Even markets that aren’t tourist destinations welcome visitors, and restaurants roll out the welcome mat for conventioneers, business travelers, and sports enthusiasts.
In terms of tourist destinations, Huntsville, Alabama, is no Orlando, Las Vegas, or Vail, but that matters little to Nick Mikus.
When travelers venture to Huntsville, Mikus works hard to bring them into his 1940s-era Italian steakhouse, Nick’s Ristorante. Thanks to his strategic efforts and the 4-year-old eatery’s upscale and inviting vibe, Mikus captures diners from throughout the country and even from international destinations.
“Because of the military and government business in Huntsville, we get a plethora of different groups coming here in droves, and it’s business I want to capture,” Mikus says. “In this industry, you can’t let opportunities pass you by.”
While locals remain the backbone of most restaurants’ earnings in cities like Huntsville, tapping into the travel-trade market provides benefits to the brand and the bottom line.
“When these travelers come to town, they’re spending,” says Amy DuFour, catering and special events manager at Capital Ale House, which runs three locations in Richmond, Virginia, including a flagship store in the city’s downtown. “If you’re not trying to get these folks in your doors, it’s just lost sales.”
Nearly every market across the United States welcomes out-of-towners for business, leisure, sports, entertainment, and more. In markets big and small, east and west, restaurant operators have become creative and bold in attacking the travel-trade market to extend their brand, increase traffic, and drive revenue. Here’s how.
Build Strategic Relationships
In today’s digital era, “influencing the influencers” has become a trite marketing term to describe how businesses of all types are seeking inroads with everyone from celebrities to mommy bloggers who are capable of driving impressions. As important as that is, many operators also discuss the importance of building personal connections with local influencers who are also capable of swaying diners’ decisions.
“When it comes to travelers, it’s not about advertising on television or radio, but about building the sound relationships that can promote your restaurant,” DuFour says.
To that point, DuFour sits on the board of the Greater Richmond Tourism Association and has fostered a strong partnership with Richmond Region Tourism, an organization aware of large groups that are coming to town.
“We try to take an active role in what’s going on, and that involvement produces opportunities,” DuFour says.
In another state capital, the lauded 113-year-old Indianapolis eatery St. Elmo Steak House provides Visit Indy, the city’s convention and visitors association, with a spend credit each year to use at the restaurant as it recruits convention, event, and meeting planners. Though an investment, St. Elmo proprietor Craig Huse knows that early exposure can create a ripple effect that drives business. His 366-seat restaurant is located within blocks of the Indiana state capitol, the Indiana Convention Center, and the city’s two professional sports arenas—ideally positioned to welcome visitors from all industries and diverse interests who are venturing to the city for any number of reasons.
“When Indianapolis’ boat rises, ours rises with it,” says Huse, who also sits on Visit Indy’s board of directors.
Through Visit Indy, St. Elmo also provides its private-label shrimp cocktail sauce as an amenity gift for special visitors. Recently, more than 800 bottles of the sauce went out to vendors who had purchased a booth at the three-day Performance Racing Industry trade show in December.
“This puts us in people’s minds before they even step foot in our city,” Huse says.
At Nick’s, Mikus, a military veteran with 40 years of service, leverages his contacts in the armed forces to discover military groups coming to Huntsville, often making personal calls to invite a group of out-of-towners into his eatery. Mikus also leaves his business cards with Huntsville area bartenders and valet attendants, particularly those at spots business travelers are known to frequent, well aware that currying the favor of these service professionals will fuel traffic to his restaurant.
“Using local businesses to assist us in attracting the out-of-town clientele is a no-brainer,” Mikus says. “When someone is in Huntsville for a few days, they don’t want to have dinner at the same place every night, so we’re mentioned as a great alternative.”
Partnering with local entities makes sense in every market. In Corvallis, Oregon, home to Oregon State University, Flat Tail Pub & Brewery owner Iain Duncan has cultivated relationships with leaders on the university’s academic and athletics side. He frequently supports university fundraisers and has been a guest presenter at various classes.
“Talking and shaking hands goes miles in this business,” reminds Duncan, a 20-year hospitality veteran.
Make Your Own Destination
“If you build it, they will come” may ring true in the movies, but it’s hardly a given in the ever-competitive restaurant world.
Though St. Elmo has a storied history to share, having been around since 1902 and even garnering national attention for its appearance on the popular NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, it doesn’t rest on its reputation as an iconic civic treasure. Rather, Huse and his team create events that draw attention to St. Elmo.
“We never want to take our foot off the gas,” Huse says. “There’s always an opportunity to be busier and always an opportunity to build our relevancy.”
When Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, St. Elmo erected a temporary tent in an adjacent alley, peddling its famous shrimp cocktail alongside drinks. Over its nine-day run, Huse says the makeshift storefront generated $250,000 in sales.
“With a finite number of seats and time, we can’t get everyone into the restaurant, so this was a way to capitalize on that Super Bowl traffic,” he says.
More recently, St. Elmo hosted its second annual shrimp cocktail eating competition in conjunction with the 2014 Big Ten Conference football championship at Lucas Oil Stadium. Headlined by champion competition eater Joey Chestnut, whose extensive pre-competition media tour included stops at radio and television outlets, the contest built buzz around St. Elmo.
“These types of events are fun, and we have to remember that fun is a major reason many people travel,” Huse says.
Create An Easy Experience
Inspired by her own children’s participation in youth recreational leagues and travel sports, DuFour and Capital Ale House created a program to tap into sports tourism in the Richmond market.
Two years ago, the restaurant launched its sports banquet buffet. Aimed at youth travel teams, the buffet for each team’s feast is readied by restaurant staff with athlete-friendly foods and beverages, such as protein-rich entrées and Gatorade.
“We’ve made it easy for the team parent to make a reservation and enjoy a smooth process,” DuFour says.
In addition to promoting its sports banquet program via digital channels, Capital Ale House has joined with Richmond Region Tourism in recruiting tournament directors to host their events in Richmond. Capital Ale House also sponsors seven youth athletics tournaments, often feeding tournament staff and hosting happy hour events for the coaches.
“With three Richmond locations, we’re always close to someone’s field or hotel, and we’re going to be visible and let these teams know we want their business,” DuFour says.
Capital Ale House extends its solutions-oriented spirit to tour groups exploring Richmond’s historical spots, as DuFour often discovers different groups visiting the area through her tourism office contacts. Connecting with tour leaders, DuFour identifies and accommodates specific needs, ranging from particular seating arrangements and required menu items to price points and time constraints.
“Whatever they want, we’ll work to make it happen,” DuFour says. “If we can deliver and execute as promised, then we’re at the top of the list the next time that tour group comes to Richmond.”
Similarly, for Huntsville’s business travelers, Nick’s Ristorante has also focused on making the guest experience as easy as possible. Mikus’ Mafia Club is a four-tiered membership club aimed at driving repeat business and offering convenience and value. In the club’s top tier, which is specifically aimed at business travelers, Gold members pay $2,000 for a $2,500 restaurant credit. When Gold members visit the eatery, they need only sign to acknowledge a deduction to their account.
“From individuals to corporations, this has been great for pulling in visitors who come to Huntsville multiple times each year,” says Mikus, who also displays plaques with the names of Mafia Club members, giving the program added punch and visibility.
And sometimes, the easy solution is tied to local hosts rather than to the visitors themselves. Flat Tail runs charge accounts for Oregon State University personnel, such as the professor entertaining a fellow researcher or the department head recruiting a prospective faculty member. University representatives simply hand Flat Tail staff their business card, sign the receipt, and Duncan’s staff sends an invoice to the university.
“This way, the university employee doesn’t have to worry about the reimbursement process because we handle it all,” Duncan says. “We think like the guest and the ease we create here helps make us a preferred destination.”
Another simple solution for attracting out-of-town guests is to make it easy for them to get to the restaurant. Since 1988, Da Mimmo in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood has been offering complimentary limo service from any hotel located within 15 minutes of its restaurant.
“The private ride is a great service to our guests and also makes us seem more exclusive,” owner Mary Ann Cricchio says, adding that a number of other Baltimore eateries have mimicked the service, generally with a van or minibus.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery, isn’t it?” she jokes.
As an added bonus, driver Edward Brulinski has been with Da Mimmo for nearly 30 years and is a certified tourist ambassador for Baltimore. As Brulinski shuttles guests from their hotel to the restaurant, he provides an in-depth history and fun trivia of the city—effectively delivering a memorable experience with character and charm.
“Our guests like that they can get in the limo and [Brulinski] can share knowledge of the city in a fun, informed way,” Cricchio says.
Serve a Signature Dish
When visiting Chicago, many visitors hustle to enjoy deep-dish pizza or an authentic Chicago-style hot dog, while visitors to San Francisco often venture to the heralded Buena Vista Café for its famed Irish coffee. Having a signature dish, either specific to the restaurant or region, can do wonders to propel traffic, operators say.
Though St. Elmo is a well-regarded steakhouse, the restaurant has earned worldwide attention for its shrimp cocktail, a dish celebrated on the Travel Channel and the Food Network.
“Eating shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo is a box a lot of people want to check off when they visit Indianapolis,” Huse says. “When you have a dish that creates a buzz like this, it consistently drives traffic.”
