How to Develop Visitor Catering?

Catering has the potential to provide a healthy income stream and enhance the wider visitor experience, but it needs to be well executed, warns Paul Smith.


A plethora of lifestyle cookery and catering related television programmes have, to many, made the idea of running their own restaurant or cafe seem appealing. Of course, the reality requires extensive experience and expertise if the operation is to be a success. When considering visitor catering in arts organisations, additional factors need to be taken into account to ensure that the catering supports and reinforces the wider organisational objectives. It is for this reason that the aim to achieve the ‘optimum’ financial return is often a more suitable approach in this environment. Unlike a standalone catering operation, it is not always the ultimate goal to achieve the highest possible financial return at the expense of other considerations.

How do you, therefore, ensure that your visitor catering is adding relevant and enhanced value to the visitor experience, as well as providing the optimum financial return to the organisation? Whether your catering is managed in-house or contracted to a third party operator, three areas should be reviewed to ensure that it is achieving its optimum.

1. Positioning

This is much more than just the physical location. Does the overall style, offer and service represent and support the wider organisational culture? A good starting point is to review the organisations objectives in relation to determining the extent to which the catering operation is supporting and achieving these. Then consider the objectives for the catering operation. This is critical if defined outcomes are required and the catering is to be more than a passive extension to the organisation. The next area for consideration is the catering offer itself. For this you need to understand your visitors. There are usually different visitor profiles, which often means different food and drink requirements. Of equal consideration, what are the wider and local food and drink trends? Has the current operation kept a-pace and if not, what changes are required? At a much more local level, what is happening within the immediate environment, both generally and in terms of local catering competition. Visit the competitors and understand the overall offer within the local marketplace. Try and find a differentiating factor which will set your catering apart from the local competition and don’t be tempted to follow the herd. If everyone is discounting, ask yourself why. Position your offer accordingly. If your visitor catering provides fantastic home-cooked produce and is set in beautiful grounds then you should not be trying to compete on lowest price with a high street catering operation serving predominantly ‘bought-in’ produce. But don’t forget, this needs to be relevant to visitors’ requirements and supported with appropriate marketing.

2. Performance

Performance relates to how the operational element of the visitor catering is performing in relation to supporting the wider visitor experience while optimising the financial return. This area is fairly extensive but broadly covers a number of key areas:

Service style – Is it appropriate to visitors’ needs, not just in terms of ‘look and feel’ but also the type of service? If you are providing table service, is this the most appropriate style to suit the visitor profile and the changing needs throughout the day? For example, if a large proportion of your visitors are local repeat visitors with typically short dwell times, would a less formal style be more appropriate which may also increase the service speed as well as increasing the participation rate.

Menu focus – Likewise, if visitors are dropping in and out throughout the day for short periods, it may be more appropriate to offer ‘smaller plates’ and a greater range of snacks, visibly displayed to tempt, rather than focusing on main course meals. Also, consider if the food offer currently changes to suit different ‘day-parts’.

Seating – Ensure that the level of seating is appropriate to meet the peak periods of the day and that the overall seat-to-table ratio is relevant to average party sizes. If your average visitor party size is 2.5, providing all tables to accommodate groups of 4 is likely to result in an inefficient usage of seating and will have the potential to deter customers at peak times.

Marketing & merchandising – This should start at the point when the visitor is planning their visit. Also, review the visitor journey and consider if the current signage supporting the visitor catering is appropriate and if required, introduce further relevant signage. Merchandising is a key part of any successful food operation and especially those with an all-day focus. Plentiful displays presented in unique ways will increase both the catering uplift and transaction spend.

3. Profitability

All too often the perceived route to profit is based on reducing costs only. While an appropriate cost structure is essential, it is the additional revenue opportunities that can provide the greatest opportunity to enhanced profit. For many arts organisations, the catering is outsourced and with many financial structures based upon a percentage of sales, it illustrates the importance of initiatives to grow revenue. Business demand planning and understanding weekly sales patterns will help in managing production planning, staff levels and of course, their associated costs. It will also help focus the style of the operation as well as determining the optimum seating for regular busy days versus exceptional peak days.

If your catering is operated in-house, think carefully about margins versus the actual revenue. Margins are important benchmarks of performance but which would you rather have 65% of £4.00 or 50% of £6.00? The cash is usually better than the percentage, although you need to work with both as well as understanding the mix and volume of dishes sold. A balanced and well costed menu should address all of these.

Labour costs can typically make or break a catering operation and it is well worth working with your caterer or catering department to find the most appropriate opening hours to balance the realities of commerciality with supporting the visitor experience.

First published in ArtsProfessional magazine and at 27 February 2012

Paul Smith, MD Montfort Catering Consultants
Telephone: 020 8463 9369

Posted on March 2nd, 2012