RESTAURANT ASSOCIATIONS LEAD THE CHARGE
State restaurant associations are to be applauded for having led the way in establishing training programs focused on a higher standard of safety and cleanliness during the pandemic. The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) in partnership with Visit NC, the state’s tourism agency, developed Count on Me NC. The comprehensive program was quickly rolled out in early May for the restaurant industry and operates in tandem with a consumer-facing promotional effort, spearheaded by Visit NC. Count on Me NC has established a baseline expectation for dining experiences. Customers are also asked to pledge to do their part. By design, these same standards can be used by other local businesses, too.
A catchy jingle followed in July along with an animated character named Sunny, who stars in Count on Me NC videos sprinkled with humor and a few virus missteps taken. A clever billboard campaign features slogans like, “Share the Road not the Virus” and “Caution: Flattening of the Curve Ahead.”
In May, the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), working in coordination with their state’s governor’s office, unveiled the Texas Restaurant Promise and the Texas Bar Promise. Details can be found within TRA’s website. Florida’s restaurant and lodging association (FLRA) followed in early July when it launched its Seal of Commitment program.
A number of statewide restaurant association programs are currently available for free, whether a restaurant is a member or not.
COMMUNITY AND LOCAL MEMBERSHIP ORGANIZATIONS CAN HELP, TOO!
Destination Marketing or Management Organizations (DMOs), Convention & Visitor Bureaus (CVBs), Tourist Development Agencies (TDAs), Chambers of Commerce, Downtown Agencies and Main Street Programs
Specifically what can a local nonprofit or agency do? If not already receiving restaurant association emails, join now and share helpful information with your local dining establishments and tourism industry. Even during the best of times, several marketing-related challenges have existed for local restaurant owners and operators. Time demands are greater than ever; however, key influencers should be activated or engaged and monitored.
SCHEDULE A “CLAIM or UPDATE YOUR ONLINE LISTING” WEBINAR
Include how to:
- Claim listings on Google My Business, Yelp and TripAdvisor
- Populate content
- Update hours of operation and map markers
- Add info on the availability of to-go menus and outdoor dining
Offer to help restaurant managers outside the webinar if they are technologically challenged. Each of these sites drives customers. Reinforce the need to maintain a master login and password spreadsheet.
HOLD SOCIAL MEDIA WEBINARS
Schedule a session that explains how to set up and receive social media notifications. This will allow restaurants to receive posts in real-time. Emphasize the importance of responding to many but not all as promptly as possible for positive and negative comments. Failing to respond or, worse yet, making an inflammatory or accusatory comment can only fan the flames. Take the high road when the dealing with someone who just wants a fight or to receive a free meal.
It’s more important than every to respond to comments from individuals who believe that they can still linger long after a meal, like in the good ole days, and then make nasty posts when staff advises management has set a time limit. The fact is that turning a table in a restaurant at 50% capacity is more critical than ever to simply make ends meet. And yes, it’s fine for customers to report employees that aren’t properly wearing their masks; owners need to know so they can take appropriate action.
PROVIDE UPDATES ON ONLINE REVIEW SITE VIA WEBINARS
A destination marketing organization (DMO) should be watching the overall perception and reputation of their area or community, including all of their tourism assets. Online webinars of this type should reinforce the value in keeping on top of online reviews, saying thank you, offering the restaurant’s perspective when a patron not wearing a mask become unruly and refused entry, or a promise to do better. While time is a scarcity, responding to reviews and in the right tone need to be a priority. Yelp especially is known for reviews on far ends of the spectrum, so pay attention to this one!
Early in the pandemic, many of us received a sea of emails and started to unsubscribe. Don’t overwhelm your industry. Instead, share the important things. Just because it’s Tuesday don’t feel compelled to hit “send” unless it has real value. As key Yelp and TripAdvisor deadlines near, let everyone know.
If you find your local restaurant industry isn’t responsive, this may be the reason why … Yelp, an online review website, issued its quarterly Local Economic Impact Report on July 24, 2020. It noted the restaurant industry now reflects the highest total business closures, recently surpassing retail. Of all closed restaurants in July, 15, 770 have permanently closed (60%), accounting for 2,956 more permanent closures, a 23% increase since June 15. Fortunately Yelp advertisers were able to ride through the initial shutdown without ad costs mounting as campaigns were put on hold by Yelp.
