More competition means F&B professionals face a daily challenge in retaining old customers and wooing new ones – so how are the region’s leading outlets managing their marketing strategies?
The Middle East’s top tourism destinations are working hard to beef up their credentials as gastronomic hubs and thanks to numerous big-name brands and innovative new eateries opening up in locations across the UAE, Qatar and Lebanon in particular, the region’s food and beverage scene is hitting new heights.
But with so many restaurants, bars and clubs now in operation, the competition for custom is fierce; the hottest new venue in town could flop if it doesn’t attract the right crowd, while even a long-term favourite can fail if its clientele loses interest. And still more outlets are on their way, as Rotana Hotel Management Corporation’s corporate vice president for F&B operations, James Wierzelewski, observes: “The Middle East is identified as one of the key growth markets for the food and beverage industry; it’s set for fast and profitable growth, as new hotel chains along with outlets open up every year.” Indeed Rotana is a prime example, with plans for 100 hotels across the region by 2020 – a pipeline that will double the brand’s portfolio of F&B outlets.
With the number of new venues continuing to rise, how do professionals feel about the monumental marketing challenge they’re facing?
According to Aldert van Zyl, director of food and drink at Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Deira Creek, success is not simply about “where you are located and what you have to offer”. Today, he asserts, it’s also “the way in which you are selling to the market”.
The diversity of that market is a trademark of the region’s biggest cities, and one that presents a fierce challenge – as JW Marriott Marquis Dubai’s director of sales and marketing, John Farelly, notes.
“It’s a cultural melting pot, and as a result there’s a phenomenal range of cuisines available representing every corner of the globe,” he says. “There’s also the sheer volume of options to consider. In Dubai alone, there are more than 70 five-star hotels, and within each of those there are usually multiple restaurants, so customers are spoilt for choice.”
Brinda Hora is associate director of communications and marketing for InterContinental Hotels Group Dubai Festival City – a site that includes the InterContinental and Crowne Plaza hotels, InterContinental Residence Suites and Al Badia Golf Club.
She says: “In other countries we have one restaurant and one bar per hotel, and hotel guests visit the venues rarely, whereas they go to independent restaurants more often. But here in Dubai, we see local residents dining in hotels more often than visitors – and this is one of the reasons for the significant competition within the hotel F&B market.”
This unusual propensity for local residents eating at hotels has led to numerous dining options in each property – on such a scale that F&B business here has become unlike almost anywhere else in the world.
At Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Deira Creek, van Zyl oversees 16 food and beverage outlets, ranging from a Persian restaurant to an English pub.
Similarly, Hora from InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and her team handle the marketing, promotion and communications for 16 restaurants, as well as the spa, golf club and events.
At Emaar Hospitality Group, corporate director of marketing Vivien Ivanyi is responsible for a diverse portfolio of hospitality and F&B assets across three hotel brands: The Address Hotels + Resorts, Vida Hotels and Resorts and the upcoming Rove Hotels; in addition to several leisure assets and lifestyle dining venues.
“All these outlets offer distinctive niche experiences, and we have to focus on highlighting their differentials through integrated marketing campaigns,” she explains.
With such a diverse range of both products and target customers to consider, any new promotional strategy has to be meticulously tailored.
Radisson Blu’s van Zyl states: “First and foremost, the brand of the outlet needs to be established and in line with the offering and target market. This includes the logo, menus, uniform, equipment and so on. Once that’s done, the outlet’s unique selling points and promotions need to be developed and defined. Lastly, the channels for reaching the target consumer need to be identified.”
Marriott’s Farrelly says there’s also a great deal of research to be undertaken regarding positioning in the local market.
“Look at new trends, undertake competitor research, consider your target audience, operational strategy, price point – and above all, gain a clear understanding of how the product is different to competitors,” he advises.
Naturally, all of this has to be achieved within a set budget – with the aim of delivering a swift and solid return on investment (ROI), points out IHG’s Hora.
Even once the initial campaign push is complete, there’s no let-up. As Rotana’s Wierzelewski notes, whether it’s a brand new restaurant or a fresh drive for an old favourite, marketing is an ever-evolving tool that requires constant attention.
