Behavior is shifting rapidly. Here's how to meet new demands.

COVID-19 might just end up a watershed moment in restaurant technology.

The way people interact has fundamentally changed. This is especially true of hospitality—an industry rooted in fostering connections.

Delivery, pickup and curbside, crowd control, contactless ordering and payment. They’re all stress points of the “new normal.” While we know guests are eager to dine out again, restaurants can stall that reality as easily as they can reward it.

SevenRooms, a restaurant reservation system, released a guide to help operators think through how diners are changing, what they want and need in a current- and post-coronavirus world, and what it means for businesses everywhere. How have expectations changed? Will these fresh behaviors usher in a new definition of guest experience?

Here are some points from Datassential, Statista, and the James Beard Foundation. What’s clear is we’ve crossed into uncharted consumer demands, and it all happened within four months.

  • 89 percent: Of consumers who said they felt it’s safer eating food from a grocery store or at home versus in a restaurant.
  • 83 percent: Consumers who would avoid crowded waiting rooms in order to minimize the risk of dining out.
  • 72 percent: Guests who don’t trust others (fellow diners) to act safely once businesses reopened.
  • 70 percent: People who think eating out at restaurants will help them feel normal again.

As today’s fractured landscape tells us, you can’t approach evolving consumer behavior broadly. Mindsets and comfort levels will vary. Some people will wear a mask while smoking a cigarette in a casino (this is a real thing), while others will lobby fiercely against mandates and call their local health officer a “charlatan” (this also happened).

The bottom line is restaurants need to remain flexible and meet guests where they are. It’s their role to facilitate interactions and support how people want to dine, no matter how strange it might seem compared to previous norms.

SevenRooms identified four key mindsets restaurants must cater to upon reopening:

Delivery or pickup diner who is still hesitant to dine out. This is the person who’s accessed your restaurant’s off-premises options during the pandemic and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Guest who wants to dine out, but with reservations or a virtual waitlist.

Diner who wants to eat out, but in a safe, contactless way.

Care-free guest ready to get back to normal.

For a lot of restaurants, satisfying some, or all, of these evolving bases represent brand-new challenges. It’s why so many will experience a seismic shift in the way they operate.

And it starts on the foundational level—systems and functionality to meet all of these consumers at the proper points. Safe options for delivery and takeout. Digital reservations. Virtual waitlists. On-premise ordering. Payment.

“Across these touchpoints, the ability to own guest data, and the subsequent guest relationships, allows operators to personalize and automate marketing—resulting in higher revenue in the long run,” SevenRooms said.

It also offered a pro tip.

“Have access to a guest database with email addresses? Now is the perfect time to reach out and survey your guests to understand their needs and comfort levels going forward. The information you gather from the surveys can help inform your reopening strategy. It’s easy to set up surveys through Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.”

Young Girl Typing Message On Her Smartphone In The Restaurant Garden

Guests being able to order from their own mobile device, even at the table, could play a big role post lockdowns.

The message

A lot of restaurant chains tightened marketing budgets in light of COVID-19. Or they pushed resources into more cost-friendly channels, like social. Others sealed the purse strings knowing they would need to loosen them when lockdowns lifted.

Either way, reopening is a delicate time for marketers. You have to not just inform guests you’re getting back to business, but also to tell them how, why, and what precautions are in place to make the process acceptable for guests and employees alike.

Think back to the new customer mindsets. That message needs to reach all of those people in some manner. There are a lot of avenues to address.

SevenRooms suggested restaurants “over communicate at each step throughout the guest journey to make guests feel safe and comfortable.”

Here are some basics to control your branding and message across platforms and spread the word:

  • Emails
  • Website
  • Delivery inserts and take-out bags
  • Social media posts

Now might be a good time for a paid-media strategy to reach targeted audiences. An influencer strategy could fit, too.

As for the guest journey itself, restaurants need to adapt at every step to meet new regulations and the varying wants of a changing customer. Technology can help.

