Visitor catering has the potential to provide a healthy income stream and enhance the wider visitor experience, but it needs to be well executed, advises Paul Smith, Catering Consultant, Montfort Catering Consultants.
A plethora of lifestyle cookery and catering related television programmes, along with social media such as Instagram have, to many, made the idea of running their own restaurant or café seem appealing. Of course, the reality requires extensive experience and expertise if the operation is to be a commercially sustainable and a long-term success. When considering visitor catering in leisure attractions, museums, theatres, historic properties and the like, additional factors need to be taken into account to ensure that the catering supports and reinforces the wider organisational objectives and is culturally sympathetic. It is for this reason that the aim to achieve the ‘optimum’ financial return is often a more relevant approach in these environments. Unlike a high street standalone restaurant, café or bar, 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 considered and reviewed to ensure that it is achieving its optimum.
Positioning for visitor catering is much more than just the physical location. Is the overall style, offer and service culturally sympathetic and support the wider organisational culture? A good starting point is to review the organisation’s objectives in relation to determining the extent to which the visitor café or restaurant is supporting and achieving these. Then consider the objectives for the visitor 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 visitor catering offer itself. For this you need to understand your visitors. Whether a leisure attraction, museum, gallery, zoo, historic house or any other venue with visitor catering you will typically find that you have several 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 competition from local restaurants, cafes, bars and the like. Visit the competitors and understand the overall offer within the local marketplace. Try and find a differentiating factor that will set your visitor café or restaurant 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.
Performance relates to how the operational element of the visitor catering is performing in relation to supporting the wider visitor experience while being commercially sustainable and 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 – Is your menu customer centric? 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 visitor café menu 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, as well as reduce the financial potential of your visitor catering.
Marketing & merchandising – This should start at the point when the visitor is planning their visit. Too many visitor attractions still have their visitor catering information tucked away on their website, quite often under ‘visitor information’. There’s no reason it couldn’t also be included in a more prominent location on the website – after all, the visitor café and catering is often the hub of many visitor attractions and a very important income stream. Instagram, Facebook and other social media forums are also very important marketing mediums not just for promoting the main attraction but equally the visitor catering. We work with a great number of leisure attractions and museums where the Instagram food and visitor catering images get many more likes, visits and comments than those related to the main attraction.
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 catering transaction spend.
A great number of the visitor attractions that we work with state that they want to be commercially sustainable. For the majority, this is much more than just ‘getting by’. It’s about ensuring that the visitor catering is relevant to visitors’ needs and that it provides a consistently high visitor experience as well as the optimum financial return.
All too often the perceived route to profit is based on a cost focused mentality. While an appropriate cost structure is essential, it is the additional revenue opportunities that can provide the greatest opportunity to enhanced profit. For many leisure attractions and 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 visitor 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 visitor 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.
These are, of course, just a few considerations when looking at improving existing visitor catering or planning for new visitor cafes and restaurants. Successful visitor catering often starts with a catering strategy or catering feasibility study, while existing visitor restaurants and cafes have the potential to improve the visitor experience and financial return following a comprehensive catering operational and financial review.
If you are looking for a catering consultant to improve your existing visitor café and visitor catering or are looking for advice to plan and develop new visitor catering facilities please do get in touch to see how we could support you.
Montfort Catering Consultants – supporting leisure attractions, cultural and heritage venues with innovative catering expertise, creating commercially sustainable operations.
Posted on March 7th, 2019