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NRA Trade Show Report: Better Tech, Happier Customers, Fatter Margins

Most years there is a dominant tech solution at the NRA Show. Not this year. This year we saw a range of technologies clustered around a common theme: guest experience.

Wait list management apps, tablets for table top ordering, customer guest loyalty solutions. New solutions for old problems — not just incrementally higher-tech versions of the same solutions. Rajat Suri from E La Carte, a tabletop ordering tablet company, said it best: The modern concept of the restaurants started in Roman times and has barely changed. But change is coming.

The new tech and what it does are fundamentally different from the last generation’s tools: less expensive, more functional and easier to use and maintain. This means for the first time restaurants are not swapping cost elements; they are replacing heavyweight legacy tools for margin-enhancing, operationally better solutions. I’ll repeat to make sure you didn’t miss it: margin-enhancing, operationally better solutions.

Technology and hospitality are no longer separate. Through deep integration, we’re seeing restaurants improve the guest experience in ways we never imagined before now. The restaurant you grew up in and trained in is not the restaurant you can run today, and is definitely not the restaurant you will run in a few years. And this is a good thing.

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Before, During and After the National Restaurant Association Show. Six Tips to Make it Pay Off

The National Restaurant Association trade show is massive: 58,000 attendees, 1900 vendors, more than 135 educational seminars. And away from the convention center are hundreds of other events- receptions, parties, seminars…. Months of things to do crammed in to four days.

It is easy to get overwhelmed and waste time running around. To take full advantage you need a plan. I spent years as an exhibitor and now more as an attendee. Following six easy tips can make the difference between wasted time, money and energy and a business-defining event.

Before

1. Have a Focus.  Well before the show figure out what is most important to you. Are you primarily there to meet new vendors? Learn about trends? Build a personal network? Use this focus to make schedule decisions before and during the show.

2. Make a Schedule. Make appointments with the people you most want to see; don’t assume you’ll find them on the convention floor. Know when the important seminars are. If you don’t, you will miss opportunities. 

During

3. Ask Questions. Collecting brochures from vendors is nice, but then you are only learning what they want to tell you. Ask questions while you them there, and you’ll learn what you want to know.

4. Write things down. Take a break every hour to write notes to yourself or your team. What did you learn, who did you meet? This is especially important for business cards: “wants info kit”; “like our logo”. Otherwise you’ll end up with a jumble of cards and no idea who wanted which information. 

After

5. Follow Up. I am amazed at how many people make connections at trade shows and then never follow up. Even if there is no specific next step, a simple “it was great to meet you and talk about XYZ” can create a powerful connection.

6. Share with your team. It will make everyone understand why they covered for you while you were out, make them smarter about their jobs, and organize the team to take advantage of new opportunities.

The NRA show is huge but these lessons apply to all trade shows. I hope everyone really enjoys the amazing coming together of the restaurant industry, takes advantage of the opportunity.

Bonus Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and drink plenty of water!

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Have a Phone Number but no Phone?

At the Restaurant Marketing and Delivery Association annual meeting I gave a talk on using social media as a customer engagement tool, especially for service. I asked for a show of hands, how many businesses used twitter for customer service? How many monitored it steadily?

Out of the 100 attendees, about 4 raised their hands. 4? That is worse than having a phone number but no phone.

When you have a phone number and no phone, people- customers- can call all day and no one will answer. You have no idea if they are happy or angry, want to buy, or have an idea. But a phone is one to one communication. Only the caller knows if the call isn’t answered.

Twitter is one to many.  Every person who follows a user gets the same message- they see the tweet and they see the gaping void that follows. 140 characters is plenty of space to get across:

  • Hey @business you shd call Bob’s Deli about joining your restaurant network. They are interested. Ask 4 Bob (108 characters)
  • So happy with @business! Dinner was great and I didn’t have to cook or drive.  #happycustomer (78 characters)
  • Where is my FOOD!? Hungry and tired here. This is getting ridiculous.  Tick tock! #lowbloodsugar #nexttimemakeshaghetti (119 characters)

If you don’t monitor your twitter account you will never know what your customers are saying to and about you. But hundreds or thousands will. When someone calls you answer. When they tweet you should do the same.

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The Story in July

July was a strange month for restaurant e-commerce.  The NRA’s Restaurant Performance Index rose to 100.6 in June after dipping to 99.9 in May. RPI values above 100 indicate that key industry indicators are expanding, while figures below 100 indicate contraction.  eMarketer reported that e-commerce continues to grow slow and steady.  Given that news, it is not surprising that 85% of operators reported sales improved or stayed the same from June.  But commodity prices, usually a bell weather for restaurant prices, moved higher and higher, unemployment remains stubborn and financial markets lurched with uncertainty. These factors should slow To Go sales, the back bone of e-commerce.

So who’s right- restaurants or the rest of the economy? The answer is probably that both are right.  Check out the Ordr.in Restaurant E-commerce Survey results below for the explanation.  Sales are up and optimism for continued success are improving, but so is hiring. Restaurant spending is generally correlated to economic growth but the macro trends that support restaurant e-commerce are strong.  More and more people shop online for lunch and dinner and restaurant e-commerce options are improving. 

The industry-specific tail winds are overpowering the micro-economic head winds.  This was not the case a year ago when sales slumped across the board.  Hopefully we are experiencing the start of positive momentum.  I am curious to see if this month’s optimism is rewarded.

How was business in July versus June?

How do you expect business to be in August versus July?

How was hiring in July versus June?

Oh, and we almost forgot to congratulate Delivery 4 U of Champaign-Urbana, winner of the free car topper for the July Survey.  Don’t despair- you’ll have another chance to win next month.