar cuisine? Both are known for great food and great service. Both have easy parking. Both are rated high by health inspecting authorities. Both are popular with diners. Still, there is one you would always rather go to. How can you explain it?

The missing ingredient could be the lagniappe, a term from Louisiana, meaning a little something extra that goes above and beyond customary expectations. More than an amuse bouche, it could be overhearing a guest's comment about their special occasion and honoring it with a surprise, or offering a takeaway box of gourmet cookies for all guests as they leave (think New York's former Alain Ducasse restaurant in Midtown as one example).

When we talk about "food tourism" we could be talking about the phenomenon, where 93% of all travelers now participate in some kind of food or beverage experience (other than just going out to eat or drink). This is fresh data from the 2016 Food Travel Monitor published by the World Food Travel Association. By experience, we could mean a visit to a food or beverage retail store; a winery/brewery/distillery tasting; a food or beer tour; a food factory tour, etc. We could also be talking about a smaller number of bonafide foodies, or the even smaller number of gourmet travelers, who travel purely for interesting food and beverage experiences.

Look at it in any way you like, but the fact remains: food and beverage can make a long-lasting impact on your customers and foster positive (or negative) word-of-mouth. Again, providing a unique and memorable experience is the Golden Rule of success with your visitors. That said, a restaurant must also appeal to locals, especially in areas where seasonality is an issue. Few restaurants can survive during low season with only local residents as customers. Keeping the experience fresh and interesting is also important for local customers at any time of the year.

Keeping the experience fresh and exciting is not always easy. Restaurateurs know that they must also adapt to changing trends with new ingredients and new techniques. Some consumers will accept and even welcome change, others want things to stay the same, and still for others, the first-time dining experience is like a tabula rasa - a chance to make an impression, and hopefully a good one. What happened to casseroles, chocolate mousse, bananas foster, baked Alaska, the grasshopper drink, potatoes au gratin or consommé. There was a time when these items were often found on menus. Now, they are a rarity. A restaurant cannot keep offering dishes like these at which it excels, and fail to innovate.

New, fresh, interesting, exciting are not enough. Restaurateurs must also honor consumer requests, including dietary concerns for medical, religious or other reasons. How do hoteliers and restaurateurs weigh the value of their past consistency with pressure to evolve?

It's easy to alter recipes and find ways to utilize new ingredients. However, telling a story is one way to innovate that is hard to reproduce. Instead of "improving" the chocolate mousse with single origin 69% cacao, use menu messaging (or an oral recount from the server) to tell the story of how the chef went to Ecuador to inspect the cacao plantation and meet the farmers in person. The chef can return home to tell his or her wait staff the story of the local farmer whose mule died and he could no longer get the cacao to the processor. How did the story end? Pacari, the cacao processor, bought him a new mule. Stories like these are priceless and unique. And knowing the story of Eduardo the cacao farmer in Ecuador who needed a new mule to haul his cacao somehow makes the chocolate mousse taste better.

A couple of months ago, my family and I were at a "resort" on the island of Kauai, in the US State of Hawaii. We have had plenty of underwhelming foodservice experiences at hotels and resorts, which is why we typically venture out into the community for every meal. One night we decided to eat in the hotel's premier dining room. The view was great. The server was well above average (but he was unable to tell any stories about what was being served). The service was above average. The food was simply OK. For about US$100 per person, we expected more - a lot more. Things that were lacking for us included solid explanations of local fishes with which we were unfamiliar; knowledge of local agricultural products, some of which were used in the dishes; and indifference to our special occasion. We were unimpressed, and here is where it hurts that resort: we would not recommend that restaurant to others who asked because nothing about the experience was unique or memorable (apart from the Hawaiian sunset). Hawaii is not a cheap destination, but it wasn't about the cost. It was about the overall experience.

While in Hawaii, we chose to skip the traditional luau experience, which at US$150 per person, was much more than not just what we wanted to spend, but that pricepoint exceeded the budgets of other visitors we spoke with as well. The point here is that your visitors easily see through overpriced, overhyped and staged "experiences". Go for genuine authenticity - which is the most popular PsychoCulinary profile (food purchasing/behavior preference) exhibited by travelers.

How do you create a unique and memorable experience? There are many ways:

  • Honor your past, such as a classic recipe, the business founder or a historic building (and share the story)
  • Use local ingredients like a specific kind of fish (know the backstory and make sure your servers do too)
  • Use local techniques like a specific way of cooking (such as the Maori Hangi in New Zealand, and make sure servers tell the story behind it)
  • Provide the unexpected (honor the guest's special occasion, make an unhappy child happy with a cartoon character cookie, etc.)
  • A view (think Hawaiian sunset) or gimmick (think Lambert's "throwed" rolls in Missouri) - but those are not always enough
  • Diversify your product portfolio by offering a "theme park" of experiences under one roof, such as a restaurant, a separate cafe, a wine shop, a gift shop, a studio for cooking instructions and a bookstore. These are simply a menu of suggestions, and some things like wine shop, gift shop and bookstore could be rolled into one, if space or money is tight.
  • Keep dishes updated with improved or fresher versions of the ingredients you are replacing, or introduce the same favorite dish prepared in a new way.

If you're not sure how to improve how your patrons experience your business, perform an experience assessment to unlock some of the areas that need attention and can help your business grow when they are fixed.

The world is smaller than ever. We think nothing of flying 14 hours across the world, or visiting one country per day. How will your restaurant or hotel stand out - become a destination itself? Not every foodservice establishment can or should be like the unique and memorable Virgilio Martínez Véliz's Central Restaurant in Lima. The unique and memorable night markets in Taiwan are also destinations that attract visitors. Casual hotels in Greece subscribe to the Greek Breakfast program, which is not only appreciated by visitors, but easily remembered as well. All you need is a passion for and knowledge of your local culinary culture; thinking outside the box; and a little creativity. With these ingredients, soon you'll have visitors talking up your foodservice outlets and attracting more customers than ever. How will you manage your new success?

Erik Wolf is the founder of the world’s food tourism industry, and of the World Food Travel Association. He is a highly sought speaker, thought leader, strategist and consultant, in the US and abroad, on all aspects of food and drink tourism. Mr. Wolf is considered the go-to food tourism industry resource for media outlets. He has spearheaded projects for world-class brands. While Executive Director of the Association, Mr. Wolf launched several innovative products for our industry, including the annual Food Travel Monitor, including the Monitor’s PsychoCulinary profiling tool for food travelers; the Certified Culinary Travel Professional program; Business Readiness Training in Food Tourism; and Food Travel Talk TV. Mr. Wolf can be contacted at (1) 503-213-3700 or erik@worldfoodtravel.org Please visit http://www.worldfoodtravel.org for more information. Extended Bio...

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