Speaking at the recent SFM Critical Issues Conference in New York City in late April, where he presented part of a session focused on Workplace Solutions for Customer Engagement, Sodexo's senior Director of Digital Strategy, Bill Mitchell explored some of the options dining providers now have to enhance their connection to customers with an interest in healthy lifestyles.

Mitchell, part of Sodexo's Corporate Services Group, said it is increasingly clear that the promotion of health and wellness is becoming a priority in the B&I marketplace. 
 
“Healthcare is a big issue,” he said. “And it’s a pretty giant problem if you look at how much we spend on it relative to other parts of our economy. So far, only about four percent of healthcare outlays have been spent on driving healthcare related behavior, but that’s starting to change. Organizations are increasingly seeing that they have a responsibility to influence health and wellness behavior of their employees.”
 
He noted employer surveys that show nearly 90% of employers are considering or have already introduced initiatives designed to encourage more healthful behavior among their workforce employees.
 
“Those that are spending money on such incentives for employees are actually seeing results,” he noted. “They are seeing their healthcare costs driving down.”
 
Mitchell, whose role focuses on incorporating and leveraging technology as an enabler to drive operator and consumer engagement, said that dining programs have the opportunity to play a key role in such initiatives. 
 
“It’s early in the game,” he observed, emphasizing that much of what is going on now can be characterized as a "learning period" as operators and employers look to see what drives engagement. At the same time, it is clear that “mobile technology is very integral to these efforts. Mobile devices make it much easier to be in touch with their health and wellness.”
 
Mitchell also noted that application developers entering this market are offering a variety of services and approaches, giving operators like Sodexo and clients like those in the SFM audience a wide variety of options to try out.
 
Noting that more than 13,000 mobile apps focusing on health and fitness have been released into the smartphone user market, one that now includes more half of all individuals over 13 and which is cointinuing to grow quickly.
 
The movement started around 2007 with the concept of the "quantified self," he said, a term coined to describe personal efforts to better understand one's self and one's behaviors by way of data collection and analysis. Some believe such approaches will in the future help guide consumers in terms of what to eat and when, what activities to pursue and so forth, all in a very personalized way that reflect their own health and wellness profiles and objectives.
 
“In the future, much data will be at the fingertips” of those who wish to use it in guiding their own behaviors, Mitchell said. He cited several popular applications now coming into more widespread use in the field, including MyFitnessPal, LoseIt, Weightwatchers and FitFit. After reviewing the major features of them, Mitchell observed that some are designed to use added devices that provide data like perspiration levels, skin temperature, weight and blood pressure to allow individuals to monitor their own health. 
 
The traditional medical community is a bit nervous about such developments, he suggested, because  "if people can do all this on their own,” they may perceive less of a need for doctor visits. "This is consumer driven and the medical industry hasn’t yet worked out its relationship with personal health" because it first has to resolve issues like data sharing and privacy concerns, Mitchell said. “But it will,” he predicted. 
 
Mitchell concluded hispresentation by outlining several strategies he said could help foodservice providers influence customer behavior positively. These included simple things like including healthy options on the menu and putting healthful items at high visibility points in the café to encourage impulse purchases.  He also suggested partnering with outside fitness platforms to magnify their effectiveness.
 
For example, Sodexo’s own partnership with MyFitnessPal has led to initiatives like posting scannable bar codes in Sodexo cafés that allow customers to update their MyFitnessPal databases quickly, without having to enter a lot of information manually. Similarly, Mitchell suggested, integrating a client's healthy behavior rewards program into the café checkout processes can let employees seamlessly log beaviors and earn their choice-driven rewards.  
 
He also suggested finding ways to make wellness programs fun via strategies like competitions that spur engagement and make participation more engaging.
 
His final admonition: always measure the effectiveness of your strategies so that you get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t in your particular environment. He noted that Sodexo found has 275,000 MyFitnessPal users at its client locations, and that 80,000 have since begun participating in the company’s partnership with the app vendor. The results? Mitchell said that Sodexo site MyFitnessPal users lost an average of 9.2 lbs. as a result of participating in the program.