How design influences choice, increases efficiencies and elevates the dining experience
It has become commonly recognized by developers and restaurateurs that customers are seeking more than just great food when they sit down for a meal in a nice restaurant. They want an experience. What this exactly means is a question that has only recently become the subject of study by thought leaders within the hospitality industry.
As we examine the key components of a dining experience, design emerges again and again as a critically important piece of the puzzle. Executives refer to the importance of design within the context of congruency, the bridge between the story they want to tell and the brand identity they want to reinforce. Managers refer to design’s impact on staff efficiency and their ability to turn more tables each night. Customers, particularly within an integrated resort, will often shop the look of a restaurant before thinking about viewing a menu.
Increasingly, design is becoming credited as one of the most important, and least studied, attributes in why consumers choose one restaurant over another. From an increasingly visual universe of online and social media reviews, where consumers share commentary and imagery, a restaurant’s design is moving from background to foreground in its influence within the overall experiential palate.
Academic researchers are recognizing the importance of design, particularly in creating desired ambiances within fine dining restaurants. More and more, it is becoming accepted that physical environments create emotional responses in individuals, which in turn elicit a desire to further explore or completely avoid. This concept is further elaborated upon via the postulation of “servicescapes” that emphasize the critical importance of providing attractive environments for inducing customer satisfaction and loyalty over time.
Accordingly, a positive response to a “servicescape” is expected to result in positive beliefs and feelings toward the establishment, its people and its offerings.
Media covering the industry is also taking notice, as evidenced when Elite Traveler revealed its World’s Top 100 Restaurants of 2021. The list’s 16 new entrants, voted on by readers of the luxury lifestyle publication, lauded the association with a famous architect and designer as much as a posh location, exotic cuisine or celebrity chef affiliation.
Consumers feel more empowered than ever to evaluate what in the past may have been viewed as the unsung ingredients of a dining experience. Emboldened by a sense of expertise that popular television shows such as Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay and Restaurant Startup have given them, the general public has a raised antenna to every aspect of the restaurant experience today. Their expectations are high. And they’re not afraid to let the world know—through Yelp, Instagram and Twitter—when they have been disappointed.
Because of this, we must study consumers like never before and put our learnings to work at the onset of our development process.
Why Study Guest Psyche?
In the hospitality industry, deep thought about the psychological and emotional drivers of choice on consumer decision-making is quite rare. Hoteliers and restaurateurs have historically developed properties as much for their own egos as they have for a perceived, or hoped-for, demand.
With consumer spending in restaurants up dramatically and consistently over the past four decades, competition has also greatly increased. That reality has placed incredible pressure on developers to conceive new concepts, quickly, which will both differentiate and resonate with a fickle public. From the heights of economic prosperity to the depths of financial depression, the hospitality industry—as a whole—has been slow to embrace a researched approach to development.
In global destination markets like Las Vegas, a “build it and they will come” approach dominated the first two thirds of the town’s “cowboy-to-gangster-to-MBA” progression.
Perhaps another rationale for steering clear of a science-based path toward understanding behavior has to do with a longstanding misconception of what “research” is and how it should be applied toward understanding customer psyches. Justification for this internal bias may be that “market research” is viewed as a sign of executive weakness or that there is a fear of delaying tight schedules or derailing projects entirely if consumers don’t respond “the way we want” to our ideas, sketches and animations.
Steve Jobs: Research Foe?
Many executives around the world would nod their heads in agreement if they happened to come across the Steve Jobs quote, “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” or a quote Jobs apparently liked from Henry Ford, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘a faster horse!’”
Jobs is absolutely correct in his statement, as is Ford; but neither makes a convincing case for not conducting market research. Rather, both highlight the misperception many have as to what consumer research is—namely, asking people directly what they want.
To actually understand what consumers want is an egoless exercise in immersion, venturing as deep as possible into what it’s like to be them—at home, at work and at play.
