According to industry consultant and Bar & Restaurant Expo 2023 speaker Izzy Kharasch, of Hospitality Works in Chicago, it’s important for venues and operators to engage guests for as long as possible. If done correctly, customers will spend more money the longer they stick around.
“The ultimate goal would be to have the guest spend about 20 percent more money because they are having a great time,” said Kharasch, who has worked with more than 700 U.S. restaurants over his career. “Many casual operations – not fine dining – are adding in games that the guest plays for free. Corn hole, table-top shuffle board, axe throwing are great ways for guests to hang out, have fun, and buy a few extra cocktails.”
Austin Ray, president and founder of A.Ray Hospitality, known for M.L.Rose and Von Elrod’s Beer Hall & Kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., believes entertaining guests at restaurants and bars is essential in building long-term customer retention. “With our group of restaurants, we try to entertain our guests via free-to-play game trivias, which we reward them with gift cards," he said. "This, alongside unique restaurant experiences, can be beneficial for both the business and customers.”
Restaurants & Bars Can Differentiate Themselves Through Engaging Customer Experiences
Another Bar & Restaurant Expo 2023 speaker, Greg Provance, owner of GP Hospitality Partners LLC and several restaurants in the San Diego area, is currently working with a few clients on increasing revenue and retention through unique customer experiences.
“Restaurants and bars are constantly challenged with ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace in an effort to stay relevant and to give guests a reason to choose them over competitors,” explained Provance, who’s also the author of Butts in Seats: How to Create Raving Fans Who Come Back Again and Again. “Aside from quality of food and service – both of which are important – unique experiences provide ways to introduce a brand to new guests, as well as give loyal guests more reason to come more often and bring friends along for the ride.”
Provance said new and repeat business is crucial to the growth of bars and restaurants, and delivering exciting and unique experiences can pique customer interest and get them talking about the venue. “This type of marketing can be some of the most powerful and effective around and can actually drive sales, as opposed to spending tons of money on ads that may or may not pan out,” he noted.
For Mark Moeller, founder and president of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consulting firm, dining out is all about the experience. “It is no longer just the food, just the service,” said Moeller. “This is part of delivering on hospitality – impeccable service regardless of the segment, food that makes a statement – authentic, flavorful, stands apart from others or the expected. And a venue that ties it all together – décor, guest flow, comfort, mood, evokes emotion. Certain segments have the ability to provide entertainment – live music, tableside jukeboxes, interactive food or beverage tastings, dancing, karaoke, trivia for the adults, photobooths, face painters, arcade style games, balloon twister/artist, magic, a kid’s corner that has games, books and toys. Entertainment is distraction, distraction for adults is important if the kitchen is running behind; for children, it keeps them occupied and happy. This makes the experience more enjoyable for the parents and fellow patrons.”
Moeller said the most important consideration when choosing a form of entertainment, activity, or experience is to stay on brand. “A fine dining restaurant most likely wouldn’t hire a face painter, and a QSR [quick service restaurant] wouldn’t have live music,” he shared. “If it doesn’t work, it could cause an identity issue/crisis.”
Sean Sullivan, co-owner of The Port Bar in Oakland, Calif., as well as the upcoming LGBTQ+ venue FLUID510 in the same city, believes it all comes down to engagement. “How does the entertainment really engage and enhance the guest experience?” asked Sullivan. “Everyone wants to be a star. The Port Bar has a once-a-quarter ‘Battle on Broadway’ for drag and go-go competitions. It’s typically eight to 10 contestants, who each turn out as many friends as possible to get cheered to the final round. We have karaoke each Thursday, but every month with a 5th Thursday, we have a competition where again folks turn out their friends to get them to the final round. New customers come into the space each time so its a win for us no matter who wins the competition.”
At Sullivan’s upcoming new venue, FLUID510, he expects to take the lessons they’ve learned at The Port Bar and turn it up exponentially. “The venue is 5,000 square feet with 21-foot ceilings,” he said. “We can’t wait to engage our customers with the endless possibilities FLUID510 provides.”
Over in Minneapolis, Minn., CEO Kam Talebi, Kaskaid hospitality group, encourages every bar, restaurant, and venue to create unique experiences for guests. “This and community are the reasons why they come in,” said Talebi, whose group runs The Butcher's Tale artisanal steakhouse.
Talebi and his team are looking at creating a hidden “speakeasy” inside of their next bar/restaurant. “People love exclusivity, and the harder it is to get into the tiny bar hidden behind a bookshelf, the more demand there will be for it,” he said. “It is a very fun way to give guests a unique experience, and accommodate guests who need privacy.”
Executive Chef Shannon Williams, Holston House Nashville, said they’ve jumped on the elevated experience trend by focusing on pop-up bars and other forms of entertainment. They even received some attention for their Hocus Pocus-themed Halloween pop-up bar and immersive Christmas experience.
“Being located in one of the most populated bar and restaurant scenes in the U.S., [Nashville] requires keeping a pulse on unique activations to elevate customer experiences and get more guests in the door,” revealed Williams. “It’s given us more opportunities for locals and tourists to try our delicious food and experience the incredible ambience of Holston House hotel.”