Quite often when travelers visit Baltimore, enjoying a crab cake—a celebrated piece of the Charm City landscape—tops the to-do list. Da Mimmo’s Cricchio knows, however, that merely having crab cakes is not enough; the crab cakes have to be exceptional and honor the Maryland tradition.
“In this market, you won’t win if your crab cakes are just OK,” says Cricchio, whose crab cakes have achieved international acclaim and are featured in the food court seafood bar at London’s luxury department store Harrods.
The local buzz isn’t always about food; as Richmond’s reputation as a booming craft beer destination gains national merit, the Capital Ale House markets its restaurants as a one-stop destination to sample the region’s innovative brews. About half of the restaurant’s 400 taps across the company’s five Virginia locations serve local craft beer.
Meet and Greet Visitors
With a finite amount of time and money to devote to wooing travelers, many savvy eateries invest in strategic initiatives that increase their exposure in visitor-heavy locales.
For instance, in the Columbus, Ohio, airport, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a group that operates a variety of restaurant concepts in Ohio’s capital city, advertises its eateries on digital signage boards, strategically selecting spots in the baggage claim area or locations visible to travelers leaving the airport.
“This helps put us top of mind right when visitors hit the ground,” vice president of operations Chuck Kline says.
In all of Columbus’ major hotels, meanwhile, Cameron Mitchell provides the concierge desk with a stand-alone counter display that features highlights of its 13 restaurants, many of which are located in areas of the city most frequented by travelers, such as the Short North Arts District.
“Even though the digital era has taken over, people still like something physical to look at,” Kline says.
St. Elmo also favors hotel and airport visibility. Inside the Indianapolis airport, St. Elmo’s sister restaurant Harry & Izzy’s has been serving St. Elmo steaks and world-famous shrimp cocktail since its 2008 opening.
“When visitors arrive in our city, they’re often looking for the next step on their journey and having that airport presence has helped our visibility and branding,” Huse says. “It plants a seed with travelers that St. Elmo is a place to visit.”
St. Elmo also advertises in Visit Indy’s in-room hotel magazine, which Huse describes as the restaurant’s first touchpoint with many travelers.
As for leveraging hotels, Cricchio’s marketing staff regularly visit hotels with printed promotional material that concierges and front desk personnel can share with guests.
“Hotel staff love to have compelling things they can tell their guests about, especially things that provide extra value or are very Baltimore-centric,” Cricchio says.
Similarly, Capital Ale House attempts to leverage the one-on-one contact hotel staffers have with visitors to Richmond by offering an incentivized twist.
In 2013, Capital Ale House launched a rewards card program specifically for the area’s hotels. Personnel at the Marriott in downtown Richmond, for example, can hand guests a card that entitles them to 10 percent off their food purchase at Capital Ale House. That card, which carries the hotel’s name, shoots reward points typically reserved for the diner to the hotel’s account. Hotel management can then redeem points at its discretion, such as providing a complimentary meal for guests or rewarding a staff member.
“This has helped get the hotels on our side because they now see a direct benefit from recommending our restaurant,” DuFour says.
Sometimes it’s about more than meeting visitors when they land or where they sleep. In Baltimore, Da Mimmo is one of about 30 restaurants that participate in the “Show Your Badge” program implemented by Visit Baltimore.
Convention-goers who show their badge at participating establishments receive a special promotion or discount; at Da Mimmo, it’s a 10 percent discount on any entrée. The program is promoted in various Visit Baltimore marketing materials distributed to conventioneers and also allows Da Mimmo to spotlight its complimentary limo service and live entertainment as added points of differentiation and convenience.
“This just expands our reach and gives us more places to share what we offer that’s above and beyond,” Cricchio says.
Become a Local Favorite
With all this talk about travelers, it can be easy to overlook the crucial role local residents play in driving visitor traffic to specific restaurants. In fact, Huse calls Indianapolis residents his restaurant’s greatest brand ambassadors.
“These are the folks who mention St. Elmo to their seatmates on an airplane flying into Indy or to business associates in town for a meeting,” Huse says. “Ultimately, you need to be relevant with the locals, or the tourism trade is a short-term proposition.”
Flat Tail’s Duncan shares a similar sentiment, well aware that popularity with the Corvallis, Oregon, locals organically translates into awareness with travelers.
“When you’re able to shine time and again for the locals, then you’ll become the place they recommend to out-of-towners,” he says.
Mikus knows that fact well from Huntsville, Alabama, residents who send travelers to his restaurant as well as from his personal and professional travels, when he sought out dining recommendations from local residents to escape generic restaurants or run-of-the-mill tourist traps in favor of a more authentic experience. “When you have credibility with the locals, they’ll do the promoting, and the travelers naturally come your way,” he says.