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An ongoing marketing campaign positions Bonefish Grill as the place to have a happy experience
<p>An ongoing marketing campaign positions Bonefish Grill as the place to have a happy experience.</p>

Poll: Repeat guests value experience over food

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Every restaurant wants to turn one-off patrons into loyal customers. But new data compiled by Rewards Network indicates that great food, while important, isn’t necessarily what they want. Instead, the overall dining experience is the primary driver of return visits to restaurants.

Rewards Network, a Chicago-based restaurant marketing firm, says its researchers analyzed data from 99,000 verified dinner surveys and “actual dining transactional spend” to come with its consumer behavior numbers.

The company says that while nearly half of the restaurants it surveyed specified their food as the number one reasons customers come back, the data shows otherwise. “Food is part of the overall experience, but so are service, value and cleanliness,” Rewards Network found. “All of these factors come together to drive repeat business.”

One key finding: It’s especially important that a restaurant provide an overall experience that matches the caliber of its food. Customers who rate a restaurant’s food higher than their overall experience by just a single point are 20 percent less likely to return to that restaurant. Those who rate their food two points higher than their overall experience are 38 percent less likely to come back. “This proves there is more affecting dining decisions than food alone,” the study points out.

The overall experience also influences how a patron recommends a restaurant to others—an important factor in the social media era. Rewards Network found that, as you might expect, 95 percent of diners who rate their overall experience as a five on a five-star scale say they would recommend that restaurant to others. But there’s a precipitous drop for three-star experiences or below. Only six percent of customers who had a three-star experience say they are likely to recommend the restaurant in that case. Just one percent of customers who rate their overall experience one or two stars will suggest that restaurant to friends or family.

The recommended strategy for operators: “Don’t simply take your servers’ word for it or go with anecdotal feedback,” Rewards Network counsels. “Using data based on actual dining behavior and feedback from verified diners is a more objective way to analyze your business.” 

Bonnie Riggs sees a ton of data in her job as restaurant analyst for market research firm NPD Group, and she tells Nation’s Restaurant News that providing an experience is especially important in the current economic climate.

“If you look at the middle class, they’ve cut back drastically on going to restaurants,” she says. “They’re not making as many visits on the lower end (quick service and midscale). When they go out they are going to fast-casual or higher-end restaurants, and making it more of a special occasion. They’re looking for an experience. When they go out and spend their money they want to find the value in the money they’re spending.”

Bonefish Grill aims to provide exactly the type of customer experience Riggs describes. Check out how this 200-unit casual seafood chain previews that experience on its website. Here’s the pitch:

“Those who believe happiness is fleeting, that it comes only in small doses, that it’s as rare as catching lightning in a bottle... have never been to Bonefish Grill. Starting tonight, let’s embrace happiness. Let’s laugh more, worry less. Let’s swap out boredom and routine for an inspired dinner that opens your eyes. Let’s do it at a place that feels refreshing and exceeds your expectations—from the chef coat service to the Big-City Bar atmosphere. Let’s do it at a place where we feel good about the people, the food, and the bill, so that, in the end, we simply feel good. Happiness starts when you walk in the door.”

If you’re looking to deliver a great overall customer experience at your restaurant, you may wish to come up with an approach that addresses many of the points Bonefish Grill touches on here.

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