Balancing Traveler Expectations of Food with an Experience

By Erik Wolf Executive Director, World Food Travel Association | August 06, 2017

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.

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