How Restaurants Can Rise to the Challenge of Outdoor Dining This Winter
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People are the hospitality industry’s life source. Selling a certain number of rooms or reservations per week is one thing but without the physical presence of people, hotels and restaurants lack their real purpose -- building a community through service and hospitality. A huge part of why we travel and eat out is for the energy; those organic, serendipitous moments that occur between a group of strangers or friends. In fact, nearly 50% of adults feel as though dining out is an essential part of their lifestyle. Closeness, connection and touch are a huge part of this. However, with COVID-19 forcing social distancing and the wearing of masks and gloves, the hospitality industry needs to look for alternative design solutions to connect their space to their guests, all while maintaining a unique, individualized experience for each person.
Experiences are the things we encounter. They are the reactions and interpretations of how we feel and perceive our environment through our different senses. Enhancing unique factors within your restaurant draws diners in and keeps them coming back. Studies show that 75% of people believe unique dining experiences are worth paying more for. Right now, our sense of touch has been restricted, however, we can call upon our other senses -- sight, smell, taste and hearing -- to help bridge the connection between people and space. These changes might feel extremely unfamiliar at first, being that touch is our most intuitive sense of all. However, I truly believe that by enhancing our other senses as compensation, it may improve experiences in the industry that have been historically neglected.
Simply put, social distancing has resulted in restaurants:
With the introduction of new health and safety standards, we also lose an important human behavioral component: our facial expression. By wearing masks, we lose a direct signifier of personality. As such, our voices will need to play an even bigger role. Operators will need to be more conscious of the messages they are conveying and how they are delivered to the guests, both spoken and unspoken. Nearly 70% of consumers say that kind and positive interactions are the sole key to an overall positive service experience. With this shift, clear communication that embodies calming tones, welcoming hand gestures and body language will become key.
Furniture & Decor
With new restrictions in place, the dining chair and table will be the main touch point and focus for guests. Operators should ask themselves: Can overall comfort be improved? Can cushions be added, or possibly a tablecloth? With the likely introduction of new sanitation practices, making frequent replacement and cleaning mandatory, the key to success will be in improving what already exists while making the guest comfortable in new dining room settings. Plants are also a great addition. Not only can they help improve air quality (a huge priority in the current climate) but a small bud vase and flower on the tables can add a vibrant and fresh touch.
Understanding how long COVID-19 can live on certain surfaces (anywhere between 2 hours and 5 days) is important as you shape new experiences for guests. In fact, 38% of guests are most concerned about touching shared objects such as countertops, cash, napkin dispensers and chairs. However, regardless of material, frequent cleaning of surfaces, between reservations and on a daily basis, needs to be planned and scheduled. How can this be seamless or hidden from guests so that it doesn’t interfere with their experience? Or better yet, how can they be involved to help put them at ease with the experience?
If everything is going to be controlled via our phones, from check-in to ordering and payments, charging capabilities will need to be available on request. Can you create an experience for guests that makes it easy for them to charge their phones in a sanitary, safe manner? Operators will likely need to purchase portable battery packs and better yet, ones that have UV disinfectant capabilities, keeping guests charged while staying contactless and safe.
In talking with many food and beverage operators globally, it is challenging to reduce the number of tables and still be operationally viable. Restaurant business models run on tight margins. Once utilities, wages and rent costs are calculated, a profit often requires a fully functioning restaurant. To many businesses, operating as anything less than 100% occupancy will make it difficult to keep the lights on. Many discussions around this have involved some type of plexiglass or clear acrylic screens as a solution (whether partial or full height). However, I would suggest against this as much as possible being that our main reason for going to restaurants is the atmosphere. Screens inhibit the energy and restrict us from feeling a part of the larger environment. If screens are a must, I believe using more concertina-type room dividers, those with character, as a warmer approach, or even branding those clear screens with your restaurant’s colors or logo. Expanding to the sidewalk or increasing existing outdoor seating areas is also a viable alternative solution, with cities like New York leading the charge in outdoor dining programs across their sidewalks and streets. Overall, adjusting to a more simple, grid-like layout and consolidating thoroughfares will help maximize space efficiency as well.
