Tourists are coming: Is your restaurant ready to accommodate?

By Dr. Gary Edwards, chief customer officer at Empathica

Relaxed travel restrictions and a desire to experience the West firsthand are fueling a boom in foreign tourism, driving more than 1 million Chinese visitors to the U.S. each year. But while hungry foreign travelers are eager to sample American fare, many restaurants are falling short — and failing to cash in on what may be one of the biggest up-and-coming trends in foodservice.

In today's economy, the best restaurants rely on listening to (and acting upon) customer feedback as one of the primary drivers of business growth. Starting with insights collected across a range of channels, these eateries design and redesign their dining experiences to meet the constantly changing needs of their patrons.

Yet when it comes to meeting the needs of emerging tourism markets, many restaurants aren't delivering the level of dining experiences foreign consumers expect from American establishments. In some cases, respected restaurant brands can't even offer foreign patrons the ability to perform basic dining activities like placing a menu order or requesting their favorite beverage.

Foreign consumers are just as brand conscious as U.S. consumers. To meet the needs of the rapidly growing number of tourists from China and other countries, restaurant chains and independent establishments need to identify strategies to gather insights from distinct tourist segments and translate them into exceptional brand dining experiences for these groups.

Tips for accommodating foreign restaurant patrons

Economic prosperity has led to the rise of the middle class in China and other parts of the world. In coming years, it is anticipated that the continued growth of the middle class will further increase foreign tourism to the U.S. and create new opportunities across the American foodservice industry.

To accommodate foreign patrons, restaurant chains need to utilize many of the same strategies that have been applied to domestic market segments, keeping in mind that the best dining experiences come from listening to patrons across ethnicities and cultures.

Real-time feedback mechanisms. For many restaurant brands, the traditional approach to the customer experience has been to partner with a market research firm to determine the right recipe for the year ahead, often with an annual or semi-annual survey. That approach isn't effective anymore since customer sentiment changes quickly and consumers (including foreign tourists) expect restaurants to keep up. More than ever, restaurant brands need ongoing and real-time feedback mechanisms that deliver actionable insights about customer needs, demographics and cultural nuances.

Cultural differences. Restaurants can better serve foreign tourists by fostering a greater awareness of cultural differences and opportunities. By listening to feedback from surveys, social media and other channels, restaurant brands have the ability to surface cultural insights and to create experiences that are more personalized to foreign visitors. For example, certain numbers have special significance in Chinese culture ("four" is a bad omen, while "eight" is lucky). This presents opportunities for restaurant chains to speak directly to Chinese patrons through the strategic use or omission of numbers in menus, dish names, décor and other characteristics.

Seasonal staffing. The most important factor in improving customer experiences is direct interaction with restaurant staff. But many foodservice establishments lack the ability to communicate with non-English speakers. To improve dining experiences for tourists, chains and independent restaurants can leverage feedback to predict seasonal influxes of high spending tourists, adjusting seasonal hiring to include workers who are fluent in the native language of targeted tourist segments.

Mobile feedback solutions. Capturing feedback from foreign tourists isn't as simple as it sounds. Many restaurant brands offer online feedback mechanisms that can be accessed from a PC, but they lack mobile feedback opportunities. Since most foreign tourists won't have access to a PC during their trip (but are heavy smartphone users), it's critical to offer mobile-based feedback mechanisms featuring short, multi-language surveys.

Foreign tourists are already filling the seats in restaurants throughout the U.S. and there are even more on the way. Going forward, the ability to accommodate the needs and preferences of foreign visitors will be a key characteristic of leading restaurant brands — many of which will leverage feedback to create dining experiences that transform foreign diners into passionate brand advocates.

Gary Edwards is chief customer officer at Empthica, a global provider of Customer Experience Management (CEM) solutions to multiunit enterprises in retail, foodservices, banking, petro and hospitality sectors. He is responsible for oversight of sales, marketing, client strategy, account management, marketing science and retail insights.

Photo provided by Wikimedia.

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