Veteran Chef Matt McMillin On The Essential Ingredients of Scaling A Restaurant Group
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As holidays go, Halloween isn’t typically seen as a marquee event for restaurant promotions. Nightclubs have long known how to bring in crowds, but few restaurants traditionally join the festivities.
For smart, creative dining operators, Halloween is a chance to stand apart from the crowd—and to cash in on one of the biggest spending nights of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $8.8 billion on Halloween in 2019, making it bigger than the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July.
On Halloween, people want to go out, see something new, and most of all, have fun. With a little bit of ingenuity, planning, and marketing, your restaurant could put on a great event that fills seats and even collects revenue before the actual party.
If you’re considering whether a Halloween promotional event is right for your restaurant, you’re in the right spot. Read on for inspiration and tactical advice that’ll help you host a great Halloween event at your restaurant.
Want tips to collect revenue faster on your Halloween event? Check out this quick guide from SevenRooms.
At its core, Halloween is a celebration of creativity. The spirit of the holiday challenges everyone who puts on a costume—and any business that opens its doors for a Halloween event—to transform themselves into something surprising and delightful. Going into planning this event, know that your restaurant itself needs to dress up.
So what should you do? Line your walls with cobwebs and skeletons? Have your wait staff dress up like Tim Burton characters? Turn the lights way down?
The key is to make all your creative decisions in service of a central theme. Coming up with a theme for your Halloween event aligns every part of the experience, and helps surprise and delight your guests.
A theme doesn’t need to be elaborate or gimmicky. Think of it as a restaurant concept in micro: a promise you make about the kind of experience your guests will have. Here are a few simple ideas for Halloween themes you can use to dress up your restaurant:
The obvious choice is to pay homage to a movie or TV show in the horror genre. Spoof cinema classics or goofy B-movies, host a Hocus Pocus party, or turn your restaurant into the Upside Down from Stranger Things. Your options are endless; the thriller category is a big catalog to choose from. Speaking of which, why not a Thriller theme? Your staff would look great in red jackets.
Non-Halloween movies, shows, or even novels also work well. Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Star Wars events are all guaranteed crowd-pleasers. You’ll need to be careful about advertising copyrighted material, but there’s nothing wrong with hosting a night for fans to come dressed up—or with throwing up a few themed decorations yourself.
If you want to lean into the horror aspect of Halloween (and you’re willing to invest in some production value) consider putting on a more stage-like spectacle. Invite a local theater company to perform in your restaurant, or simply hire a makeup artist to turn your staff into a horde of zombies. More ambitiously, you could sell package deals with a nearby haunted house and effectively make your dining experience an extension of theirs by borrowing some of their decorations, artistic design, and actors.
A theatrical theme requires coordination and a larger budget. But if you’re interested in hosting a special, ticketed event, this could be a fun attraction for hard-core Halloween fans.
For the 30 million Americans (and 51% of millennials) attending an adult Halloween party this year, the goal of the evening is simply to cut loose. Bring these people in with a party: turn your restaurant into a club-like environment with a live DJ or band, later hours, and maybe a dinner-and-dancing package.
An event like this works especially well to attract groups, so prepare for big tables. If a bar or nightclub near your restaurant is running a Halloween event, see if they’d like to partner on a promotion that lets guests start their night with dinner at your restaurant first. This theme is also one well-served by selling tickets in advance.
Help the parents in your neighborhood feed their hungry trick-or-treaters before they run out and load up on sugar all night. Kids’ menus and giveaways are great ways to bring in families looking for quick, easy dinner options. Common promotions include discounted (or free) meals for kids under 12, costume prizes and pumpkin painting events, and holiday-themed food items available only for a limited time. Of course, giving away candy is always a solid idea.
One benefit of a family Halloween theme is volume. Compared to stay-all-night promotions like a theatrical production or a dance party, family-friendly events typically feature parents trying to get in and out quickly. That means more turned tables and more covers.
If a full-on Halloween promotion doesn’t fit your restaurant, consider incorporating the season more subtly. A fall theme can be an elegant touch, achievable with just a few decorations around the dining room. Make your restaurant inviting with seasonal scents like cinnamon, apple, and spices. Comfort foods sell well during the fall, so see if there’s room for a hearty soup or pie on your specials board. Best of all, this theme will last you all the way through Thanksgiving.
Decide on a theme that’s right for your restaurant by analyzing your guest demographics. If 60% of your most loyal guests are parents of young children, that family-friendly movie theme could work well. If your loyal customers like to bring big groups and splurge, however, throw them a late-night 21-and-over party.
Theme in hand, you now have an idea of the vibe you’re going to create in the restaurant. You know how long it’ll last that night, how much it will cost to put on, and what kinds of people you’ll be targeting to come enjoy it.