The recent Holston House Halloween bar included guest performances from a Sanderson Sisters group, inspired by Hocus Pocus, which even drew celebrity attendance, such as Chrissy Metz and Melissa Joan Hart. “Our Old-Fashioned Christmas bar included rat-pack style musicians, and our current pop-up bar, Flower Power, involves spring cocktails, groovy small bites, flower crown making, a DJ, a photobooth, and more,” said Williams, who’s seen an incredible ROI from diving into these entertainment-style experiences, resulting in more bookings and an up-drive in F&B profits."
Consider These Ideas & Inspiration for Engaging Experiences at Bars and Restaurants
If you’re a bar or restaurant operator and you want to create engaging experiences for customers, what are some of the things you can do?
Matt Handrick, co-owner of Odyssey Mobile Adventures, pointed out that mobile activities make a lot of sense for restaurants and bars. “Mobile axe throwing has taken over in our area, with many of the bars locally having the entertainment we offer over on a monthly basis,” he said. “Axe throwing, rage rooms, archery lanes, and anything else able to set up concisely on site are completely hands off and easy for a bar to host. Most locations are able to use social media to market the activities to create a small event and get people out to their storefront, who wouldn't regularly be dropping by on a Friday night.”
Tommy Lim, CEO of Golfzon America, said off-course golf entertainment has exploded over the past few years, and Golfzon has helped numerous bar and restaurant owners capitalize on the demand. "In addition to providing the most realistic simulated golf experience available, our TwoVision simulators include an arcade feature with four virtual game modes, which allow owners to create a stress-free environment that attracts avid golfers, complete beginners, and families of all ages,” said Lim. “These facilities can now provide league nights, corporate outings, birthday parties, and many other new revenue drivers.”
Golfzon America is a global leader in golf simulation, and the company noted that just one Golfzon simulator installed at a bar or restaurant can add $75,000 in revenue per year, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to hit that number – just five hours of play on 300 out of 365 days of the year.
Beyond golf as entertainment, US Bowling Corporation’s Bill Snoberger, national sales manager, said there once was a time in the not-too-distant past when a bar or restaurant wouldn't even consider installing bowling lanes. “Two regulation bowling lanes would take up almost 1,200 square feet of space and cost about $125,000,” said Snoberger. “Plus, there was no one on staff able to maintain the freefall beat of a pinsetting machine. They were dangerous, loud, and drew a ton of electricity. Guests had to change their shoes and the chance of slipping and falling with coke and beer spills was a constant worry. Throwing a 12-pound bowling ball 60 feet is not an easy chore for everyone.”
Now, enter the world of string pinsetters and mini bowling. “Today, a pub, lounge, or restaurant can install two fully operational Rollerball Classic mini lanes in about 450 square feet [of space],” explained Snoberger. “Guests no longer need to change into bowling shoes. Guests don't care; they're only throwing a four-pound, 4.75-inch diameter bowling ball 29 feet to knock down the pins. It's something everyone can do. Three generations can bowl together on mini bowling. We are finding out venues with mini bowling are selling just as much food and beverage in less than half the square feet of traditional lanes. That's the win-win right there. Full size lanes have too much unused square footage only the bowling ball uses…. People don't care about the length of the lane or the size of the ball. They care about the social atmosphere, good food, good drink, and a killer good time. Sitting at a bar is, let's face it, kind of boring. Giving the guests something to do becomes fun and exciting.”
Another distinctive way to entertain guests – right at the table and on the table – comes from Interactive Restaurant Technology (IRT) by Kodisoft. Their cutting-edge smart tables are designed to make the dining experience more interactive, intuitive, and engaging, empowering customers to customize their orders and make payments seamlessly.
Dmytro Kostyk, CEO and founder of IRT by Kodisoft, explained, “Smart tables offer not just TV or live broadcasting from the kitchen, but also the collaborative experience. Smart tables bring back live communication and emotion on the table. People are laughing, smiling, and doing things together like puzzle games or table board games, or sharing photos with their friends and family, instead of isolating themselves in their smartphones. Food ordering, games, music, sharing experiences – all things are made to be collaborative. Even cross-table experience is possible, like sharing images of sending a glass of wine or beer to the next table. All of this we call the combination of online and offline entertainment. It's as if you are playing chess with someone at the next table, but in a minute, you can join him in person and discuss the game.”
Recently, NUA Smart Restaurant, a tech inspired eatery in Barcelona, Spain, and a user of Kodisoft's IRT Smart Tables, received the Alimara Awards 2023 honor for Best Digitalization. The award recognizes the restaurant's innovative use of technology to enhance the dining experience, increase efficiency and drive growth.
At the recent Bar & Restaurant Expo in Las Vegas, Wikki Stix showcased another creative and hands-on solution for tabletop entertainment for kids—and even adults.
