How to get travelers in the door

Whether your restaurant specializes in four-star, white-tablecloth service or authentic street food from the side of a truck, you would do well to think of it as a tourist destination. Having credibility with the locals is valuable, but a laissez-faire attitude toward tourists means you’re leaving profits on the table. The National Restaurant Associations’s Senior Vice President Hudson Riehle has said before Congress that stimulating tourism is crucial to restaurants’ growth. Indeed, one in four restaurant sales dollars can be traced back to travel and tourism, the NRA reports.

Beyond the same old tactics of courting listings in city magazines and sweeping hotel concierges off their feet, how can restaurants tap into the population of hungry travelers? The best ideas meet visitors where they are. “We’re in the service business,” says Shane Mayson, marketing director at Hank’s Oyster Bar, a seafood concept with locations in the Washington, D.C., area “Give us a place to take an extra step and we’ll take it to seal the deal.”

Land at the airport. As airports’ food offerings take off, operators are reaping the benefits. Michael Coury, head chef at OTG, a restaurant group that runs eateries in 10 airports, credits playing up a sense of place. Food trucks are taking advantage, too, by getting invited to dish out local cuisine near terminals or parking lots.

Advertise on the way out. Ralph Brennan, owner of Red Fish Grill and several other restaurants in New Orleans, grabs travelers’ attention with ads on digital monitors in the airport on the way to baggage claim. He won’t say how much it costs him, but says it more than pays off by establishing his restaurants as destinations.

Join the party. Hank’s is taking part in Washington, D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Festival this spring. “Two million people come to town,” says Marketing Director Shane Mason. “We get to say, ‘We’re here!’” Hank’s also gets free publicity on the festival’s website. “Our site has a big increase of hits this time of year.”

Hijack a hashtag. “We have three restaurants, so I’ll use a location-based hashtag like “#onthehill” to tweet what’s happening at a specific one,” says Mayson. That way, visitors doing a search for things to do in the area also will see tweets from Hank’s.

Protect your profile. All of the operators monitor their ratings on social media and sites such as TripAdvisor. “If we get negative feedback, word goes out to the kitchen crew,” says Tommy Hall of Hall’s Chophouse, in Charleston, S.C. “We ask, ‘How can we fix it? How can we do better?’”.


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