The British consumer is rapidly embracing social media, particularly when using discount vouchers or social networking sites to help decide where to spend leisure time, according to a study from accountancy firm BDO and law firm DLA Piper.
This trend is only going to accelerate, particularly in light of the overwhelming take-up of smart phones, according to David Campbell, partner at BDO. "Developing marketing and promotional strategies that are based in the new social media technologies will become increasingly important for hospitality operators looking to expand their market share," he says.
A number of hospitality operators have successfully harnessed the potential of social media. Caterer caught up with some of them.
fisherman's lodge, newcastle
"Every time my phone beeps from a Twitter alert, I know that we are being talked about or mentioned positively"
For Jamie Howell, owner at the Fisherman's Lodge in Jesmond, social media is an instant way to help develop a closer relationship with the audience and potential new customers.
"The recipient can leave a comment or ‘re-tweet', becoming part of our community," he explains. "By involving the customer, the updates become a more direct way to communicate. Every time my phone beeps from a Twitter alert, I know that we are being talked about or mentioned positively."
Howell says the more deals, offers, competitions or teaser campaigns the restaurant does, the more followers it gets on Twitter and Facebook. "The best thing about using social media is that you don't have to be an IT specialist - just have a good marketing head to make it work," he says.
mitch tonks restaurants, south-west england
"The absolute key is to be real and honest"
Mitch Tonks' three restaurants - the Seahorse, RockFish Seafood and Chips and Rockfish Grill and Seafood Market - each has its own Twitter account, while Tonks himself has one, with about 2,000 followers.
The strategy is fairly laid-back, being more about two-way communication than hard business targets, according to marketing manager Laura Cowen.
"I persuaded Mitch to give it a go, fully aware that once you start you really need to maintain a presence and a contact and the absolute key is to be real and honest," she says. "It cannot be commercially led; it has to be about building relationships."
While Cowen admits they cannot be 100% sure the restaurants have picked up business as a result of social media, she says they know they have built up some good relationships.
"It's a very friendly community on Twitter and it promotes much more of a community feel than is sometimes possible in ‘real life'," she explains. "Our restaurant teams are very busy and they can take time to chat online and keep up with what's going on to a much greater extent sometimes than if they had to take time out and go and see people - that happens, too, but obviously time is limited."
renaissance pubs, south-west london
"A number of customers came in to try a special they'd seen on our Facebook page"
Nick Fox, founder of the five-strong pub group, says social media has both improved two-way communication and driven repeat business.
"At the Bolingbroke, for example, we have had a number of customers say they came in especially to try a special they had seen a picture of on our Facebook page," he says. "It's encouraged our chefs to be more creative with their specials, as they love to hear feedback on their dishes. It's also widened our network of mystery diners, which we have targeted through social media and are vital to the business in order to make sure standards are consistently high."
Renaissance has tasked one person with posting on Facebook and Twitter and responding to comments and questions from customers but the managers and head chefs from all five pubs send details of what they've got going on that week, according to Fox.
"The chefs take great pride in sending over photos of new dishes they've put on the menu and our managers are always keen to hear what our customers are saying, so keep a close eye on everything that's going on online," he says.
For Fox, one of the great strengths of social media is that it is very easy to use and manage and can be run from any number of different computers or mobile devices.
"The set-up costs are very low which makes social media an extremely cost effective and, in our opinion, essential element of running a successful pub business," he says.
"We engage with customers in a fun, informal and non-selling way"
Giraffe, the family friendly restaurant chain with more than 30 sites across the UK, utilises all the social media platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to Flickr, YouTube and location-based services site Foursquare.
For marketing manager Vikki O'Neill, this gives Giraffe "massive recognition from thousands and thousands of customers who say it gives the brand a certain kudos".
"We talk with customers daily; we promote activities such as new PR events or new openings and new dishes on the menu; we listen to requests and feedback; and more importantly we engage with customers in a fun, informal and non-selling way which creates a huge sense of loyalty in both directions," she says.
The concept of word-of-mouth has multiplied by thousands with social media, according to O'Neill. "We know from feedback that followers on Twitter say they visit us more often since they started engaging with us via social media," she says. "It's not always about an instant driver of bums on seats; it's a platform in which to engage, promote and listen to your customers, which drives sales and loyalty over the long term."
drunken monkey, dim sum rerstaurant and bar, london
"Suddenly there's more of a community feel and loyalty factor"
Simon Chan, events and marketing director, says the most important driver for using social media is the ability to get feedback that until recently - apart from in-house questionnaires - was only available to larger organisations with budgets to spend on market research.
"We also found that it was a natural course to take it in so that it became an extension of the sort of interaction that we naturally have with our customers, especially regulars," he adds. "Instead of the place being thought of as just a venue it suddenly has more of a community feel and brings in more of a loyalty factor to the way they feel about the place."
Social media has also allowed the restaurant to test the water on new ideas, says Chan. "Our ‘Chick Flick' nights, cocktail master classes and poker nights were all born from the interaction we have with our regulars and have all proven to be pretty successful from the start without having to spend too much on advertising," he says.
The success of the social media strategy is measured in various ways, according to Chan. "People reacting to our posts on sites like Facebook and Yelp is always a good indicator," he says. "I guess the obvious answer would be bum on seats. We often ask customers how they found out about certain events when they book, we also try and drive people toward our website and have certainly noticed a lot more traffic since we started paying more attention to social media."