Kem Clark, president of Omnicor, Inc., The Wikki Stix Co., said, “…kids can become bored, restless, and loud while sitting at a restaurant table. And cranky since they’re hungry! And, if they’ve gone out to eat because Mom was too tired to cook, she may not have grabbed something to entertain the kids during the wait time. And the one thing she really wants is a quiet, peaceful dining experience. Wikki Stix to the rescue! Because they are truly unique, Wikki Stix have found a home in restaurants, offering far more play value than crayons, as kids [and adults] can not only make flat designs, but also 3D creations and fun Wikki ‘jewelry,’ like friendship bracelets, rings, etc.”
Because they’re reusable, any Wikki Stix creation can be taken apart and made into something totally different – again and again. “For that reason, the product keeps kids busy for long periods of time, which has even made it popular with airlines, as the in-flight toy,” said Clark, who pointed out that the product is made in the United States and the company has been around for 33 years. “Our restaurant units are our Mini Play Paks, a small bag with eight Wikki Stix in assorted colors, along with a two-sided activity sheet. One side has lots of ideas and illustrations of what you can make and do with Wikki Stix, and the flip side has a connect-the-dot that kids complete with the Wikkies, simply by pressing them onto the paper. They can easily be peeled up to be used over and over. And it is this side that we can customize for the restaurant, making the unit an inexpensive marketing tool – the kids know where to go back for more Wikki Stix.”
Indeed, no one should be overlooked when it comes to engaging experiences. GP Hospitality Partners’ Provance said venues should even consider “furry friend” activities for pets and their owners. “One thing that pet owners love more than their pets is other people that show love to their pets,” he said. “Restaurants like Shake Shack and Everbowl offer doggy treats and snacks with each meal. I once attended an event for pets at an upscale restaurant on Halloween weekend, complete with doggy costume contests, pet caricatures, animal vendors, and brunch with your pet. It was such a huge success that the restaurant began hosting the event quarterly.”
Food & Beverage Can Also Engage and Entertain Guests
Of course, it’s important to remember that food and beverage can also be fun and entertaining. A prime example is Ripples, a pioneer of bev-top media.
With the Ripple Maker printer, restaurants and bars can delight customers by printing beautiful designs directly onto the foam of their drinks, ideal for promoting special events and holidays, as well as to showcase the venue’s unique style and personality. Customers can also use the Ripples app to easily print their selfie, favorite pictures, or messages on top of their latte, beer, or cocktail. It’s a scalable way to create a personalized and unique drink experience in seconds – and a great way to encourage second rounds and social media shares, according to the company. The creative solution doesn’t impact the taste of the drink, as the ingredients are plant-based, and it can even glow under UV light.
Over at Maple & Ash, located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the innovative team has a few tricks up its sleeve to make food and beverage entertaining, with secret and over-the-top menu items to “wow” guests each visit.
For example, Maple & Ash’s show-stopping Blackout Oysters are a dose of luxury to get the table going right from the start. Two Michelin-starred Chef Danny Grant takes a Beau Soleil Oyster and heaps a generous amount of Kaluga caviar on top, before setting the bite on a chilled vodka shot in a crystal glass. The idea is to start the dinner off with a fun, serious bang.
And then for “those in the know” is Maple & Ash’s Pasta Back. To chase the restaurant’s signature fire-roasted seafood towers, piled high and finished with a rich garlic butter and chili oil mixture, the server will bring out the off-menu favorite upon request. It’s basically a pot of hand-rolled conchigliette pasta that the server gracefully tosses at-table with the remaining spicy butter mixture that pooled at the bottom of the seafood tower, soaking up all the umami-seafoody-goodness that remains. They also have celebratory menus that are customizable to wish diners “HAPPY F*@kING” anything. Overall, the venue doesn’t take itself too seriously – yet, it maintains its refined signature flair – to create fun moments and experiences that guests will enjoy and showcase on TikTok and Instagram.
‘Get Guests Coming Back Week After Week’
Hospitality Works’ Kharasch suggested that operators check out what other venues are doing in their area, in terms of creative fare, engaging entertainment, and activities and see if those programs are successful. “You may want to bring a similar idea into your operation but do it on a different day from your competition,” he shared. “Utilize technology. There are great new ways to implement trivia into your restaurant or bar, get more engagement and, most importantly, get guests coming back week after week.”
In the end, according to Dallas Cheatham – the ready-to-drink (RTD) brand director for Jack Daniel's, which recently launched the Jack Daniel's and Coca-Cola RTD – “It’s crucial for bars, restaurants and brands to provide consumers with one-of-a-kind moments – sometimes through new taste experiences, sometimes with a new twist on an old favorite.”
Aaron Kiel is an editor, writer and public relations professional in Raleigh, N.C. He’s worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for two decades, as well as hospitality and technology. He’s a journalist at heart, but he also wears a PR and communications hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He’s a contributing writer/reporter for Questex’s Bar & Restaurant News, and he recently worked as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group. In 2023, he was a finalist and honorable mention in the “Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards” for Range of Work by a Single Author – B2B.” Connect with him on Instagram: @adventurer_explorer.
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