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For a loyalty program to be successful, it must express your restaurant's brand that your guests have come to know and love.

Are Restaurant Loyalty Programs Worth It for Full-Service Establishments?

The short answer is yes, but with the caveat that they are executed correctly.

For years, quick-service restaurants have leveraged loyalty rewards programs to entice customers back through their doors and to spend more money. And, for the most part, they have been wildly successful. Partly, because consumers love a good deal. But more importantly, because it gives people a way to connect with their favorite restaurants on a deeper level. Instead of just being a guest, they are now a member. Rather than making a purchase, they are earning points towards some kind of incentive—a discount, freebie, or unique experience. And every time they engage with a loyalty program, they can show their dedication to their favorite establishments. In other words, they can prove their loyalty.

But can a loyalty program spark the same emotional response from guests of full-service establishments? The short answer is "absolutely." As long as it's implemented in a way that's easy to use and reflects your restaurant's brand.

Full-service restaurants are in the business of creating memorable experiences through signature culinary styles, exceptional approaches to hospitality, and a distinct atmosphere. The fact that your guests choose you over other restaurants shows they support your unique vision. Having a branded loyalty program not only lets them be a part of that vision but also makes them feel important.

For a loyalty program to be successful, though, it must express your restaurant's brand that your guests have come to know and love. On top of that, it should be set up in a way that not only makes it easy for guests to earn and spend points but also for your servers to sign in guests and apply rewards. In short, how you implement a rewards program in your full-service restaurant could mean the difference between a loyal following and a confused customer base.

Create an exceptional loyalty experience.

1. Offer experiential rewards that stand out.

When you offer rewards that give memorable experiences, your guests' engagement with your restaurant becomes a part of their self-identity. For instance, you could give customers a free entree during the month of their birthday or access to a secret menu or offering when they reach a certain number of points. Showing your guests that you have unique incentives encourages them to join and promotes bigger spending.

2. Make your rewards worth it for guests.

If guests feel they have to spend a lot to earn a tiny reward, they won't want to participate in your program. On the other hand, if you give them too much for a small number of points, you'll lose money. A good rule of thumb is to have rewards worth 5% – 10% of their spending. So if guests spend $100, they get a reward worth between $5 and $10. As a result, your guests feel they are receiving valuable rewards, and you get their repeat business. Win-win.

3. Cater to everyone with tiered rewards.

Some guests visit your restaurant every day, others every month. To connect with everyone, set up different levels of rewards. Low-cost tiers could include a free drink or side dish, while a high number of points might yield desserts for 10 or a dinner for 2. These types of rewards should be reserved for your very best customers.

4. Design loyalty around your brand.

Whatever digital loyalty program you choose, make sure that you can include your restaurant's logos and colors on the interface. Along with adding these branding elements, choose rewards that compliment your restaurant's style. For instance, if you're a family diner, then offer rewards for kids as well as adults. Or, if your restaurant has artwork that represents your concept, you could offer some custom-branded merch (t-shirts, mugs, hats) as a reward. This helps you stand out and builds long-term loyalty.

Make loyalty effortless for your staff and guests.

1. Empower guests with QR codes.

The perfect time for guests to engage with your loyalty program is when they're waiting for their food. Putting QR codes at the table enables them to enroll or sign in to your program right from their phone without assistance from servers. During that time, guests can learn how to earn points, explore your rewards, and make plans to visit your restaurant again.

2. Implement loyalty tableside with handhelds.

Along with taking orders and payments at the table, handheld point-of-sale devices give servers the power to easily sign guests into your loyalty program and apply their rewards. Instead of customers having to fill out a form and you uploading it into a database, servers can handle the entire loyalty signup process right at the table. When loyalty transactions happen instantly, both your staff and guests are excited to participate in your loyalty program.

3. Connect loyalty rewards to online ordering.

When guests order takeout or delivery, they should be able to engage with your loyalty program, just like they do when they dine at your restaurant. When loyalty seamlessly integrates with your POS and online ordering, guests can sign in to your loyalty rewards program, earn points, and redeem their rewards—all with a couple of clicks. Ease-of-use promotes higher engagement, which in turn drives a more loyal audience.

4. Stay at the top of your guests' minds with email.

One of the biggest benefits of guests enrolling in your loyalty program is that you capture their email and have a way to remind them of upcoming events, holiday specials, pricing events and more. By sending out emails to your guests every other week or every month, you'll be staying at the top of their minds (and at the tip of their tongues) without them being tempted to hit the unsubscribe button.

Rewards drive loyalty and profits—even in full service.

Acquiring a new guest is exponentially more expensive than having a guest return to your restaurant. Beyond providing exceptional food and service, launching a well-structured loyalty program is another tool full-service restaurants can take advantage of to encourage guests (in-house or online) to come back again. While quick-service restaurants have utilized this tool for years, many full-service restaurants are just discovering the long-term benefits of engaging with their guests on an emotional level through loyalty rewards.

The latest restaurant technology is giving full-service establishments an easy way to implement a loyalty rewards program that seamlessly integrates with the POS. With these capabilities now at the fingertips of every full-service restaurant owner, the potential for having a sustainable number of loyal guests is now looking brighter than ever.

Kevin Bryla is the Chief Marketing Officer & Head of Customer Experience at SpotOn. Kevin is a global marketing and communications executive with deep experience in large, mid- and small-sized businesses. Over the past 10 years, he has been the CMO at SaaS and Fintech firms ADP, National Funding, and Kyriba with a track record of accelerating sales, building robust lead generation pipelines, elevating brand awareness, and developing new revenue streams through strategic relationships.