Popularity wars – Winning customers in the digital age.

Both the restaurant and hotel sectors have felt the full impact of technology-driven democratisation, and customers’ growing appetite to share their experiences online. More than one in five smartphone-using adults have used a restaurant app, and half of all hotel or restaurant guests will upload a review up to six times each year. Where once guests trusted brands, they now trust each other. Reputations have become harder to protect. If a restaurant takes its eye off the ball for a week, public opinion will pounce, with caustic reviews that will follow them around for years.

This change reflects a wider phenomenon, becoming visible in emerging generations, of the sense of fulfilment to be found in carrying out deep and often peer-consultative research on the best venues and keenest prices. Younger generations are also more willing to share their restaurant or hotel experience during and afterwards on social media. Many admit that investing time in the research process ameliorates notions of guilt through self-indulgence.

In this environment where information asymmetry has been all but removed, there is a new statute for restaurants and hotels. Excellence must not only be achieved, it must be seen to be achieved. The power and influence conferred on the major players in the aggregation space has made it highly dynamic and investable. New apps, with new twists, are popping up all the time. Put simply, two maxims are now key – know the digital landscape and know how to work the rules to your advantage.

A few names to know….

Different sites offer different specialities. TripAdvisor is the UK’s most popular, enjoying a third of search traffic. It curates detailed review information, acting as a ‘north star’ of what you can expect from your restaurant or hotel. By contrast Booking.com takes a more openly commercial position with an aggressive pricing strategy and strong multi-platform experience. Expedia is another household name, delivering well-managed bundling capability, and a rewards programme.

In restaurant tech, Justeat is an ordering and delivery service which also curates reviews, and whose vision is no less than ‘To create the world’s greatest food community’. Opentable offers both booking services and reviews for its users. For restaurants it also offers reservation management, guest recognition, and marketing services.

….and a few to watch

Eaten provides a new take on searching for the perfect dining experience by allowing you to search not only for a type of cuisine, but a specific dish, with customer ratings ‘by plate’. US-based One:Night offers last-minute unsold room inventory at a carefully curated list of fashionable hotels. It also provides an hour-by-hour guide of what’s on in the city you’re staying in. Footloose Gen Z step this way! And to show the sheer breadth of application of new tech, Toogoodtogo is taking a socially conscious stand and fighting the war on waste by helping restaurants to shift unsold perishable stock to customers at discounted prices.

In such a crowded and disrupted space, restaurants and hotels can feel that key success factors are moving beyond their control. However, the reality is quite the opposite. This market is, and will always be, experiential – high-touch, sensory and usually discretionary. Whilst aspects of the market have been transformed by technology, great experiences will always bring customers back. Sites such as TripAdvisor are effective because they provide transparency and a shared community goal – to ratify previous reviews and guide the choices of future visitors. The purpose of TripAdvisor is to organise and present information and opinion, not to create it. Thus, the process of ‘trial by review’ is arguably fairer and more meaningful than, say, twenty years ago when a single restaurant newspaper critic could create or destroy a reputation in a few words.

Three things you can do

As well as moving heaven and earth to ensure a consistently excellent experience, and running an effective, engaging CRM programme, what can restaurants and hotels do to thrive in the information age?

Firstly, stand out. On the High Street you may be one of five. Online you’re one of five thousand. Present your key features in their best light – perhaps your restaurant enjoys a stunning view, or your hotel is next to a beautiful river. Perhaps your wine cellar is particularly well-stocked, or your vegetables are all grown yourself. In the digital age these features can quickly be brought to the attention of customers to whom they really matter, and who may then travel to you from beyond your traditional catchment.

Second, ask for reviews – travel sites are as interested in the quantity of reviews, as well as the quality. Volume provides a more meaningful cross section of customers and their experiences. If you’re concerned that your offer may have missed a beat, manage the issue before your guests have left, and they’ll be much more understanding.

Thirdly, review operations regularly, and get the essentials right. A towel that has been lovingly folded into a swan will be quickly forgotten when a guest has waited fifteen minutes to settle their bill. Payment is often the final guest interaction, so handling it well is vital to cementing a great experience. This is much easier to achieve with the help of class-leading, frictionless payment tech such as Sagepay’s pay@reception. Built to perfectly complement the service culture of the world’s best hotels and restaurants, it offers a host of intelligent features such as allowing checkout from anywhere in the hotel and pre-authorised spend. While Oracle Payment Integration ensures a seamless connection between EPOS and the beautifully designed hand-held terminals.

In conclusion, whilst the promotional environment has become more complex and fragmented, the fundamentals are as they always were. Get the details right, create an unforgettable experience, and win your market one customer at a time.