FSR Magazine

Matt’s in the Market.

A Restaurant’s Guide to Travel Guides

How to win tourists and influence diners on the road.

Each year, more than 10 million people enjoy Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, a must-see for many visitors to The Emerald City. Though it’s tucked above the hustle and bustle of the Market’s street-level engagement, Matt’s in the Market—an 18-year-old gourmet restaurant serving farm-to-table-inspired cuisine—nevertheless draws from the Market’s ever-present intrigue.

During the summer, Matt’s owner Dan Bugge says non-locals represent upward of 60 percent of sales. Off-season, that number hovers near 40 percent.

While Matt’s has been able to piggyback on the Market’s tourism pull, Bugge has also benefited from various travel guides that champion Matt’s fare. The guidebook reviews are something Matt’s touts on its website, including this tidbit from Fodor’s: “Your first dinner at Matt’s is like a first date you hope will never end.”

“I’m of the mindset that any type of publicity is a positive,” Bugge says, adding that there are times he’ll even spot a guidebook on the table as guests dine.

Appearing in a credible travel guide allows restaurants to reach a wider audience, including international clientele, many of whom stand eager to immerse themselves in a new culture.

Last year, the U.S. welcomed an estimated 65.4 million international visitors, a record number of travelers according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. In 2013, that number is expected to climb above the 68 million mark.

The increased travel is welcome news for restaurants, particularly those in fine dining and casual dining who rely on tourism dollars to enliven the bottom line. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 Restaurant Trends Survey, travelers and tourists represented an average of 29 percent of sales for fine-dining operators and approximately 25 percent of sales for family-dining and casual-dining operators.


Guidebooks Evolve into Travel Brands

Names like Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Zagat, AAA, and Michelin have long been informing travelers on dining opportunities in a given city. Historically in printed form, guidebooks are evolving in the digital age, seeking to find their place in a world of user-generated sites, smartphone apps, and publishing decline.

Diner Decisions

Factors That Influence Which Restaurant is Chosen

94% of diners rely on recommendations from a family member or friend.

82% of diners say ease of parking at the restaurant is part of the decision.

64% are swayed by restaurant reviews in a newspaper, magazine, or online dining guide.

49% are attracted by an opportunity to go to a trendy or exclusive restaurant.

45% say they respond to an advertisement or promotion received via email.

43% are motivated by a special offer through programs like Groupon or LivingSocial.

35% find information on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

34% trust information on a peer-review website such as Yelp.

To say the travel guide industry has changed dramatically over the last 15 years is an understatement, notes Jason Clampet, formerly a senior online editor with Frommer’s.

“The entire industry has been reinvented,” says Clampet, who also penned copy for Rough Guide and City Search before co-founding travel news and information site Skift.com.

While Clampet says guidebooks experienced a boom in the 1990s, it has largely been a downhill journey since the early 2000s.

“Few consumers are going into bookstores today and paying $19.99 for a guidebook,” he says.

In a strong sign of the evolving landscape, Google purchased both Zagat and Frommer’s within the last 18 months, for $151 million and an estimated $23 million, respectively. Meanwhile, online guides such as Dine.com have popped up alongside a wave of user-generated content from sites like Yelp, OpenTable, Urbanspoon, and TripAdvisor.

You don’t necessarily need a guidebook to direct you to potential dining places like you once did,” Clampet says.


Which isn’t to suggest, Clampet argues, that the established guidebook names don’t hold the public’s confidence, but rather that the guidebook brands have been forced to reinvent themselves as travel brands in a digital age.

“People still want to go to a trusted name like Zagat or Fodor’s, and there’s still a place for that consistent perspective on the world of travel that you can only get from a travel brand,” Clampet says.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional printed guidebook is becoming less commonplace in the digital era.

The Hartman Group’s 2012 report “Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture” found that consumers are increasingly turning to online resources to learn about food. Nearly half of consumers said they spent more time engaged online about food, while only 31 percent said they were equally engaged with online and print.

It’s data like that, Clampet says, that has sparked the transformation of guidebooks into travel brands searching to maintain their hard-earned relevance with consumers.

Last summer, for instance, Fodor’s launched a mobile version of Fodors.com to address travelers’ increasing use of mobile devices to gather information. From the mobile device, diners can access Fodor’s expert reviews, make reservations, and view interactive maps. The mobile website’s debut came amidst a year of record traffic at Fodors.com, where visits topped 53 million.

While guidebooks continue to be a core part of Fodor’s business, Erica Duecy, deputy editor of Fodors.com, acknowledges that much of the company’s focus has been directed toward digital products.

“People are unquestionably using our website a lot more, while the mobile site and apps allow consumers to do research on the fly,” Duecy says.

Similar tales are sprouting at Frommer’s and Zagat, two entities that made their names in printed guidebooks, but have since evolved to meet consumers’ digital demands.

“There are so many more different points of entry than there were just a decade ago,” Duecy says.


