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  • Lou Trope, President, LJ Trope & Co. LLC

Why Hotel Restaurants Struggle: Marketing

“A great marketing program is the easiest way to kill a mediocre restaurant”.

That is a very bold statement; but, unfortunately nothing could be truer. Restaurant marketing is very complex and relentless. In today’s competitive world of social media – Yelp, Eater, Thrillist, Urban Daddy, Twitter and Instagram and countless food bloggers – it can be overwhelming. Choosing and developing the right marketing strategy for a restaurant is crucial to reputation and success. In many cases, however; operators go down the path of least returns by selecting the trendy route because, “everyone else has it”, without realising the time and effort required well as well as understanding the potential reach. A successful marketing strategy envelops everything from the language and tone used to greet the guest, the style of response to guest comments on social media to what local events the restaurant should participate in.

Let’s start with the basics. Before any marketing program is deployed, it is imperative that the restaurant is operating at its optimal level. The food quality, service experience, beverage program and ambience must all be executed well and line up seamlessly to the concept positioning. At this point that 7-10 word elevator pitch to describe the restaurant concept should be boiler plate solid so that everyone that works and is involved in the restaurant can repeat it like a reflex and are truly able to passionately speak about the unique qualities of the restaurant that build the guests’ perceived value.

It is important to recognise that marketing plans are a long play; do not expect overnight results. It takes time and perseverance before tangible results start to appear. There are several stages to winning a new guest. First is just getting them to be aware that your restaurant exists. Then they must be persuaded to give you a try. The efforts getting a new guest to walk into your restaurant cannot be underestimated. Finally, it is your time to shine and provide an exceptional dining experience that makes them want to come back and tell their friends. Hopefully, if they continue to frequent the restaurant, they can be elevated to advocates – someone that is telling their friends, sharing your posts and bringing in new guests to dine.

Now it’s time to baby step the marketing plan. Step one is to win over the hotel staff and frequent guests. In a hotel environment, there is the luxury of having a hotel full of staff that are all potential advocates for the restaurant. From the front desk staff to the bell staff to the sales teams – all have interactions with guests multiple times a day and are frequently asked for recommendations. In this first step, it is critical to invite the team to experience the restaurant. Offer to do a menu tasting at their department meetings or create bounce back incentives for recommendations where the staff can bring their friends or family into the restaurant for a discount. Work with the team to share what you are doing, showcase the unique features and get the hotel team excited and proud of what is happening in the restaurant.

In addition, every hotel knows who their frequent guests are and should actively engage them in the process. These guests already have an allegiance to the property and/or the brand. Invite them to a menu tasting or serve them a complimentary dish that is in development for the new menu. Ask their opinions and get them involved in the process. If they are already connected to your property, in many cases you can take a transactional relationship to an emotional relationship. They will feel that they have played a valuable role for the restaurant and will become some of your greatest advocates.

Once the concept is ready, the team is excited and you are confident to deliver a fantastic experience, it is time to take it to the masses. At this point, it is critical to engage with a marketing professional. In many hotels, unfortunately, the restaurant marketing is left to the restaurant team. In some cases they do a very good job; but, this is rarely the case. Oftentimes, when speaking with the restaurant leader in charge of marketing, they will proudly show you how they spent the marketing budget on print ads for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day. Sound familiar? Although this may be considered a necessary act, one may want to consider the larger issues. Did these events actually make money or just break even? Also, how does this marketing strategy help fill seats in the restaurant the other 359 days of the year? This is why it is essential that a marketing professional team up with the restaurant team to build a comprehensive program using funds that are available. In most cases, the hotel restaurant marketing funds available are anaemic when compared to an independent restaurant. In order to build the case to increase marketing funds, year over year progress must be shown in terms of increased covers, profits, acquisition of outside and new guests and positive results in reputation management.

Each hotel has a dedicated marketing team. However, typically because most hotel’s revenues and profits are generated by rooms operations, their efforts may be singularly focused to drive rooms revenues with little to no attention on food and beverage. Meet with the hotel’s Director of Marketing to discuss how they can assist and partner to build a marketing strategy for the restaurant. Ask if anyone on their team has specific experience in marketing restaurants. Depending on the amount of investment in the restaurant, the desired revenue, wishful reputation and positioning, it may be necessary to engage an outside marketing and PR team that specialises in restaurant marketing. Although this can be a costly undertaking, the benefit may outweigh the ongoing cost. All of this must be discussed with the leadership and ownership team with a clear business plan that justifies the investment. You must have confidence that the outcome will be beneficial and will exceed owner expectations.

