May 5, 2020
It’s been projected that over the next two to six weeks, states will begin to meet the “gating criteria” outlined by the Center for Disease Control and The White House. From a marketing point of view, we’re calling this the “Social Distance Phase,” where we are no longer in the “Stay-in-Place,” and yet there are still significant restrictions and guidelines as to how the hospitality industry can operate. While the movement towards a return to normalcy is welcome, this “Social Distance” phase will bring a new set of challenges and opportunities for hospitality marketers.
Marketers will have to plan with multiple tiers in mind. In the short term, the “Social Distance Phase” messaging will be geared towards escape and a bit of relief from the mental stress brought about from “Stay-in-Place.” Eventually, as things open up even more and people begin to feel safer, we anticipate a transitional return to normal, starting with domestic travel, more business travel and then ultimately the return to more destination dining and dream vacations.
First, some good news. A recent study from travel market research firm Destination Analysts indicated that nearly 41% of people surveyed indicated that the activity they missed the most is dining out with friends. We believe that as restrictions are lifted, people will have a strong desire to eat in their favorite restaurants. We won’t fully realize the benefits of this pent up demand, however, as ongoing concerns about the disease are likely to persist. Individuals may also have less discretionary income. This will, of course, vary dramatically by market, but we anticipate that restaurants who open during this time will face occupancy challenges, either because of actual occupancy maximums set by governments or simply because of less people dining out. We’re also anticipating that restaurants will need to balance a revenue mix between on and off-premise that more closely resembles the stay-at-home than the pre-COVID time. These challenges are significant. In order to exist and -- dare we say thrive -- restaurants will have to thoughtfully reimagine and re-engineer their brand experience.
While official guidelines vary from state to state, it is fair to assume “temporary” measures that will be enforced while risk remains. Such measures will likely include:
Limiting capacity to 50% of prior occupancy
Spacing tables 6’ apart
Limiting table size to 4 or 6 people
Eliminating standing room at the bar
Eliminating bar seating, if not spacing bar stools 6’ apart
People waiting for tables may have to wait outside
Contactless payment, similar to Europe
Discardable one-use-only menus
Plexiglass barriers in front of open kitchens and chef counters, and even between tables or booths
Servers wearing gloves and masks
Taking guests’ temperature with instant-read thermometers before they enter the restaurant
Visibly offering hand sanitizer throughout the restaurant
Sanitizing tables between parties
Placing all utensils in sanitized bundles
Complimentary disposable masks for guests who arrive without one
Safety, trust and value are three areas that we are focusing on with our clients. How these translate into experience and then into marketing will depend completely on your restaurant brand. Your restaurant brand is the promise you make to your guests. It’s who you are and what they can expect from you. In the “Social Distance Phase” your guests will have to trust you. To earn that trust you have to have a very consistent brand experience. That means that all the questions and considerations must be put through the filter of “who are we”? Fine Dining brands will have to meet people in ways they never have before and casual brands will have to lean into a level of quality and attention to detail in order to communicate the safety that people will seek. All of this will have to be done consistently and with genuine care.
Below, we’ve outlined what we believe to be the key considerations along with a number of questions to jump start your thinking.
SAFETY & TRUST
At least initially, safety will be top of mind for guests. It goes without saying that increased precautions related to cleanliness will be necessary. You’ll need to have policies in place for social distancing, use of protective equipment such as masks, disinfection in high-traffic areas, monitoring the health of employees, and a system for workforce contact tracing. We’ll leave the exhaustive operational checklists for accomplishing this to others. Our focus here is determining how to communicate what you are doing to guests and to your staff. To be clear: it’s not about a memo or an email blast, it’s about how you will make people feel at every point of interaction. It’s about building and maintaining trust in this new set of circumstances. It is important to communicate what you are doing for safety, but don’t forget to highlight what the experience will be. Utilize your outdoor space, focus on intimacy and highlight how these things all make for an enjoyable experience.
How will you communicate dining room adjustments to guests?
A pop-up on your website that leads to a dedicated section?
Do you need an explanation in a reservation confirmation email?
Should you create an Instagram highlight button?
What staff talking points will you need to develop?
Will you limit party size?
How will you handle large groups for celebrations or birthdays?
Will you need to require reservations in order to avoid waiting guests?
What will that experience be like for guests?
Are you set up to make this a seamless online experience?
How will you explain limitations on party size on your website, on your reservation platform, and on Google?
If guests need to wait for their table, where will they do that?
Will your bar be open? How will distance requirements impact standing room or bar seating?
What type of signage will you need to add to your dining room to help guests understand what to do?
How does your dining room feel with increased spacing? Does the space look too empty? Do you need to consider decorative screens, greenery or artwork? Is this an opportunity to provide an enhancement to the experience?
At the Table
How will you communicate the precautions you are taking? Can you make these efforts more visible in the dining room? What can you communicate without words? What talking points will your servers need?
How will you communicate to guests that their table has been sanitized?
Perhaps it’s a small branded sign or figurine that signifies this? (and also serves as an aid to those seating tables?)
Perhaps silverware is provided in a branded paper bag or wrapped to subtly indicate it hasn’t been used?
How will guests know that their menu has been freshly printed? Will you add verbiage or find a way to show this in how it is presented?
Will you provide guests with a branded bag to store their own masks, as many restaurants in Asia are doing? Will you provide guests with masks if they don’t already have their own?
Will your servers wear masks and will you provide them so they are the same and don’t feel like a makeshift solution, but rather part of your well-established protocol?
What about your kitchen staff? Are they visible? Do you need to install plexiglass shields in your kitchens?
How will you present the bill and take payment? Can you offer contactless payment? How do you remain inclusive to guests paying with cash?
Can you still have a “closing moment?” What about the pen they use to sign a credit card receipt? Has it been sanitized or can it be a gift?
With all of this precaution in place, it’s a valid question to ask -- why would anyone want to bother to dine out under these circumstances? That’s where value comes in. We’re not talking about discounts or deals. Rather, we are referring to the value equation where the reward (the enjoyment of the experience you are offering) far outweighs the combination of risk (disease) and cost (spend + hassle). In other words, the complete experience has never been more important. It’s not only about the food on the plate or the cocktail in hand, it’s about those things plus the privilege to be in the restaurant; the joy of dining in community with other people, even if we are six feet apart. Re-opening isn’t only about revenue, although that’s a valid motivation. People need restaurants. The word “restaurant” comes from the French word meaning “to restore.” If people ever needed a place to come together and be taken care of, it’s now. Large celebrations have been put on hold, but graduations, birthdays, anniversaries and ordinary Tuesdays still need to be celebrated. That’s what the best restaurants have always provided. Well beyond a meal, in this new time, people will dine with you because of how you make them feel. In reality, this has always been the most important. Now, it’s more important than ever before.
Understanding your guests’ emotional needs can help you deliver the value they are seeking. Make them feel safe, while also making their moment with you feel special. Conveying the experience you will bring to them, both in terms of the meal and the emotional fulfillment, will be key to drawing diners back into your restaurant. Weave a layer of humanity into your email newsletters or social media copy to connect with them in an authentic, on-brand voice.