This approach, done correctly, yields valuable insights that misguided methodologies would have missed or, at best, misconstrued. These insights, in turn, spark actionable ideas—in the minds of artists and executives—that are rooted in something viable.
Within this capacity, Jobs was an exceptional “researcher” of human behavior. In this context, his brilliance was that he understood, before the opportunity developed, that everyday people wanted to use computers, yet the frustration in their complexity was an overwhelming barrier for the non-technically inclined. His focus on a “lite” version of a computer, that was simple and stylish, was a direct result of insights gleaned from observing consumer experiences with what was in the marketplace.
No one could have told Jobs to make an iPod, iPhone or an iPad either—but by stepping into his customer’s shoes and understanding their emotional and psychological desires, Jobs was able to anticipate mass-market trends, because they were rooted in behavior he could validate with not only his deep imagination but also with his sharp eyes and ears.
The link is not only ironic, it is also perceptible. Court records from a recent lawsuit between Apple and Samsung have resulted in much previously confidential information becoming public record. Among the findings: Apple’s investment in market research and its vast user experience teams are likely unparalleled. Jobs didn’t waste time asking consumers directly: “What do you want us to make?” But you can be sure Apple is obsessed with understanding human behavior and that the company uses consumer insights to help drive innovation.
Embracing Consumer Insights
For the restaurant industry, there has never been greater potential. Economic prosperity and discretionary spending have largely recovered from 2008-2009 recession levels. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans today make nearly half of their food purchases away from home. In 1955 it was 25 percent. In the United States, restaurant sales are expected to reach $683 billion in 2021, a $100 billion increase from just four years ago.
The pressure to increase operational efficiencies and turn as many tables per day as possible, without sacrificing customer service, also puts the spotlight on design as a critically important component for a restaurant’s success. As such, understanding the psyche of a hospitality patron has never been more critically important for a business owner.
Design Impacts Experience
Ambiance has become an indispensable part of dining out. Design plays a critical role in each of the three pillars of the customer experience—food, service and atmosphere. Done right, design complements other key elements, such as great cuisine, and helps establish the immersion that customers crave in a dining experience.
Todd English P.U.B.
It Todd English P.U.B., a modern interpretation of traditional pub fare located at the midpoint between Aria and high-end Crystals mall in Las Vegas, the role of design in guest experience and operations stands out.
Whereas the reputation of a four-time James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef undoubtedly is a driver of traffic to the restaurant, the design in many cases pulls customers in and brings them back.
The establishment’s open floor plan, high pressed-tin ceilings, white subway tile and beautiful marble center encourage a sense of community and help the venue establish a fun energy that it successfully replicates, night after night. Customers come specifically to have a good time; it’s what they’re thinking about as they walk through the front door. Their perception is that it is not as expensive as other dining options in the area. T.E.P.’s elegant-but-not-intimidating environment works great for one of the establishment’s most coveted customer targets: affluent male tourists, who want to watch a sporting event.
The design of Todd English P.U.B. adds to the high-energy, social environment sought out by management and customers alike. The kitchen is open, which brings staff into the lively environment and further opens an already open space. The bar and dining areas feel like separated spaces, as they perhaps should, yet the sought-after experience is diluted in neither. The proximity of the kitchen to the dining area also speeds up food service, which results in the restaurant being able to turn more tables each night. Todd English P.U.B. is able to increase revenue-per-chair in part due to its design.
Patrons asked to describe Todd English P.U.B. in one word, interestingly, often use adjectives related to the restaurant’s design—“cool,” “elegant,” “happy,” “lively” and “fun.” In fact, the role of design in choice goes well beyond their periphery. It is also at their consciousness.
When Todd English P.U.B. customers were asked to rank the importance of architecture and design in choosing a restaurant on scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), their average ranking was an 8.3. Though not enough to draw a quantifiable conclusion, it is a fascinating insight.
Innovative and brand-consistent design plays a central role in creating an ambiance at Hakkasan, which has been described as “sexy,” “sleek” and “upbeat.” While the modern Chinese restaurant enjoys broad success, it does particularly well with high-income locals, international travelers, domestic tourists and club-goers.
