According to the experts, the Recession has been over since June of 2009, but if you speak to most operators it seems they are still living through higher prices for commodities, less sales and a shortage of guests. The so called recovery has not been the wave of success that has hit too many locations, according to our clients in the hospitality industry. For sure there are some up ticks in various markets in the United States and certainly in several major marketplaces around the world, but by and large most operators are looking for the dining out habits of years past.
There seems to be somewhat of a disconnect with the more cautious consumers who say they are frequenting restaurants less and looking for deals and coupons to stimulate them into dining out and are trading down to less expensive offerings versus what they had visited in the past.
The optimistic part of society and the some in the business world and maybe those who have the ability to spend more are still looking for the next new concept in dining, hotels and entertainment venues (as was recently noted in the Wall Street Journal). On the contrary, well respected market and consumer research groups are predicting the restaurant industry’s growth to be flat for the foreseeable future and less than 1% a year for the next several years.
Dining habits have changed dramatically and will continue to evolve as our society and the world in general redefines its place and space on what guests might be looking for in dining/eating/food occurrence.
In researching several potential new conceptual directions for some hotel and restaurant operations, we recently conducted a brainstorming session with several non-hospitality participants that had some simple parameters:
- What do you want to eat and drink?
- How much do you want to spend?
- What would make you satisfied and happy to return?
As one can imagine the opinions were various, based on the different demographics and economic stature of the group, but in the end they came down to some very succinct points:
- Majority of participants wanted to have more focus on the type and quality of food that was available
- How their food is being prepared
- The thought process behind the offering
- Consistency in the menu and products served
Most weren’t looking for:
- Revolutionary new fads or ingredients
- The latest and great new hybrid fruit or vegetable
Although there was conversation about healthy and nutritious dining options, along with an accent on vegetarian options, there wasn’t a major emphasis put on the definitive need for a complete offering of those categories, just an awareness of those items.
The beverage component whether it be alcoholic or non-alcoholic was definitely skewed by economic differences, with those who preferred the typical beverages and brands, to those who were requesting premium offerings and willing to pay for the product. The beverage discussion reminded me of the demands of specific guests, who choose restaurants and hotels that seem to mimic their own personal likes and dislikes, and are chosen by habit and taste levels.
The last element of the discussion focused on what this type of restaurant or dining concept or program were they interested in frequenting and what would it look and feel like? We didn’t allow the group to use existing restaurants as examples or guidelines; they had to verbalize their individual thoughts and ideas on what they would go to and become a dining habit on a regular basis. Initially the typical words and adjectives were thrown around; simple, good food, comfortable, affordable, friendly service staff, etc.
There was a commonality in their feelings about what they really wanted in dining options and the age and demographic differences seemed to wash away and became more definitive and cohesive the more we spoke about the thought of being happy, content and satisfied with the potential food and beverage concept for the future. It was an interesting shift in the typical paradigm of age, income and demographics that are usually the conceptual drivers operators use to determine the restaurant or dining offering for their hotel or foodservice operation.
At the end of our discussions, the endorsement by the majority was about food products, their preparation, i.e. the thought process in the menu and items on it, pricing fairly, hospitality and a simple and compelling rational that they would be treated nicely so they would return over and over.
Consumer behavior is definitely realigning, some might say it is shifting, but to what and where it will end up, you will need a crystal ball to determine. We have heard constantly about “the new normal” but I am not sure that really applies, since the ups and downs of the restaurant and hotel business are daily and weekly, versus the “old norm” of quarter to quarter or year to year. The dramatic economic aspects of the last few years with unemployment and under employment, lower hotel rates, higher prices on food and services and the shift in consumer dining habits and eating out frequency have given us a strong dose of taking a pause and look at where we are and where we might be going tomorrow.
We shared our findings with one of our clients who summed it up best when he told us we had given him “FOOD FOR THOUGHT – OR THOUGHT FOR FOOD, as how he and his organization needed to address their future.