Time to come up with promotions that will get them in the door.
Contests always bring out the best in people on Halloween. And what’s the best prize to offer the winner? How about a gift card for your restaurant, to make sure they come back for another visit?
Ah, the most elemental of all Halloween contests. There are so many ways to do this; Go with whichever options fit your theme.
• Best costume as one pre-determined character (e.g., best Harry Potter)
• Best costume overall
• Best group costume
• Best kid and best adult costume
• Best couple costume
This classic Halloween contest likely works better with a younger crowd. Pro tip: host the event a week or two ahead of October 31 to incorporate the entries as your restaurant’s décor.
There was a time when bobbing for apples was a beloved fall tradition. That was a time before our modern understanding of bacteria, however, and today’s customers are much less likely to stick their faces in a tub of water after other strangers have done the same. A more hygienic alternative is to hang apples (or donuts) from strings. It’s still a fun party game—and a very Instagrammable novelty.
If your restaurant is handing out candy, coordinate with other local restaurants or businesses on a scavenger hunt. Send trick-or-treaters to specific locations around your area to retrieve specific foods or prizes; whoever presents them first wins. A great community-centric Halloween promotion.
First off, let’s recognize that the simplest option for a Halloween-themed drink is to rename something you already serve. Two classic approaches here are to go punny (wherein a Bellini becomes a Hellini) and to go campy (White Russian becomes a Zombie, etc).
But for those restaurants wanting to offer new and different cocktails on Halloween, the options are endless. Here are a few suggestions:
Fun drinks like these incorporate the classic tastes of autumn:
These are novelty cocktails that are almost playing dress-up themselves:
Perfect to offer your Halloween guests on trays during service or in the place of mints when the check comes:
Many Halloween drink recipes include dry ice to add that extra-spooky touch. Be careful: humans should never consume dry ice. Also, ensure you have adequate ventilation wherever you’re serving—and storing—your dry ice. Do not touch dry ice with bare skin.
Liquid that has been cooled by dry ice is safe to drink. If you’re serving cocktails that contain dry ice, pre-cut it into very small cubes of about ¾” per side. Dry ice sinks to the bottom of liquid, so you can serve it in individual drinks, but only of a few ounces or more—never a shot.
The safest option is to drop small chunks of dry ice into a large container of liquid, like a punch bowl or a non-potable decoration.
Once you’ve come up with a theme and a promotion, it’s time to get the word out. Let’s go over three basic ways to do some smart, targeted marketing and fill seats on October 31.
Before you do any marketing, customize your reservation widget. Whether you’re selling tickets to a self-contained event or just serving a fun cocktail amid more pumpkin decorations than usual, let your guests know about this Halloween event by building a unique offering within your reservation widget. Guests planning a reservation will see that not only are you open on Halloween, you’re doing something fun. If possible, we recommend creating a banner ad or photo for your ordinary reservation widget to promote the event in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
If any of this is difficult to do with your current reservation software, see what life is like with SevenRooms.
Pro Tip: Offer upgrades during the booking experience to secure extra revenue in advance. Think creatively about how you can tier your inventory to maximize interest and revenue. Guests are willing to pay extra for offers like bottle service if you’re creating a club environment for the night or allow guests to pre order your special Halloween cocktail so it’s waiting when they arrive.
Make sure the first people to know about your Halloween event are the people who like your restaurant on non-Halloween days. Using guest data, segment your customer database into the demographic most interested in your theme and promotion, then send out a branded email linking back to your specially-branded reservation widget. This is a very inexpensive way to attract attendees who already know how good your place is.
Make it easier for guests to find and buy tickets by including “Book Now” buttons on your social media promotions. Each time you post about your Halloween events on social, make sure you include the link to book directly—and use the custom tracking link to easily track ROI on your booking buttons across each channel.
Make sure your event landing page is not only discoverable, but actionable to people in your area who might not know of your restaurant yet, but who are searching for something to do on Halloween. SEO best practices are simple here: make sure your landing page—and especially its title—includes your city’s name, some permutation of “Halloween event,” and any thematically-aligned keywords you can think of. Here’s an example:
1st Annual Harry Potter Halloween Costume Contest at George’s Riverdale
With these marketing tactics, guests will find your event, notice the creativity that went into the promotions, and if you’ve set up your technology right, seamlessly book directly and discover any upsells you are offering.
Just because Halloween ends doesn’t mean your promotions have to! With guest engagement software and access to the data you already have on the people who have visited your restaurant, you’ll be able to promote new fun events, discounts, upsells, and other holiday celebrations.
Better yet, the data in your system will be able to tell you what kind of events your clientele would be most interested in attending.
Good luck this Halloween!
See how SevenRooms is helping restaurants drive more revenue with special events in this video.