Industry execs weigh in on trends, what they’re watching
Sports Business Daily writer John Aceti asked people in the concessions industry to highlight the trends they’re watching and the challenges they face in the food and beverage space. He also asked them to explain how they use technology to improve their operations and how they make use of data and analytics. The following are excerpts of their responses, which were sent via email and edited for clarity and brevity.
What will be the next big trend in food and beverage?
■ Maureen Sweeny, executive vice president and chief development officer, Delaware North: Food trends tend to be very local, and we see new and different things in each market we work in. Beverage trends happen more at the national level. There will always be a market for beer drinkers, but the next big trend will be the proliferation of low-calorie, non-beer options for drinkers looking for a “cleaner” alternative. For example, hard seltzers are growing at a fantastic rate — particularly in the summer months and with millennials. These are great as a stand-alone product but can also be incorporated easily into a robust mixology program because of their versatility.
■ Michael Pappas, vice president, Americrown: Enhancing the guest experience by adding value drives revenue. We are rolling out value pricing at Talladega Superspeedway during its October NASCAR event weekend. Fans with tickets to the new infield Talladega Garage Experience will have the opportunity to purchase discounted items from infield concessions. The value menu will feature food and beverages ranging from $2 to $4 and include everything from hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders and french fries to barbecue sandwiches and beer.
■ Reed Cordish, principal, The Cordish Companies: Within our sports-anchored Live! districts, we believe that a fully immersive entertainment experience is vital to creating an atmosphere that guests expect. So in addition to high-quality food and beverage, we offer premier sports viewing featuring the highest A/V technology, a master of ceremony to keep guests entertained during breaks in the action, live music and other entertainment options to keep the energy high at the conclusion of an event.
■ Fedele Bauccio, CEO and co-founder, Bon Appétit Management Co.: I think fans are starting to expect higher quality food that feels specific to their city. I believe that at Oracle Park and the forthcoming Chase Center in San Francisco, we’re driving a shift toward restaurant-caliber food at a stadium scale. … Our stadium concessions are becoming more chef-focused, cooking real food from scratch using exceptional ingredients that are prepared on-site to give fans a one-of-a-kind experience.
■ Steve Pangburn, chief operating officer, Centerplate: The biggest thing is going to be making a seamless, frictionless guest journey — from the buying of the tickets, the commute to the game, the ingress and parking, dining experience, merchandise purchasing, etc. We are working closely with our team partners to make the F&B aspect as user-friendly as possible — using Clear for payment and age validation, for example — and this type of innovation will only increase in the next few years.
In what way(s) will technology make the biggest difference in F&B operations in the next five years?
■ Sweeny: The adoption time lagged a bit, but guest self-ordering — primarily through mobile devices — is finally becoming the game changer we expected it to be. The benefits are compelling and include guests’ ability to customize their orders, variable pricing based on loyalty and minimized wait times. Market-style self-serve/self-checkout is another critical service style that our research has shown to significantly cut wait times. There is no learning curve, making the process that much quicker and customer friendly. Added to that, operators are gaining valuable customer insights, which enable a continuous cycle of improvements in process and the resulting fan experience.
■ Pappas: Millennials have ignited the experience economy and this trend is only growing. We are beginning to explore a cashless system that would not only appeal to millennials, but to fans who already practice this whether cruising, visiting a theme park or attending a concert. For us, going cashless not only provides a customer convenience, but efficiencies in our own operation. This would also allow us to customize individual F&B experiences for our fans.
■ Cordish: Convenience is king. Look for mobile-based technology to assist guests with wayfinding, experience upgrades, ordering, mobile pay and sharing their experience, all on one platform. Success will be largely based on ease-of-use, keeping it all streamlined on one customer interface.
■ Bauccio: The big push with technology will be to get as close to a “frictionless” guest experience as possible, to bring guests closer to the food. We’re designing kitchens right at the point of sale (rather than food being made off-site and trucked in) so guests can see the food being made in front of them. Technology is also helping to eliminate the hurdles traditionally associated with stadium concessions: long lines, no customization, etc. Think faster payment processing, paperless transactions, kiosk ordering and high-speed kitchen infrastructure.
