As someone who enjoys a moderately healthy, hearty meal, the catering at visitor attractions always catches my eye. Imagine my disappointment when, at various venues in the last year I’ve been priced-out by fine-dining, missed out due to limited stock or put off by ‘beige stodge’. I’ve also seen vegan items ‘temporarily’ (perpetually) unavailable and children’s menus reduced to the bare basics. I’ve had great experiences too, but such is my fear of going ‘hangry’ I now make sure I eat before a visit.
First world problems of course, but if my experience is felt by others then visitor attractions risk losing out on revenue (and good will).
So in this light it is perhaps a good thing that we are seeing brands such as Costa and Benugo increase their footprint across the sector. These established, well-run chains usually offer a range of tasty options, and rarely run out of stock. I may not be blown away by their offering but there is a reassuring sense of familiarity and predictability, which means a reduced risk of disappointment that might go on to taint the entire visit.
That said, when food has the potential to meet both a human functional and emotional need, could ‘predictable’ also represent an untapped opportunity for both the attraction and the 3rd party? I would argue that with a few smart moves, there is potential to add a little extra wow factor for mutual gain.
Take a recent visit to London Transport Museum as an example and source of inspiration.
I was impressed that the Benugo had adapted the menu to offer three bespoke cocktails that reflected the setting – the Elizabeth Line, Routemaster and Red Arrow. The core Benugo offer remained intact, but this relatively simple step forged a clear connection with the attraction and created a memorable moment that added to the visitor experience.
But what about other more fundamental aspects of the experience?
Often, when sipping my flat white in one of these cafés, I no longer feel as if I am sitting in the attraction. I feel I have temporarily stepped outside, perhaps to my local high street or train station. I get this feeling regardless of where the café is situated – be it at the entrance of a city museum or deep inside a rural castle’s walls.
This feeling of disconnect is driven by some logical factors such as the chain’s branding and staff in different uniforms, but also by the way that the chain’s employees represent the attraction. Of course, they are not directly employed to represent the attraction, but visitors may not see it this way.
In 2023 we conducted over 400 mystery visits at visitor attractions, which included a detailed assessment of each venue’s catering offer. Fuelled by my observations, mystery visitors were tasked with asking café staff a question about the visitor attraction. The question had to relate to the site’s visitor experience offer, such as ‘are there any guided tours on today?’
It was striking – if not surprising – that where catering was run by a third-party chain the ability to answer a question about the attraction was dramatically reduced (60% compared to 85% overall).
Moreover, far from just not knowing the answer to relatively basic questions, third-party staff would often proactively disassociate themselves from the attraction with responses such as “I’m not sure, ask the museum staff,” or even “I don’t know – I only work in the café”. The adage ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ comes to mind.
This presents a challenge. Visitor attractions work so hard on consistency of language, message and brand at all points in the visitor experience so any disconnect in the café breaks the flow. Suddenly that sense of escape vanishes and time-travel to World War II, Medieval England or Ancient Egypt becomes a flat white in your 4th favourite High Street coffee chain. Compare that to the likes of Warner Bros Studio Tour London where you can sip a hot chocolate in the Chocolate Frog Café, and the difference in visitor experience is obvious. It’s not too extreme to argue that this break in the flow may even curtail a visit, or at best require visitors to psychologically ‘start again’.
I’m by no means advocating throwing the baby out with the mochaccino – third-party catering chains bring lots of benefits – but our research suggests that more needs to be done to integrate these chains into the whole venue.
We don’t have all of the answers, but training seems to be a good place to start, either with the attractions involving 3rd party staff in their own training or providing some simple guidance so that they have a basic understanding of what’s on at the venue or are able to suggest a helpful alternative when faced with trickier enquiries. Couple that with a sprinkling of magic from some menu adaptation, as we saw at the London Transport Museum, and it could be a recipe for success which benefits everyone.
Don’t let your visitors go “hangry” – fuel the experience with on-brand food that ignites imaginations: Assess catering provision and the visitor experience at your attraction with Mystery Visitor Benchmarking