  • Online experience: Optimize touch points
  • On-premise experience: Offer contactless
  • Guest feedback: Build relationships
  • Loyalty and retention: Personalize and target

The first point

The online experience has come a long way these past few months. For some restaurants, it was simply a matter of optimizing what was already there or adding contactless features. On the reverse end, it’s been a rapid dive into something that typically takes months to onboard and educate customers to adopt.

But the major COVID-19 difference: guests across all generations went to restaurants expecting these options to exist, whether they were there previously or not.

This is an opportunity for operators post-lockdowns. Before a guest receives their order, there are multiple online touch points where they interact with a brand—from asking about a reservation to placing an order for takeout. It’s key, SevenRooms said, to be in the driver’s seat of these communications in how and what you display as it relates to available options.

The starting points—search and discovery. People need to find your restaurant. This has emerged as a more powerful issue versus pre-virus days simply because of the uncertain landscape. We aren’t sure who’s open and who’s not.

And, from the beginning, core dine-in customers have turned into off-premises users. Instead of thinking of “delivery restaurants” and “takeout restaurants” as separate categories, all restaurants got looped into one collective pool. So there were suddenly a lot more of consumers seeking out their favorite spots for off-premises business. Given trust has become the leading currency, guests turned to restaurants they knew already. It wasn’t just about who was on Uber Eats or DoorDash anymore.

In response, restaurants should ensure they can connect directly with consumers across their owned channels, SevenRooms said. Take ownership of online listings and make sure there are direct links to book a reservation or place a delivery or takeout order. Even if the restaurant fulfills through third-party, make that clear on the site. Don’t rely on consumers finding the brand through aggregator apps.

By owning these direct links, restaurants can send guests right to their website versus a third-party platform, where there’s a lot more competition. Going direct can cut out some of the noise.

Here’s a pro tip from SevenRooms:

“With guests choosing restaurants based on what they already know and trust [or what is a 5-minute walk or drive from home], this means your local guests or ‘regulars’ can be the people you rely on to help build back your business. Invest in ways to make these guests feel special.

Offer perks that are exclusive to locals like a complimentary beverage or a ‘locals only’ secret menu. Promote these offerings via your channels and redeem to those who have address proof. Keep in mind, once you learn someone is a local, it’s important to record that data point in your CRM. This can help you market future local offerings to them directly, and helps your staff execute on this information the next time the guest orders delivery or dines in the restaurant.”

It’s pretty difficult to avoid delivery and takeout in this climate, no matter the restaurant segment. Even during the reopening process, if viable, it makes sense to keep those options flowing for customers feeling uneasy about dining out.

Besides, it’s not as though COVID-19 ignited a delivery trend dormant before. According to Statista, delivery revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of 5.1 percent (this was pre-coronavirus), which would push market volume to $32,325M by 2024.

Direct delivery, in particular, allows restaurants to gain new customers, engage old ones, and drive revenue from guests who can’t make it into restaurants. And with the right tech, operators can also own the guest data and control how they showcase their brand.

Slice Of Peppermint Bark Cheesecake From The Cheesecake Factory

The Cheesecake Factory was starting to roll reservations before COVID-19. That turned out to be good timing.

Reservations, or not

Online reservations have assumed new importance in post-lockdown days because of social distancing. Nobody wants to walk into a crowded lobby.

Here are some tips from SevenRooms to make reservations effective:

  • Find a partner that allows you to communicate via SMS messaging. Guests can wait in their cars or nearby versus in the foyer and receive ‘Table-ready” texts.
  • Place a greater emphasis on reservation-booking across your channels so guests feel confident that they’ll have a table available the moment they arrive on-site.
  • Find a reservation management system with the ability to easily adjust your floor plan and reservation inventory to reflect any guidelines for reduced capacity and social distancing.
  • Enforce reservation end times to ensure you have the allowed number of guests in the dining room at all times, especially while capacity restrictions are in place. Through your communications, you can inform guests of their allotted time to dine. This will allow you to maximize table turns and help streamline operations
  • Communicate your credit card policy for last-minute cancellations or no-shows throughout the reservation making process. Each reservation represents dollars to your business, so it’s important that you are keeping your dining room full while having the ability to collect revenue if a guest cannot make it.