What is the biggest challenge facing F&B operations (staffing, training, sourcing, pricing, infrastructure, etc.)?
■ Sweeny: Staffing, hands down. We expect a lot from hospitality providers — long hours that include weekends and holidays, hard work in all kinds of weather conditions, and always with a smile on your face. As employers, we have to work thoughtfully to attract and retain talent, because it’s so much more than an annual job fair. Once we attract and hire the right people, we have to create the environment whereby they want to stay and grow with us.
■ Pappas: Across the U.S., staffing is definitely challenging in today’s economy. For our event and catering business, we employ a limited full-time year-round staff, and work with area staffing agencies to hire part-time workers for each major event. While stick-and-ball facilities have more training continuity, for us every race weekend is like opening day. When you find the right person, you want to keep them. We begin recruiting for the next calendar year the very day we close out an event.
■ Bauccio: With unemployment rates so low in all the major cities, staffing is often the biggest challenge, simply because of the volume of people needed to ensure an operation runs smoothly at this scale. It’s a balance between leveraging technology to facilitate a consistent operation while retaining talented staff who can maintain the food quality and high level of guest experience.
What is the next big step in the use of data and analytics in F&B operations?
■ Sweeny: We see tremendous value in the data surrounding pricing and workforce management. When we think about pricing, we think about making sure we are charging the “right” price for products. Pricing might seem intuitive, but it’s actually based on deep data science on price elasticity, demand modeling and research on willingness to pay. Workforce management is all about understanding labor needs and optimizing staffing models to achieve greater efficiency and higher employee satisfaction — ensuring the proper staffing level, creating predictability in scheduling, etc.
■ Cordish: Data and a robust business management solution allows our businesses to speak to the guest about their particular interests from what food and beverage they enjoy to the music they prefer and how they like to be contacted. People don’t want to be bothered with offers that don’t speak to them specifically, so marketing must be targeted based on the specific information of your guests.
■ Bauccio: Data and analytics are incredibly useful in helping us create a less-is-more approach: analyzing the trends of what offerings guests are responding to and focusing efforts on increasing the quality of those experiences. Data and analytics also inform efforts to be more sustainable in our food and beverage operations, allowing us to create models to see what impact efforts can have.
■ Diana Evans, senior vice president of marketing, Centerplate: [Research firm] Gartner recently found that over 60% of consumers are still downloading the same amount or even fewer apps year over year — app fatigue is real. So bringing technological innovation to the forefront, without relying on an app download, will be a game changer. At BC Place, we are already doing this with Ready. Fans just scan their armrest, then order and eat.
What is the next big step in servicing fans?
■ Sweeny: The use of [artificial intelligence] and chat bots to service fans will be huge, because it opens up another mode of communicating with our guests and helping to meet their needs and expectations. We are already testing this in a number of locations, including SunTrust Park with the Atlanta Braves. The results will drive efficiencies at the point-of-sale that will be passed on to our guests and help to create incredible experiences.
■ Pappas: I believe we need to go back to the basics and give fans what they want — quality items that are priced right and presented with exceptional customer service. These principles will move the needle for us and improve the overall guest experience. In recent years, we have created media-driven menu items that definitely serve a promotional purpose, but they aren’t enjoyed by the majority. We don’t want to step too far outside the box. We need to focus on our core menu items and do them well.
■ Bauccio: In the sports entertainment realm, food and beverage have to be front and center. The culinary experiences are almost as much of a draw as the sports/entertainment itself. This means accommodating all types of diets, an increased focus on healthy and plant-based options, taking quality to the next level and partnering with unique local vendors to create a distinct taste of place.
■ Pangburn: One of the next frontiers is getting smarter with concessions subscription services, and combining ticket sales data and order histories for specific seats in order to have targeted concessions offers.