Food is a powerful thing when it comes to triggering memories. Probably everyone can think of an experience that was at least partly defined by food eaten, whether it was a special occasion celebrated at a restaurant or a holiday eating a home-cooked meal with family. There are plenty of businesses that aim to deliver a memorable experience to consumers, and by not giving food and beverages the attention they deserve, some operators are missing an important opportunity to impress customers and keep them coming back.
At an education session at the 2013 National Restaurant Association Show titled “How to Make Concessions Part of the Guest Experience, Not Just a Transaction,” Steve DiPrima, president of leisure services at Sodexo, moderated a panel discussion with three executives who manage guest experience at venues.
DiPrima opened the session by talking about the importance of venues in consumers’ live. “Think about your life experiences. I would think that many of them involve things that include venues, maybe your first ballgame, going to a concert, an exhibit at a museum, going to the zoo,” he said.
Then he asked the audience to recall food eaten at these events, saying, “It really is something that should contribute to and even enhance what your visit is like.”
Andy Zakrajsek, vice president of operations and experiences at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, recalled a time when concessions were considered a “necessary evil,” and concessions were mainly quick, cheap food that didn’t add much to the guest experience. Today, top-notch foodservice is something consumers expect. “People are looking for healthy alternatives,” he said. “People are looking for a comfortable place to sit and recharge.”
Zakrajsek returned to the topic of healthy options later in the discussion, emphasizing the importance of offering nutritious food and beverages to meet rising consumer demand. “Those of us who have been in the business for a while remember the days when you would put something healthy on the menu and no one would buy it,” he said. “Now, if you don’t put it on the menu, they won’t come in.”
All of the panelists agreed that consumers are more discerning about food and have greater expectations than before, and vendors must adapt to keep up with increasingly sophisticated tastes. Most foodservice operations are more than a team of line cooks, with many headed by executive chefs.
Although venues might hire foodservice employees with only concessions in mind, it’s important to make sure foodservice workers are integrated into the operation, said Amy Ritter-Cowen, executive vice president of marketing, guest experience and sales at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor programs and operations at the Chicago Botanic Garden, agreed, saying that all Sodexo employees at the garden “wear Chicago Botanic Garden T-shirts; they wear name tags. We make sure they know what programs are going on. The customer does not care who the paycheck of the person they are talking to is from. It all needs to be seamless for that visitor.”
Resnick said it’s important to make sure foodservice employees know and espouse the company’s values, further giving the impression of one cohesive staff. Initiating foodservice employees into the company culture is vital because food is an essential part of the guest experience. As DiPrima said, “We’ve gone from a time that you were hoping the foodservice experience didn’t mess up your visit to expecting the foodservice to make the visit better.”