TripAdvisor also deferred advertising and is now targeting early August 2020 to reactivate campaigns. It has finally reinstalled the Billings & Payments section of its website, so customers can once again access and control their ad dollars and subscriptions. However, customers have no ability to cancel subscriptions online. Even when going through a sales rep and cancelling in writing, automated emails state payments were processed and invoices show payments were made.
Previously TripAdvisor required an annual pre-pay plan. Now they are offering a slightly discounted annual fee, but payments are front-loaded rather than spread out monthly. The obstacles TripAdvisor needs to overcome to retain advertisers: 1) reputable travel research that shows visitor travel sentiment is waning – travelers aren’t excited about traveling with rising COVID-19 cases across the country, 2) locked down borders, 3) reviews detailing real-time experiences – some favorable, some not, and 4) in many cases, guests are limited primarily to those of past guests. In good times, TripAdvisor is where new travelers go to read reviews and shop.
During a pandemic, restaurants should understand that customers probably aren’t going to strike out on their own and try many new places. They’ll likely seek the tried and true … the places they know and the types of experience they can be assured. In many cases, this is where they’re regulars and know the staff by name. As such, a past guest appears to be the most viable candidate right now.
Remind your local restaurants that TripAdvisor is reactivating ads in early August.
ANALYZE YELP FOR CURRENT LISTINGS
I’ve often found many destinations display a fair number of closed or out-of-date restaurants at the very bottom of their Yelp list. For a DMO, CVB, TDA, chamber or downtown agency with ample staff, now would be a great time to generate a list of live and closed restaurants. Search through Yelp’s list and then send them the listings that are out-of-date and ask for them to be updated. To actually get through to a person, call Yelp’s advertising phone number. They respond.
Then update your own destination website leaving only open restaurants, too.
SHARE SAFETY + CLEANLINESS MEASURES
A restaurant failing to post their cleanliness and safety processes online gives customers a moment to pause when deciding which one to visit. By defining expectations, restaurants can remove potential concerns and barriers. This is key to making customers feel confident in visiting a particular restaurant. This was the premise for state restaurant association programs.
To help your destination’s restaurants, create a page on your DMO website with the standard statewide measures for safety and cleanliness. Share the link and ask that a restaurant post it on their website and on social media pages, if they are, in fact, adhering to these protocols. Read more about Contactless Safety Practices, here.
TIMING and CLARITY is EVERYTHING
Whenever possible, DMOs should take the steps to make it extra easy for restaurant managers. When communicating, reach out to owners and managers at a time of day when they aren’t busy serving customers. Require “Yes/No” responses or provide multiple choices, including Not Applicable (NA) options and always include an open comment field.
ASSIST IN THE CREATION of CONTACTLESS MENUS
Contactless menus serve many purposes with one being the most obvious: a touch free environment. By posting such a menu at a restaurant’s entrance, consumers can access the menu in advance of being seated, review the menu and make decisions. Thus a restaurant’s desire to turn tables more quickly is possible. To learn more about Contactless Menus, click here.
SHARE and EDUCATE RESTAURANTS ON CONTACTLESS PAYMENTS
Removing payment touch points between restaurants and customers is the name of the game during the pandemic. A number of options exist. Some of the better known systems are Samsung Pay, Apple Pay and Google Pay. Learn more about mobile wallets here and here and here.
Who has time to sort out all the details? A DMO crafting and sharing a well researched case study or even hosting a webinar could just be the answer for busy restaurateurs. The most important thing right now is cost. What does it cost to implement such a program? The next question to answer is tied to employee training. Involve an accounting person in the case study or webinar as he or she will know the “what if” questions to ask.
To recap, statewide restaurant associations are leading the way to revive the restaurant industry. However, DMOs, CVBs, TDAs chambers of commerce and downtown agencies can help their local restaurants, too. It’s going to be a slow climb out of the pandemic but if everyone is working together we can make this happen.