Clear, directional pathways and signage throughout the space (e.g. to restrooms) will be important. Try being creative with applications and don’t think of it just as arrows or lanes. What is your brand’s arrow? Is it a Pac-Man trail? What about a pathway of flowers or palm trees? There are many playful and on-brand ways to incorporate these directions into your existing experience for guests.
COVID-19 informational posters highlighting health and safety practices will be a must, so embrace them by finding areas that are purposeful and sensitive to the cause. Do they live in frames? By dining tables or the host stand? Thinking thoughtfully about placement will show you are being proactive and that you are encouraging best practices not only with your staff but for guests as well.
Gloves & Masks
With both guests and staff likely wearing gloves and masks, the biggest challenge is the limit to facial expressions and emotions. Masks with clear windows or even printed faces/lips could be an alternative solution. First impressions are everything, so make this first impression with guests count. Branding your own logo or brand on masks could even potentially be an additional revenue stream, especially if your brand is already popular throughout social media or otherwise.
With facial expressions being limited, aprons and uniforms are going to be much more noticeable. Think about the colors, styles and types of uniforms your staff are wearing. Do they align with your brand? Do they convey the right message to your guests? Do they provide staff with the protection they need to serve guests? With each of these details top of mind, it’s more important than ever that guest’s are able to recognize the attention that went into dressing your staff to both address their experience and their safety and wellbeing.
Smell has the strongest sensory memory. What a space smells like will be the first and longest lasting impression on guests. Overall, we are 100 times more likely to remember something we smell over something we see, hear or touch. As a restaurant, are you famous for one particular dish and can you enhance that smell to take over the entire space? Can you create a custom scent that people will identify with your brand long after they leave -- like the iconic EDITION hotels or the former Mondrian Hotel in Soho? Find a scent that transports your guests and defines your brand’s identity and culture.
Disinfectants are going to be used frequently and in copious amounts so choose your product wisely. Something natural with little to no fragrance would be ideal. The last thing guests want out of their hospitality experiences is a space that smells like a hospital.
Air filtration systems are likely going to be a must in many spaces. Showing your patrons that you are doing your part to ensure clean air will show your guests you care about their health. You don’t need to hide these machines or filtration systems from guests, as physically showing them sends out a clear (and clean!) message to guests.
Guest priorities have shifted. When it comes to food, they now care less about quantity and more about quality. With this in mind, reduce the number of items on your menu to reflect your highest margin items and fan favorites. With restaurants closed or at reduced capacity for the time being, switching to high margin items with less ingredients is an easy way to cut costs When it comes to guest experience as it relates to food, are there ways you can present these items differently while improving engagement with guests? Instead of a Caesar salad made tableside, can you present the ingredients under a plastic dome before whisking them away to be mixed? Can you get creative in offering ‘immune-boosting’ foods high in nutrients? Use this time to revamp your food while you’re at lower capacity to improve guest experiences in the future.
At this point in time, you should already have turned on online ordering for delivery and pickup. With 92 percent of restaurant traffic [currently] off-premise (i.e. drive-thru & curbside pick-up), online ordering is a seamless and simple way to drive more revenue for your business while dining rooms may be closed. As guests are dining out less during this time, you can get your food (and brand) into their hands by offering it to their doorsteps.
Music can make or break a space. Think about the type of music you want playing after guest’s have been in lockdown for several months. ‘Hope’ is an obvious message that many brands are using right now but what other messages could you share that separate you from the rest? With guests needing to escape and be transported in their dining experiences, think about what your brand embodies? Use that for direction. However, make sure you’re sensitive to tempo and volume.
Regardless of the changes during this time, it is important that your brand identity is maintained. Be original, be true to your brand and you’ll no doubt be able to attract and maintain a loyal customer base. Today’s guests need the simple things done right with high attention to detail.
What brings us together are the things we have in common, our senses. We may have temporarily lost our sense of touch (for how long, no one knows) but we have so many other amazing things we can draw upon; our sense of sight, smell, taste and hearing, that when combined with touch again, may in fact create even better experiences than what we had before!
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