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The RLC’s brain-food smorgasbord

Bags packed? Travel plans checked? Appointments and networking strategy finally set? Don’t forget that other key piece of preparation for the RLC: The checklist of what you intend to learn.

A signature of the Restaurant Leadership Conference is the veritable graduate program of education sessions that take place off the main stage. The event begins in a few days, but there’s still time to review what will be covered in the 30-odd Innovation Forums and which ones address your needs.

For your shopping ease, we’ve arranged the highlights by topic:

Marketing

The 2014 consumer is bombarded with messages from every direction and in every medium—digital, print, electronic and mobile. A variety of sessions at the RLC are designed to help you capture customers by rising above the constant buzz.

“Real-Time Activation: Connecting with Consumers Throughout Their Day” will be the topic of a Tuesday morning panel composed of national marketing experts. They will discuss leveraging geography to find the right customer at the right point in their daily routine to deliver the right message. By harnessing the power of data, attendees will learn to focus marketing efforts on those customers most likely to buy.

Quick-service and casual-dining chains are discovering that deals and coupons are not always the best way to create a customer loyalty program. But how else can you drive customers to dine at your restaurant? An emerging alternative will be explored in a session devoted to consumer-profiling data.

While mobile and online marketing are essential in this tech-obsessed world, creating a memorable brand image is still key to a successful concept. The idea that “everyone eats with their eyes” is the premise for Tre Musco’s branding and design work in the restaurant industry—a premise he will explore with Ken Calwell, the CEO of Papa Murphy’s, during their Innovation Forum.

And back by popular demand is Tom Feltenstein, president of Power Marketing Academy. He will share his tried-and-true marketing secrets to boost sales and check averages, increase customer counts and loyalty and cash in on the most profitable market niches.

Mobile & other technology

Tech nerds should get ready to cover some ground; this year’s RLC abounds in sessions on mobile strategies and digital best practices, particularly as they relate to consumer engagement.

For instance, a panel Monday morning of limited-service execs will offer practical tips on launching and maintaining a mobile app. The group will also speak from personal experience about setting up loyalty programs, remote ordering and cashless payment system. Participants include Greg Dollarhyde, the CEO of Veggie Grill and a principal in the about-to-go public Zoe’s Kitchen, and Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon and an advisor to the Project Pie better-pizza upstart of Papa Murphy’s.

Other sessions will also look at mobile payment and loyalty apps with an eye toward reducing credit card fees.

Consumer trends

Today, restaurants are using big data for everything from menu analysis to measuring labor costs to boosting staff productivity. One of the most creative and visible ways restaurants, large and small, are using data is to track customer behavior in order to target diners with messages and offers. Operators attending RLC will learn how these consumer insights can influence business decisions in breakout sessions on the subject.

Research shows that trends in texture and flavor are resonating with consumers. The result: inspired dishes that sell. California Pizza Kitchen’s Thai Crunch Salad, for example, is ever popular and panko-crusted anything has found a place in fine and casual dining. Attendees will hear from research firm Datassential midday Tuesday about how these specific trends lead to menu success.

Data collected through customer loyalty programs and customer surveys holds important clues about the things that matter most to diners—and keep them coming back. A forum on the topic is designed to show how operators can interpret information to create a customer experience that delivers what diners truly value most and translates into real engagement and brand loyalty.

Operations

A marked distinction of the RLC is its inclusion of business thinkers from outside the restaurant business. Speakers with an alternative perspective are given the stage both in general sessions and Innovation Forums. A case in point is the breakout on growth, led by renowned small-business authority Steven S. Little.

Little, author of “The 7 Irrefutable Rules of Business Growth,” will air what he regards as the best strategies for building the success of any business on a restaurant’s scale. His Innovation Forum is scheduled for Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.

Several sessions focus on new digital tools for improving operations. For instance, a Forum on customer feedback will look at the latest ways to mine the customer experience for business-building tips.  Another will be devoted to new ways of managing cash.

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