Leading onsite pros shared winning participation strategies at the 2010 FM IDEAS Conference.
How do you increase participation? Here's the oversimplified answer: Serve good food. Get to know your customers. Do both well. A wide variety of more detailed answers from many different perspectives were abundant at the recent 2010 FM Ideas Conference held in Chicago in October. Attendees left the conference with ideas and renewed energy for exceeding the expectations of smarter, savvier and more-demanding-than-ever customers.
A working blueprint for building participation, the conference offered a mix of expert advice from leading industry consultants alongside practical case studies from operators in non-commercial segments. Plenty of time for networking and interaction rounded out the 3-day event.
In keynote presentations, attendees heard consultant Kim Rothstein address the challenges, technology and cultural insights needed to understand, work with and market to Generation Y; John Buchanan, president of Lettuce Consulting Group presented an inside look at concept development within the iconic Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises; Bill Mitchell, Sodexo's senior director of brand management, demonstrated social media's vast applications in both foodservice marketing and the human resources side; and finally, on the conference's last morning, chef, author and V.P. of Culinary for Morrison Management Specialists Cary Neff shared his low calorie-high flavor menus for the freshest ways to happy, healthy customers.
The View from Segment Trenches
In Case Studies from the Trenches, operators from multiple foodservice segments shared the lessons learned in their day-to-day dealings with the challenges of boosting participation and enhancing meal plans.
From the college sector, Nancy Heidtman, director of Dining & Culinary Support Services, Miami University; Shawn LaPean, director of Dining, University of California-Berkeley and Scott Meyer, associate director of Foodservice, University of Texas-Austin, shared their experiences of meal plans and promotions geared to the tuned-in twentysomethings on campus.
From the healthcare sector, attendees heard about adventures in room service and menu development from Tony Almeida, director of Food & Nutrition and Host Services — Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and Patti Oliver, director of Nutrition Services, UCLA Medical Center.
Speaking to the challenges from Washington, parents, and the K-12 students themselves, were Jean Ronnei, director of Nutrition & Commercial Services at St. Paul (MN) Public Schools and Chef Timothy Cipriano, executive director of Food Services at New Haven (CT) Public Schools.
Rounding out the presentations was Mark Freeman, senior manager of Employee Services at Microsoft Corporation who spoke about the all-around experience he helped develop at the Redmond, WA, campus. Expert Advice
Along the way, segment-specialized consultants offered strategies for enhancing operations.
“Lunch Lady on a Mission” Sue Tatum, principal-Vinca Marketing and Communications, offered many tips for ‘working the line.’
David Porter, CEO of Porter Khouw Counsulting, Inc., spoke to the needs of marketing meal programs differently to parents (buyers) and students (users).
Consultant and FM contributing editor Brent T. Frei, president of Frei & Associates, spoke to ways operators can improve the results of exhibition cooking stations.
Tony Morro, Soft Services manager-Jones Lang LaSalle explained how he has taken advantage of existing employee culture as a way to build business.
Harry Crane, executive chef-Kraft Culinary Center for Excellence, spoke about working with suppliers to improve menus, flavor profiles and business models.
Here are some of the best ideas and highlights from IDEAS 2010.
Know Your Customers
“Listen to your customers; they'll give you the answers,” Microsoft's Freeman during his presentation, adding that a carefully researched knowledge of what his customers were looking for in their daily lives led to the fully realized community and dining facility, all on the campus.
“Our employees were going to the post office, the bank, the barber…if they could go to those places without leaving the campus, then they could get back to work sooner,” Freeman said, explaining the value-add that “the work-life balance” can bring to any company.
Freeman described the campus' new West Campus Commons as offering “local brands on steroids,” Freeman said, describing the 14 restaurants from downtown that have outlets on the campus; the bike shop that converts to a ski shop in the winter; the hair salon; the family days with Spongebob for the kids; employee jam sessions on Thursdays; fields for sports and more.
Morro explored how dining operators could break B&I populations into subgroups based not so much on age, but on the type of work they do. In the corporate setting, it behooves a foodservice professional to know how an R&D worker's dining habits differ from a call center worker, among other things, Morro said.
Let Your Customer Get to Know YOU
“To really grow your participation, you need to know what K-12 customers who are not eating with you want to eat,” said Sue Tatum of Vinca Marketing & Communications.
Tatum, the “Lunch Lady on a Mission,” went on to advise building on preferences that you already know (do your customers like Asian food?).
Knowing your customers is key, but it's also a big deal to let them get to know you.
“A huge majority of students decide whether or not they are going to eat in the dining room during the first two weeks of school,” Tatum said. “Make your simplest, tastiest foods in that time frame, even as you are dealing with all the other issues that come up then.”
To illustrate a good way to introduce the foodservice department to new students on a college campus, Miami's Heidtman passed out red bracelets with a texting program emblazoned on them, “the least expensive and most effective form of advertising” the department has tried, Heidtman said.
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Almeida of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital lets customers get to know him as a person, with lines of house-made grab-and-go products emblazoned with his face.
“You have to have thick skin to do that,” Almeida said, recounting the mornings when he has found a life-size caricature of himself with blacked-out teeth, or missing all together.
Give ‘Em What They Want
Don't be shy with the condiments for K-12 students, Tatum advised. She shared her not-so-surprising formula for young diners: “Everything tastes better with ranch dressing and hot sauce.”
That's true at Ronnei's school district in Minnesota, for sure.
“Put warning signs on hot sauce, and watch students pour it on,” Ronnei said, adding that “We stopped being the ‘pickle police.’”
Bending the rules when you can to please a customer goes a long way, and — like all the other tips found at the conference — grows participation.