Reputable Reviews

For a long time, Clampet says, restaurants had been the weakest link in the guidebook chain. Unlike a museum, which can have a more predictable quality, chefs move and restaurants close daily. Even the most current information in a printed guidebook is months old. Digital changes the playbook and allows guidebooks to retain—to some extent—their value.

Five Notable Guidebooks

AAA TourBook Guides

Provided free of charge to any of AAA’s 53 million U.S. members, AAA restaurant reviews are compiled by full-time staffers who have anonymously visited more than 58,000 restaurants across North and Central America.


Fodor’s covers 7,500 global destinations, including about 2,000 domestic locations, in its award-winning guidebook series and on Fodors.com. The editorial content is accessible in the traditional printed form, at Fodors.com, and through mobile apps.


Google’s August 2012 acquisition of Frommer’s, which came 11 months after Google’s purchase of Zagat, has sparked questions about the 56-year-old travel brand’s future. Frommer’s travel content, which includes its printed guidebooks, website, and mobile apps, is based solely on the experiences of its authors.


A staple in European cities for decades, Michelin guides came to the U.S. in 2005 and now there are editions for New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. The editorial content, produced by anonymous diners called “inspectors,” includes a star-rating system topping out at the rarely achieved three-star designation. The stars are exclusively focused on the plate. In addition to the print guide, Michelin offers $3.99 iPhone apps.


First published in 1979, the food-centric Zagat guides use survey-based results from actual diners. Local editors compile survey results and highlight the most representative comments in a comprehensive restaurant review. In 2013, Zagat’s dining guides covered 20 domestic markets, with information available in both print and free mobile apps for Android phones and products.

For restaurants listed in guidebooks—whether in print or online—that reinvention is a positive.

At Elizabeth on 37th, a destination restaurant that has been in business more than three decades in Savannah, Georgia, and has appeared in numerous guidebooks—including Zagat, Fodor’s, and the AAA TourBook—longtime manager Morgen Schaff says 40 percent of Elizabeth’s business comes from travelers.

Schaff credits the high percentage of tourist traffic at Elizabeth’s, which specializes in upscale, Southern cuisine served inside an old Victorian mansion, in part to the restaurant’s guidebook reviews.

“Any positive word of mouth is a plus, especially when it comes from a reputable name,” Schaff says, sending particular praise to Zagat, which she feels has provided the most value given its food-centric slant.

The same philosophy holds at Luma on Park in Winter Park, Florida, a historic city located on the outskirts of Orlando.

Though Orlando sees more than 55 million visitors each year, many lured to central Florida by recreational attractions and conventions, Luma on Park is located about 45 miles away from that action. Even so, the esteemed seven-year-old restaurant, which does more than $4 million in annual sales according to general manager Tim Noelke, attracts non-locals seeking a slice of local refinement. Listings in Zagat, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s, Noelke says, have helped build the restaurant’s credibility with diners.

“You get the residual because these guides are looked at as official,” Noelke says. “They have standards and that has weight with guests.”

When choosing where to dine, the NRA’s 2012 Household Survey found that 64 percent said a restaurant review in a newspaper, magazine, or online dining guide factored into their decision. By contrast, only 34 percent said a peer-reviewed site such as Yelp contributed to their dining decision.


It’s a sign of just how much diners—in and out of their hometowns—desire credible, objective information.

“For many consumers, I think they feel safer trusting a brand they know, rather than comments on a user-generated site…or a magazine in the hotel that has a restaurant review right next to an advertisement for that same restaurant,” Duecy says.

At Fodor’s, for instance, restaurant information is 100 percent editorial—local writers provide the content and work with editors to curate a list of a city’s best food experiences, from street fare to five-star eateries.

Clampet says that stands true of any legitimate guidebook brand, none of which allow their authors to receive complimentary meals. Furthermore, no credible guidebook writer will announce his presence in a restaurant, something meant to retain the objective nature of the work.

Yet guidebooks are more relevant for some audiences than others, their importance often swaying with age and residence.

At Elizabeth’s, Schaff has found the traditional guidebook names hold more weight with an older crowd, while younger diners embrace the newer names such as Yelp and Urbanspoon.

The NRA’s 2012 Household Survey confirms Schaff’s suspicion: Forty percent of diners aged 18­–34 post or read reviews about restaurants on a consumer-driven website, but only 9 percent of those age 65 or older turn to Yelp or its online brethren.

For international travelers, Clampet sees a greater reliance on books, largely driven by the costs of worldwide data-roaming. In New York City, his hometown, Clampet often peers over the shoulders of foreign tourists to see what they’re carrying. British and German travelers appear to favor DK Guides, he observes, while the Spanish prefer Lonely Planet.

“Just like Americans with Zagat or Fodor’s, the international visitors have similar brand identification,” he says.

Ultimately, Clampet feels most domestic travelers tend to use the same resources on their travels as they do at home.

“If you’re from Philadelphia and accustomed to using Yelp to help you make dinner decisions there, odds are good you’ll use that same resource when you’re in Oakland,” he says. “The same goes for Zagat or Fodor’s, whether you’re looking in a book or on the iPhone.”