“Menus and restaurants should be changed and revamped occasionally to keep the guests satisfied and curious,” he says.
Whatever message an outlet wants to send out, it’s vital that it reaches the right audience – and that’s where different marketing mediums come into play.
“We use both digital and print media channels,” says Radisson Blu’s van Zyl. “However digital has become far more important and is growing at a faster rate than ever before. People are reading far less print media than they did 10 to 15 years back.
“Digital channels also offer a lot more options, enabling us to target the market more specifically and also providing far better ways of tracking the effectiveness and ROI of such advertising.”
Marriott’s Farrelly breaks it down still further: “We’ve wrapped taxis in restaurant branding, sponsored big sports and music events, developed partnerships with other key brands and engaged in filming, radio and other PR opportunities.
“Now our online presence is becoming one of the most important channels for promotion, as people now conduct and manage both their personal and professional lives online.”
IHG’s Hora agrees, noting: “Trends have shown that online and social media are the most influential platforms to spread the word quickly.
“What’s more, social media allows guests to interact with us – adding comments, sharing experiences and liking what others have posted. This means the guests themselves are evolving into ambassadors for the hotel and its promotions.”
Emaar’s Ivanyi points out that it’s vital to capitalise on in-house opportunities for promotional communication as well: “We leverage our state-of-the-art room automation service that enables guests and residents of our serviced apartments to make requests with the various departments within the hotel – from room service to the concierge – at the tap of a finger, with in-room iPads.”
Certainly, today’s tools are better than ever for ensuring the swift, widespread dissemination of information – which is good news, with modern consumers hungry for more promotions and more innovation.
But both the speed of communication and the voracious market appetite raise problems, for those managing long-term marketing strategies.
As Radisson Blu’s van Zyl observes, staying on the pulse is vital. “The most common stumbling block is complacency, by not moving with and at the speed of the market,” he warns. “Outlets need to stay abreast of market movements…if your competitors do this faster than you, they will be the ones to reap the benefits.”
Another major pitfall, according to Emaar’s Ivanyi, is the lack of reliable data across several key regional markets. “It means [the industry] is often forced to rely on outdated reports or small sample surveys, which can potentially impact the effectiveness of the campaign,” she warns.
Clearly, knowledge of the relevant market and marketing mediums is vital for correct venue promotion; but, as Rotana’s Wierzelewski points out, there is another essential ingredient.
“Creativity is key,” he emphasises. “That, combined with continuous research into customer needs, rigorous staff training, and quality control at every stage of the dining experience gives a real edge.”
Points make prizes
While social media seems to be the catchphrase for a new generation of marketeers, a tried-and-tested format for ensuring guest commitment is a loyalty programme.
From the simple idea of earning a free coffee once you’ve bought 10, to sophisticated programmes offering fabulous gifts for visitors who accumulate points, this method has been successfully adopted for years.
And yet, in today’s online information-heavy world, such programmes have actually gained fresh relevance, claims Wierzelewski.
“Studies by loyalty card consulting firms such as Loyalogy have indicated that many customers suffering from ‘deal fatigue’ – caused by being bombarded by online specials – actually prefer the more traditional rewards offered by a loyalty programme,” he says.
“The studies found this was particularly true of programmes that allowed points to be collected and redeemed across multiple outlets, and had clearly defined propositions in which customers earned points for rewards – as opposed to those built solely on periodic, surprise free items.”
And loyalty-card appeal is not restricted to the long-term clients: Marriott’s Farrelly notes the new generation of customers is keen to sign up as well: “Gen Y or Millennials love and expect to have their custom rewarded,” he comments. “We’ve realised that this new generation of travellers wants more instant rewards from loyalty schemes. They don’t want to build up points over years to achieve a free week somewhere; they prefer to save for a few months to earn a short break weekend, or staycation.”
Certainly, from the hotel’s perspective, these rewards are a small price to pay for securing a lifelong customer. And in a market where attractive new competitors are springing up all the time, a strong, returning clientele is key.
Fad-driven outlets will come and go – those that stand the test of time will be the ones that, through continuous and clever marketing efforts, retain their customers’ interest and, ultimately, their affection.