White marble and dark oak adorn a central dining area, which masterfully creates spaces that are simultaneously private and open. The kitchen, run by Michelin-starred Chef Ho Chee Boon and his team of dim sum chefs, extends the Chinoisere-chic to the back of house in a way that is different from the dining room but still consistent with the broader space. Positioning of the kitchen, the main dining area and the private VIP dining room on the second floor represents design choices driven equally by form and function.
The subtle design details within Hakkasan reward those who pay close attention. The dark wood and white, cloudy marble used throughout the restaurant are very similar to that used in traditional Chinese-style furniture for centuries. In China, it would be common to see these materials in traditional homes throughout the country.
Hakkasan is able to apply these old-fashioned elements and transform them into something elegant, modern and chic. With a fresher design, the dark wood and cloudy marble transform into a distinctly modern Chinese composition. This attention to detail no doubt adds to the restaurant’s appeal in the minds of consumers, while also extending the experience beyond the physical confines of the restaurant into the very story of the place—all of which serves as a tremendous influencer on choice, buzz and loyalty.
Understanding the hospitality side of the restaurant equation, Hakkasan follows up its impressive design with impeccable service. With stylish lighting, jasmine scent hanging delicately in the air, ambient music, great food and a brand synonymous worldwide with seductive excellence, guests can’t help but leave the restaurant having accomplished their mission to have a special dining experience.
With more than 20 comments per night from guests, Hakkasan knows that its design is a central element to the story it wants to tell its customers. Further, with about 30
people per day venturing off the MGM Grand casino floor to look inside, Hakkasan also knows that design influences a
consumer’s desire to experience that story firsthand.
Hakkasan’s design isn’t just praised in staff comments, online reviews and word-of-mouth among satisfied guests. It also wins awards, such as the G2E 2020 Casino Design Award for Best Interior Design for a Casino, Resort, Restaurant or Nightclub.
Todd English’s OlivES
Todd English’s Olives benefits not only from the name of its celebrity chef, but also from its prime location and smart design. Situated within the retail corridor of Bellagio, directly adjacent to the valet entrance off the Las Vegas Strip, the restaurant, and its patio in particular, flaunt the establishment’s unfair advantage of overlooking the Fountains at Bellagio—an obvious driver of traffic.
Comfort is the goal at Olives, where staffers field compliments and “where can I get that?” comments about the restaurant’s design elements on a daily basis. Warm colors, dark hues and subtle, upbeat music add to the character and charm of an alluring dining room that guests describe as “sexy” and “inviting.”
The restaurant is segregated into multiple different experiences within the same space: bar, dining room and patio all have different energies to them. These separate-yet-integrated elements are as much a testament to their function as they are their form. Their segregation also drives key operational efficiencies, as staff can streamline service toward individual spaces and guest satisfaction.
Tables at Olives are square, not round, adding to the focus on a comfortable experience. Also, guests are seated in rather close proximity, which encourages a social element that resonates throughout the restaurant. This juxtaposition also adds to a more “intimate” and “romantic” feel, which are among the most popular descriptors articulated by guests.
Patrons asked to describe Olives in one word commonly use adjectives related to the restaurant’s design. Customers use words like “comfortable,” “rich,” “elegant,” “relaxing” and “dreamy” as labels they would use to describe the venue to a friend.
As was the case with Todd English P.U.B., guests at Olives used similar words to describe their motivators for choosing a restaurant venue as well.
When asked to rank the importance of architecture and design in choosing a restaurant on scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), these patrons ranked it very high, at a 9.1. This correlation between consumer spend and the importance of design as a key influencer in choosing one venue over another was consistently greater, the more a consumer anticipated spending.
For upscale venues targeting high-income guests, design is not only a key element—it is an essential one in defining not only the consumer experience, but also the consumer’s evaluation prior to making any food-based decision.
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