The panel of three speakers – Simon Wright, TGP Consulting; Giles Gibbon, the Sustainable Restaurant Association and Rosie Akenhead of Yelp UK; discussed a number of issues and challenges that marketers faced in the increasingly competitive world of restaurants and food service.

Giles Gibbon commented: “I think there is still a stigma about restaurants in hotels but it is better than it was.” He explained however that some of the blame could be laid at the door of hotel marketers who came up with a restaurant first and a concept second, when it should be the other way round. “A concept needs to come through people and be authentic,” he said. He cited The Pig Hotel in the New Forest as being a good example of how the food  exhibited the values of the hotel and ‘felt real’. Similarly the Blue Boar Smokehouse in London’s Westminster had successfully identified a local theme to carry through the restaurant.

Chairing the panel, Ed Purnell, Intercontinental Hotels, asked how in the increasingly influential arena of online reviews a hotelier or restaurateur could distinguish between ‘blaggers’ and bloggers. “What should you do when someone rings up and asks if they can come and review your restaurant?” he said.

“It is very unlikely that a blogger will ever do this”, said Rosie Akenhead. Genuine reviewers preferred the ‘secret agent’ approach and would review undercover, posting their comments after a visit. She said companies like Yelp recognised their responsibility to protect businesses and the consumer by filtering reviews on an ongoing basis.

The panel was also quizzed about the strategic value of placing offers with online booking agencies to fill restaurants in quiet periods.

“If diners find a restaurant is empty, it is unlikely that they will want to return at another time,” said Simon Wright. “Marketers need to think about whether an offer is simply to drive money or to drive atmosphere in a restaurant,” he added.

Giles Gibbon described such offers as ‘marketers heroin.’ “When they get to the end of the year and they realise they have made no margin at all, they have to put it down. The question they have to ask themselves is whether that person who has got the deal is going to come back,” he added.

The panel were asked for their views on whether the phrase ‘seasonal British produce’ had become a cliché and whether sustainability was a key decision maker for the consumer choosing a dining option.

“We find the most used phrase when people search Yelp on line, is customer service,” said Rosie Akenhead.

“When we are recruiting chefs, sustainability is unlikely to be top of the list in terms of the qualities that we are looking for. It is more about the chef who has a passion for what they are going to do,” said Simon Wright.

“Sustainability does not make a good restaurant. A good restaurant that is sustainable is a good restaurant,” said Giles Gibbon.

Here are some other tips from the panelists:

  • Make sure your hotel restaurant has a good enough profile on line and is not buried within your main website
  • Always respond to reviews posted on line whether they are positive or negative
  • Customer service does not end when a diner leaves the restaurant, do not forget the power of social media
  • Do not compare restaurant critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren with ‘citizen’ reviewers, they both have a role to play
  • Design your concept around the local market and people will visit
  • Think about creating a pop-up restaurant, it is a good way of testing the market and attracting interest and publicity.

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