Catering general manager Kane Bridgman on how NEC-owned caterer Amadeus is using data to drive F&B innovation and get visitors to leave their sandwiches at home.
The exhibition catering market is changing at a faster pace than ever previously seen. Customers increasingly want greater choice of product, innovative presentation, the ability to customise meals and the reassurance that they are eating ethically sourced food. On the flip side, clients want caterers that can deliver all this quicker and more cost effectively than ever before.
In order to stay one bite ahead of the competition, caterers need to truly understand the people that are eating and drinking in the venues they service, tapping into customer data and using market intelligence to inform and drive their operational strategy.
Know your audience
Research shows people have generally low expectations when it comes to the F&B that will be available at exhibition centres, or venues of a similar nature. Indeed, the type of venues people compare exhibition centres with tend to reinforce perceptions of a captive audience, expensive options and limited choice.
With visitors at risk of opting to eat before arriving – or worse, bringing a packed lunch with them – due to their preconceptions, it’s our job to challenge assumptions, delivering an F&B experience that bucks expectations and improves their overall perception of visiting the venue.
In order to do this, caterers must be prepared to put time and effort into drilling down into the data, looking at the motivations, needs and desires of individual customer groups. At the NEC, we know that different visitor profiles want very different things from the F&B on offer. For example, visitors to consumer shows are particularly interested in ‘treating’, with the treat mindset on par with ‘feeding’ and well ahead of ‘saving money’ and ‘being healthy’. In comparison, trade visitors – attending shows in a professional capacity – are largely motivated by speed and convenience with a short amount of time to cover large areas, meet with suppliers and conduct trade deals.
Thanks to the NEC Group’s data analysis team, we also have the ability to segment audiences into profile types based on demographics, interests and purchasing habits. We use this insight to inform the development of every single concept and menu item on offer at the venue today.
Challenge the ‘satisficer’ mentality
[Satisficer – accepting the bare minimum]
While many factors play a part in influencing where someone will eat, our research shows proximity has the biggest impact for the NEC’s customers.
If visitors make decisions based on this factor alone, they may end up settling for food and drink they hadn’t wanted as a sacrifice to convenience. In this way, visitors would be acting in a ‘satisficer’ mentality, making do with what they perceive to be a ‘good enough’ option which is worth parting with their hard-earned cash for.
While bucking this mentality is a challenge, we have found one way to address this is to heavily invest in pre-awareness marketing, utilising a wide variety of the venue’s communication channels to increase people’s knowledge of the F&B offer at the NEC. This provides an opportunity to increase penetration by communicating the product offering available and enticing visitors to spend at the venue – rather than en route – by providing better information and up-selling before a visit.
Although many visitors plan in advance, we also know a large proportion of visitors won’t think about food and drink until they are on site. In this way, many visitors only think about where to eat when they get hungry! This means communication and way-finding within the venue itself is also key. This is particularly important at a venue like the NEC which covers over 182,000sqm – with a site of this size and scale, it isn’t possible to have all F&B retail outlets open at all times. Instead we open units depending on show location, footfall and visitor profile.
Due to the changeable nature of events we also need to be able to scale up or down at a moment’s notice and that’s where our mobile concepts come in – pop up concession stands tailored to particular event visitor profiles. However, this makes communicating what F&B is available a constant operational challenge – with the investment in technology and the installation of over 200 LED digital screens across the site over the last year, we are now able to provide dynamic messaging to customers that can be updated quickly and easily at the touch of a button.
Understand the psychology of queuing
The second biggest factor when it comes to where to eat and drink is speed of service. Our research also tells us seeing people standing to wait for food can have a negative impact on other visitors, leading them to look elsewhere for food. While queues are endemic at high footfall events, any form of lengthy queue can lead visitors to change their dining plans within seconds.
We look to manage this through investment in queue-busting technology. In the last few years we’ve rolled out mobile POS so that customers aren’t restricted to fixed till points and have transformed all retail units into cashless environments as cashless payments are on average 20 seconds quicker than their cash equivalent. We’ve also changed our operational model in the venue’s busiest halls, changing from a system where customers would queue up with trays to a food court style operation where video screens allow customers to take a seat while tracking the progress of their order from being prepared to service.
