Experiences must become your product

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Plating food

In Kamila Sitwell’s soon to be published ‘Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation’ she discusses how unique experiences are fast-becoming the most important part of the dining occasion.

“Modern consumers are ‘food pleasure seekers’, adventurous and passionate diners looking for premium experiences at every occasion. The thrill of the experiential has now massively overtaken the ‘value for money’ deal.”

Simon Stenning, MCA Insight, UK eating and drinking out intelligence

Eating out is now seen as a form of entertainment and self-expression which means that value for money can no longer be applied only to the cost of the meal and what you get for it. With phrases such as “YOLO” (you only live once) and “FOMO” (fear of missing out) becoming some of the most used among millennials, it’s obvious they value experiences over material possessions – and they’re willing to pay for them, even queue for hours to experience it. We all thought the days of standing in lines were over, but nowadays, it’s a status symbol, something to brag about to friends on social media. It fits the short-attention span fascination with anything new, it says to your friends that you’re in the front line for an experience. Lining up is no longer a negative experience for both brand, and customer. For example, in London, Barrafina is a Michelin starred tapas bar that operates a no-booking policy which sees people queuing up for lengthy periods without complaint.

This represents a huge cultural shift since the notion of eating out is increasingly about creating those experiences and so now involves feeding the soul as much as the belly. What defines ‘value’ is changing as customers seek a variety of sensory experiences across all categories and price points. It’s no longer about offering the cheapest meal deal, it’s much more multifaceted than price point alone. It’s in expecting non-tangible value for an out of home eating/drinking experience that they are willing to spend a little more for a quality dining experience.  You need look no further for proof than the fact that today, people are willing to spend over £3 for a cup of coffee – unthinkable until quite recently - every single day!

The challenge this presents to the restaurant industry is that it’s not always easy to offer your guests an experience with every meal, so knowing where to start and what the available options are is essential. Begin by understanding what it is the modern customer is looking for and then you can cater your offerings to suit their taste. If your restaurant is currently offering similar menu choices to the other restaurants on the high streets with the same look and feel to any other chain in the country, you won’t be special, nor unique enough, to stand out from the crowd. With “samey” casual dining outlets reaching saturation point, it’s easy to see why they might be going wrong when guests are looking for places that reflect their individuality. This isn’t as difficult as it might first seem – it’s all about having a little creative imagination that will set you apart from the competition and grabbing the customers’ attention.

fresh steak with rosemary

For example, you might have a long-standing reputation for serving great steak and yet, over a period of time, your daily covers have fallen away. Not even dropping your prices has improved things. That’s because the competition stakes have changed and your customers’ habits are changing; but what if the story around your steak hasn’t. It’s still the same old (albeit, tasty) steak.  

Could you emphasize the provenance of the meat (ie your organic and local supplier)? Could you add some food theatre (e.g. hot stone cooking, smoking chambers, open kitchen?)  Could you add ‘eatertainment’ (live music, event, theme night etc.)?  Now, you’re not just selling great food, you’re an experiential venue and thus are able to mark-up the costs by between 20-40% at a price that’s includes all components. Plus, you’ll be standing out from the crowd, so not only is your food an attraction, but your experiential offering has grabbed the attention of a customer base keen to upscale their dining experience.  

This is an essential shift of mind-set that I would urge all restaurant owners and brands to engage with. Therefore, don’t risk your longevity on your usual margins Instead, think about the story that lies behind your steak, which then becomes one part of the overall experience that will have your customers leaving glowing reviews online and coming back for more? Of course, food quality isn’t up for discussion – get that wrong and you’re toast.

creating bespoke cocktail

Ask yourself, if you’re struggling to keep afloat or in filling your restaurant on a regular basis, what experience can you create to meet this trend that’s taking hold? As the leading out-of-home food and drinks data and research company, CGA, revealed in its Business Leaders’ Survey in a 2018, 81% of business leaders see Quality of Experience as a key driver for consumers when choosing where to eat or drink out. In today’s competitive market, it’s vital, therefore, to consider how you can extend your customer experience to attract your target demographic.

Providing a customer experience isn’t an alien concept in the hospitality trade; for example, hotels have been leading the way for some time. It’s not unusual for guests to begin their hotel experience by boarding a complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport; longer staying guests enjoy enhanced concierge services tailored to their needs, such as organised excursions and events away from the hotel. Shopping malls, also, are increasingly providing hassle free valet parking to reduce shoppers’ stress instead of fighting for limited spaces. Most airlines allow you to check in remotely via apps, or print boarding passes to facilitate a smoother travel experience at the airport. The one thing that unites all these super initiatives is that they all extend the customer experience before the main event – be that staying overnight, shopping, and travelling. Therefore, they facilitate a better customer experience once the customer arrives. The restaurant trade will, I guarantee, head more and more in this direction sooner than we think.

The above is an extract from Kamila Sitwell’s upcoming book “Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation”.  For more analysis and insights on how to respond in the competitive, changing world of hospitality by creating experiences,  Bespoke will help raise the restaurateur’s  game providing fresh insights needed to steer a course to customer delight, loyalty and ultimately business success.