“Promote outdoor seating,” the company added. “With some guests only feeling comfortable dining where they know social distance can be kept, outdoor seating is a great option to meet this need. With the right technology partner, you can actually promote outdoor seating throughout the booking process to create more visibility for guests.”

There are other benefits at stake. Reservations might not work for every concept, which is where virtual waitlists come into the picture. These allow restaurants to control the number of guests in the venue at any given time without putting a bouncer at the door.

It’s a more COVID-19-friendly version of the walk-in-and-put-your-name-on-the-list practice. People are going to want to be able to do this safely online. Perhaps before they leave the house. Maybe from their cars outside.

SevenRooms presented these ideas for how to use a virtual waitlist:

  • Enable guests to sign-up for the waitlist at home online to avoid waiting and queueing at the restaurant.
  • Similar to communicating with guests with reservations, it’s easy to notify guests who added themselves to a waitlist when it’s the appropriate time to come into the restaurant.
  • Operationally, a virtual waitlist also helps reduce the amount of time a host spends managing the waitlist so they can use their time to help in other ways, such as bringing curbside takeout orders to vehicles.

“Whether through an email or text the day before a reservation or directly from a mobile device while waiting for a table, there are options to offer the ability to place an order in advance with payment,” SevenRooms said. “This helps eliminate the need for menus and interaction with staff, provides an upfront revenue commitment from guests to help reduce no-shows, and allows restaurants to turn tables faster.”

Meeting these demands, only contactless

Fulfilling orders isn’t what it used to be, either. Having all of those virtual systems in place to connect with customers is one thing. Getting them food is another.

So how do you go contactless?

Curbside pickup has remained one of, if not the, most popular pandemic changes among restaurants, especially full-serves. Many restaurants have morphed this option into makeshift drive-thru service.

According to search intelligence provider Captify, based on consumer searches, curbside pickup mentions soared 458 percent since March 11.

The key is customers aren’t looking to wait in the foyer for their food when they show up. First Watch took its community tables, which no longer held the same lure for guests, and turned them into contactless pickup stations for walk-in guests and third-party drivers.

SevenRooms suggests relying on technology to open lines of communication. Choose a delivery and takeout partner that allows the restaurant to SMS message with guests, the company said. When the order is ready, it can automatically send an “order ready” text to consumers in the parking lot to let them know it’s time to pull up for their order.

Some restaurants added a field into the digital ordering process where you can put “curbside” in the checkout cart. And in that field is a place to list car model and color information to help employees recognize guests as they show up.

Outdoor signage to promote contactless is a powerful tool as well. This helps capture consumers passing by who perhaps didn’t plan to drop in. It can ease their hesitation and inspire action.

SevenRoom said restaurants should take this up a degree by adding a QR code that can be scanned to invite the customer to join a waitlist, order takeout, or make a reservation.

“When you have guests signing up for a virtual waitlist, think about all the guest data you’ll be collecting before a guest even enters the door. You can enforce email address collection with every sign-up, as well as request marketing opt-in,” the company said.

Once customers get inside

Contactless doesn’t exclude four-wall service. Mobile ordering and payment, especially from somebody’s mobile device, can eliminate unnecessary touching of tabletop tablets, menus, check holders, credit cards, cash, and receipts.

SevenRooms calls this the BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, model.

Here’s how it could work:

  • Diners access the menu from their own device via a text from table management technology or QR code.
  • They’re automatically connected to a branded ordering experience.
  • Guests select their menu items, hit check out, and pay via a credit card or mobile wallet (like Google or Apple Pay).
  • Their order is sent to the kitchen instantly.

