Food festivals, wine festivals and the like are a quintessential part of the culinary world. In the same way that music festivals elevate each artist in attendance, food festivals are an excellent way for restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries and other purveyors to boost their brand and get their name out to their target audience.
But as is the case with essentially every marketing initiative, food festivals come at a cost. In the same way that guests pay for their entry to bottomless food and drink, restaurants and other vendors must pay to be part of this bustling scene—on top of covering all costs associated with food, labor and insurance.
If you’re going to make that kind of commitment, you’d certainly want it to be worth your while. You’d be amazed to see some vendors that invest thousands, if not tens of thousands, into food festivals but fall short on execution. So if you want to see food festival guests become paying customers at your restaurant, follow some of these best practices to maximize conversion.
Understand the food festival mentality
Most guests enter a food festival with an entirely different mindset than with a restaurant. Namely, they want to try as many booths as many times as they can before the event shuts down, rather than linger over a single experience. Especially in the first hour of the event, where guests are hungriest and most eager to bounce around, they engage less with each vendor and instead focus on sheer quantity that they can consume. Sound piggish? You bet, but this is simply the nature of these events, so it’s best to use it to your advantage rather than fight it.
Focus on high churn for the first hour of the event. Simply crank out food/drinks samples as fast as you can, serve with a smile and of course field any questions that guests may have on their own. Let your product speak for itself. If guests like what they taste, they will come back for more and will be far more willing to engage in conversation and potentially visit your restaurant afterward.
Serve your best food
In all likelihood, most festival guests will not have previously dined with you, so you want to make the best first impression possible. Serve the best item from your menu. Yes, this may be more expensive, but in the long run this will best help you accomplish your goals of customer conversion.
Some restaurants serve more than one item at their booth. If you do this, tread carefully. It’s much better to place complete focus on one great item rather than dividing your attention among two okay items. Only pair items that go very well together. For drink purveyors, offering multiple items is not only more commonplace, but encouraged.
Keep your booth stocked
Never run out of food, ever. No matter how good you were out of the gates, guests will be extremely dismayed if you close up shop before the event is set to end. Budget for more people to attend than expected, and inform your staff to continue serving for even a few minutes after the event ends, if possible. Guests take note of who is most generous in these circumstances.
Festivals are also one of the only times when small portions actually work to your advantage. Since food is bottomless, guests aren’t steered away from tiny servings. In fact, you should actually strive for smaller portions in order to 1) avoid wasted food and save on costs, and 2) encourage guests to visit you again for another round.
Serve an experience, not a sales pitch
Guests generally pay top-dollar for food festivals, and don’t want to take out their wallets once they walk in. While drink purveyors can certainly post signage for selling bottles on-site, most retailers should go into a festival with the mindset that they’re there for brand exposure and not immediate sales.
To further illustrate this point, one particular chocolate vendor served samples of its truffles at a festival last month, but tried to upsell every guest by offering two whole truffles for a dollar. Not only did guests refuse the offer, they frowned upon the brand itself for trying to make a few extra bucks in this way.
Many more ‘festival hacks’ exist, but try these low-hanging fruits the next time you find yourself in this setting. You’ll find that whether on your property or in foreign territory, the same principle applies: the customer is always right.
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Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.