Walk the customer journey
Our research shows the availability of tables and seats is the third most important factor that influences if, where and what someone will eat. That’s why we’ve increased the amount of seating available in our catering units at the NEC by 50 per cent. We’ve also put ourselves in the customers’ shoes, taking the time to map out the customer journey from beginning to end, looking at every touch point along the way. By analysing the flow and movement of people around our sites, we have learnt where the snagging points are and looked at ways to improve the customer experience.
The environment, setting or atmosphere, is also hugely important – an unfriendly face behind the counter, rubbish left on the tables or a tired looking retail unit can all put visitors off in a matter of moments. Understanding that increasing dwell time and up-selling opportunities is more than just providing more seating, we’ve also invested over £7m upgrading the look and feel of our catering units across the venue’s 18 exhibition halls – a project that is due to be fully completed by next year.
Match expectations of the high street
When it comes to the choice of products available – the fourth most important factor for customers – people generally benchmark their expectations against the products they buy from the high street every day.
Brands can be more likely to be selected because of people’s prior knowledge of what the brand offers. In this way, brands can provide reassurance about quality, value and service. At the NEC, we have a mix of well-known brands alongside a range of our own retail catering concepts developed in-house. If delivered well, in-house brands can represent credible alternatives as visitors are able to infer associations with them. In this way, even unknown branded outlets can benefit from a type of halo effect.
We’ve developed a range of in-house concepts which I’m proud to say are worthy of the high street. Today, visitors will find ‘The Edge’ within each exhibition hall – designed to appeal to a wide range of demographics, The Edge boasts four unique branded concepts which customers can immediately connect with and make value judgements about.
Interestingly, trends indicate that alongside recognisable brands, customers also want more authentic offerings to choose from. Street food is one of the fasting growing market segments with a £1.2bn turnover and an annual growth rate of 9.1 per cent year on year. Recognising this trend within the food industry at large, we looked at ways in which street food could be incorporated into the catering offering at the NEC, whilst always keeping in mind the specific needs of different audiences attending events.
With seating and décor created from reclaimed materials and graffiti art from a local Birmingham artist, our new Str(EAT) Kitchen concept provides theatre and makes for a memorable food experience. In true street food style, the team will change the menu every few weeks, developing new concepts year-round that change with trends and seasons.
But choice is also about the range of products available – customer habits are changing rapidly, and caterers need to keep up. Today, eight per cent of the UK population have a medical need to eat gluten free meals, however 25 per cent choose to go ‘gluten free’ as a lifestyle choice. While only eight per cent of Brits are vegetarians, and five per cent are vegan, an increasing number of people are eating less meat in a bid to lead a healthier life. These customers don’t want operators to just tick a box, they want choice and won’t compromise on taste. At the NEC, we’ve made great progress in expanding our vegan and gluten free ranges and this is a real area of focus for us in the coming year.
Don’t skimp on quality
Quality is the fifth biggest influencer for people choosing where to eat and drink – indeed, consumers are more engaged than ever in the sourcing and production of food and beverage. The rise of ‘foodie culture’ over the past five years in the UK has led to an expansion in awareness and knowledge of the origin of ingredients – today, consumers are demanding greater transparency from retailers on the provenance of products. Use of craft suppliers, specialised concepts and menus boasting local, freshly sourced produce is simply expected.
I’m proud to say 77.4 per cent of F&B suppliers to the NEC can be found within a 30-mile radius of the venue, and we look to nurture local businesses with 60 per cent of our food and beverage suppliers small and medium sized enterprises.
A third of our customers tell us they believe the food and drink at the NEC is better than other similar venues – with quality being one of the key reasons for this. So, if you’ve got something to be proud of – don’t forget to tell your customers all about it! We communicate the provenance of dishes at the NEC through food maps and eye-catching marketing messages across a range of different channels.
What’s my ultimate piece of advice for catering operators?
Gone are the days of a caterer simply providing a service. Today, caterers need to bring real value to their venue partnerships if they want to see their contracts extended. Only with a better understanding of customer data will operators stand a better chance of getting visitors to leave the lunchbox at home.