The majority of mobile ordering solutions are powered by location markers to identify which table the order is coming from, SevenRooms said. So restaurants can get the food out in a timely fashion if they take this route. It would also give servers more time to focus on other things as they are no longer order takers. Perhaps that’s cleaning and sanitation, or holding the door open for people.

Chances are restaurants will operate with smaller, cross-functionally trained staffs at the onset reopening stages. Maybe indefinitely.

Additionally, mobile order and pay offers operators the chance to collect guest data, which can lead to marketing opt-in opportunities, email communication, and some personalized future services, like knowing preferences and allergies and what they like to order.

Feedback, as always, remains an important lever. It’s just taken on fresh dimensions thanks to COVID-19. Beyond service and food, it will be critical to monitor whether or not customers feel safe. What do they think of protocols? Are employees actually executing them?

When connected directly with guests for on- and off-premises dining, restaurants have the ability to send surveys to visitors. SevenRooms said operators should ask about the health and safety measures, and then appropriately respond to guests and even send a follow-up note inviting them to dine with their restaurant again.

There are tech partners that can automate the sending of surveys once a delivery order arrives or a guest leaves the restaurant, directly from a brand’s CRM.

Monitoring third-party sites will remain valuable, too. Restaurants can collect feedback from multiple channels and aggregate results. “You can even segment the reviews by on-premise dining and off-premises delivery or pickup to understand how the experiences differ,” SevenRooms said. “There are technology partners that help you track this information and provide you with dashboards and daily emails summarizing your guest satisfaction.”

Personalization pays off

This is where guest data will surface. Restaurants can track how guests interact with them and then tailor marketing to promote new behaviors. For instance, try to turn a delivery order into an on-premises visit, or third party to direct, etc.

Here’s an example message of the latter, per SevenRooms.

Subject line: Thank you from (enter restaurant name)

Hi Alex,

We wanted to take a moment to thank you on behalf of the entire team at (enter restaurant name).

We really appreciate you booking directly with us. As an added thank you, we’d like to offer you a complimentary dessert on your next visit. Just use this link to book your next reservation.

We look forward to seeing you.

SevenRooms suggest offering perks to guests in the email (like the free dessert) and include direct links to those actions you’re asking them to take.

And as guests react to marketing and start to follow the links, it’s important to continue the reward-visit relationship going. This is especially true, SevenRooms said, if the restaurant is trying to reduce or eliminate third parties as the middlemen for reservations and delivery.

“Consider setting up a loyalty program that rewards direct behavior at each dining experience with the value of the reward increasing each time,” the company said. “For example, the first direct order could result in a complimentary cocktail while the fifth direct order could offer a free bottle of wine.”

Here’s a path to optimizing visits over the course of a year (for guests booking or ordering direct).

  • Complimentary cocktail
  • Dessert
  • 20 percent off
  • 50 percent off
  • Free bottle of wine
  • Special experience at the chef’s table

It’s safe to say one of the keys to success post-pandemic is access to guest data. The brands thriving right now, SevenRooms said, are the ones leveraging guest databases to drive delivery and takeout orders and to continue to maintain guest relationships.

With guests more reluctant to eat at restaurants, takeout or dine in, making each interaction count remains crucial.

It boils down to three ingredients:

  • Own consumer touchpoints
  • Own guest data
  • Online and offline connectivity

Here’s a checklist from SevenRooms for restaurants to evaluate as they begin to revisit their tech systems:

  • What’s the pricing structure?
  • Are there any hidden fees or upcharges?
  • Can the system integrate with your other tools?
  • Is it your brand or the partner’s brand that is represented to your guests?
  • Does their business model align with yours?
  • Do you get to access and own your guest data?
  • Do you have 24/7 support?

“It’s a new era of hospitality,” the company said. “Restaurants can make their own rules, change processes, update systems, and take advantage of a time where guests are tuned in more than ever to help reshape the relationship guests have with restaurants.”

Consumer Trends, Feature