There has been a buzz for some time now amongst the hospitality industry about the crucial role that 'experience' plays in a successful operation. The conventional wisdom is that, in a crowded F&B sector, the best way to differentiate is by offering a unique experience. Customers don’t just want a tasty meal we are told, but an experience they can share on Instagram and Facebook to generate that all important #FOMO. There is even a phrase to describe this – the 'experience economy'.
In London there are the old stalwarts of experience dining, such as Dans Le Noir (eating in the dark) and Supperclub (live performances and food served on beds). Now there are a whole host of new entrants from Tiroler Hut (yodelling waiters in Austrian garb) to TWID (opera performed on your table, which doubles as a stage), not to mention the immersive pop up experiences of Gingerline and Secret Cinema that come and go across the capital. Even our most prestigious establishments are not immune – the Fat Duck describes itself as a 'journey centred around a nostalgic trip full of playful memories' rather than a restaurant.
The term 'experience economy' is not new. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) coined the term in 1998 and explained that a premium, differentiated business was one that could stage experiences, not just deliver services. Experience was defined as where 'a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.'
What this indicates is that many of the unique concepts coming to market are not 'experiences' in the academic sense of the word, but rather, 'gimmicks' (or more charitably, 'entertainment'). From an HBR perspective, delivering a good experience in the F&B space is the outcome of having provided excellent food and drink from exceptional front of house staff, rather than a separate ploy to garner attention. The opposite also holds true; negative online reviews will often quote ‘bad service’ and ‘poor quality’ as having ruined their dining out experience.
Somewhere down the rabbit hole of experience innovation then, some operators lost sight of this fundamental distinction between experience and gimmick, and consumers instinctively understand the difference. New research published by Preoday indicates that while 54 per cent of pub and restaurant professionals are focused on delivering a unique experience, 91 per cent of consumers care most about the quality of the menu and the food served. Quality of service was not far behind. There is therefore a mismatch between what consumers want, and what operators think they want.
Some of the most memorable dining experiences I have had conform to this research. Babur, a south London institution, presents Indian food in a modern style, with a terrific drinks offering and friendly staff. It doesn’t have the Michelin Stars of Cinnamon Club or the quirks of some 'experience' led restaurants, but is just as memorable. Successive positive experiences have made me a repeat customer. In the fickle London F&B market, such loyalty is hard won.
The Harvard Business Review research into this area is now 20 years old, and predates almost all digital communication as we know it today. It is certainly true that social media has had a massive impact on the F&B sector; chefs complain that they are under pressure to deliver plates of food that are Instagram-able, and businesses fear a negative tweet going viral and ruining reputation. In this connected age, it is easy to see why gimmicks are deployed with increasing frequency – there is more and more digital noise and businesses need to stand out to get noticed.
But if Preoday’s research is to be believed, even in the 21st century the fundamentals outlined by HBR 20 years ago remain true. What businesses should focus on is getting the basics right – menus with clarity, high quality ingredients, exceptional staff, comfortable dining rooms, competitive pricing.
The benefits are clear - if you look after the basics, the experience will make itself.
For more information, please get in touch with Saxon Moseley or your usual RSM contact.