In the case that utilizing an outside agency is out of the question and the marketing team does not have the resources, you may have to go at it alone. Shocking!

To begin, there are some basics that will need to be covered. Create a press kit for the restaurant that builds on the elevator pitch of the concept and its unique attributes; include a chef bio (include why she or he is the right chef for the concept and not just a rehash of the resume), a signature food recipe, a bio for the mixologist if it is important to the concept, a cocktail recipe and most importantly professional pictures. Create a unique format for the recipes that includes professional pictures, interesting anecdotes from the chef and complementary beverage recommendations. For the press kit, the team should absolutely engage with the marketing team or, at a minimum, a graphic designer to ensure that the style, design, language and tone are relevant to the target audience and professionally finished. These should be made and available for all press inquiries.

Next, it is time to decide where and how to get the message out to the potential target guests. In today’s complex world, it is very important to understand who the influencers are in the segment where you compete. These can be local writers, bloggers, sophisticates, trend setters, or frequent local guests – it’s always different. It is also beneficial to take a deep look at your competition to see what strategies they are successfully deploying to get their message out to the public. Once the influencers have been identified, it is time to start building relationships. Invite them to the restaurant and have the chef prepare a tasting menu to talk about all the special things in the restaurant. Continue to build the relationship through the year by inviting them to menu development sessions and send them unsolicited seasonal recipes for food and cocktails that they may be of interest. Become a resource for them and grow the relationship.

Now, it is time to reach out and become part of your local community. It goes back to grass roots marketing efforts to win guests one at a time. Don’t waste your efforts trying to get national attention when the goal should be to become a staple in the neighbourhood. No hotel restaurant can survive on merely hotel guests; so it is critical to get the local community engaged with your restaurant. It is the locals in the restaurant that will give it the authentic feel that most hotel guests crave when travelling to new cities. To gain local recognition, reach out to influential organisations, become part of the local chef’s movement and participate in local and regional events that align with the restaurant positioning. Develop programs that make the locals feel special and want to spend time at the restaurant.

When discussing social media, many operators will go right to a setting up a Website, Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram site. This is acceptable if you are active and have followers. Again, this can be a very time consuming undertaking with little return. It requires planning and resources so the restaurant becomes something interesting to followers and not just a repetitive flow of “Come in for Happy Hour” solicitations with bad food shots taken with someone’s phone. Any social media program must be carefully planned and managed to be interesting and valuable to the follower. Keeping in mind that less than 10% of your followers will ever walk into the restaurant in any given year, it is imperative that resources are allocated to get the best return.

In any social media campaign, it is important to create a conversation to get guests engaged and curious regarding what is happening at the restaurant. This can be done by creating seasonal newsletters, sharing recipes, having the chef provide comments on the local farmers market or sharing insights from a local fisherman that services the restaurant. Those that are more adventurous can do crowdsourcing polls to obtain ideas for new items to be added to the menu or to build new menu items or cocktails and have social media followers vote on the items or ingredients used. It’s all about engagement and creating interest.

In many instances, the best marketing efforts may be to monitor reputation and maximise exposure on online booking agents like OpenTable. Understand how to better maximise the restaurant’s performance, drive business to soft times and increase guest mix. Read and respond to reviews on Yelp, Trip Advisor and Zagat and learn from them. Do not give the typical “Thanks for your comment, we will try harder” response. Provide real customised responses. Share these with your team and invite guests back. Although at times guest feedback can be a difficult to swallow, consider it a gift to improve your offering and potentially win the guest back.

A well designed marketing plan, successfully executed against a great restaurant, will only get more complex as it grows. Once the restaurant starts to achieve success and recognition, the desire for information and access will only grow. This is a fantastic problem to have but nonetheless, it takes time, resources and finesse. In the end, it’s all about winning guests one at a time and making sure that every experience is memorable.

While looking at new ways to attract potential guests, don’t forget that the most important guest you have is the one in the dining room right now.

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