As restaurant traffic rebounds in the U.S., acknowledging the shift in consumer demands is essential. Outdoor dining with a safe distance between tables has become the ‘new normal’ and will continue to be an integral part of consumer lifestyle for years to come. In order to survive, restaurants will have to redefine themselves by offering services that fulfill the change in consumer preference. While there are various strategies restaurant and hotel operators can explore, one that cannot be ignored is offering the experience of outdoor comfort, all year-round.
What is Outdoor Comfort?
A concept that was at a nascent stage pre-pandemic, outdoor comfort at restaurants took the nation by storm in 2020-2021 as the industry navigated to make ends meet. While takeout and curbside deliveries were popular during the pandemic, momentum for on-premise dining was a challenge that was overcome by extending restaurant space to the outdoors. According to a survey by AMC Global, consumers expect to be much less reliant on takeout than they are now after the pandemic has passed.
According to another survey by Full Service Restaurant News and Study Hall Research, nearly three in ten respondents said they ate outdoors at least once a month at a casual dining spot. In addition, 10% percent of the respondents said that they dined outdoors at least once a month at an upscale restaurant or family dining unit, respectively. The preference for spacious outdoor dining experiences is expected to remain a requisite for consumers who want to enjoy dining out while maintaining a safe distance from their fellow diners. Managing safety and hygiene will be a shared responsibility for restaurant and hotel operators.
Role of Smart Technology in Providing Patron Comfort
Technology can play a critical role in ensuring consumer demands are met while churning a profitable return on investment for restaurant operators. According to research done by VSAG, a restaurant could increase gross profits by up to 65% by simply adding an outdoor patio. In addition to providing consumers with a comfortable and stylish ambience, outdoor structures can be integrated with motorized systems and controls to protect against any seasonal changes.
According to a study by OpenTable, a whopping 95% of respondents said that they would be more likely to go back to a restaurant if the staff catered specifically to their personal preferences. By utilizing motorized awnings and pergolas instead of completely fixed structures, restaurant and hotel operators can retract awnings or tilt pergola slats when required, so that diners can have a memorable dining experience, while offering a larger seating space. Sensors are positioned to anticipate any change in weather conditions and can seamlessly lower the awning or tilt the pergola louver at the right moment in order to provide a more comfortable dining environment. Such functionalities also add an element of ‘oomph’ that can help attract more customers and keep them coming back for more.
Meanwhile, solutions such as motorized screens can also ensure insects do not become uninvited dinner guests. By offering a comfortable ambience, restaurants can also cut down on last-minute customer cancellations due to changing weather conditions.
Support From Government Grants
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund is a government program recently introduced to provide long-awaited relief for restaurant operators in the U.S. who struggled to remain operational. While funds granted from the initiative can be used towards administrative/operational costs, the program also allows for investments to be made into the construction of outdoor seating, considering its increasing relevance, popularity, and long-term benefits.
A recent news release by the National Restaurant Association suggests the introduction of a Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act of 2021 that will provide $60 billion in additional funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. This will be a significant benefit and opportunity for restaurant operators to not only recuperate lost cash flow, but also invest in solutions that can help garner more revenue.
Achieving Operational Excellence
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 1.5 million jobs in the industry have not been recovered due to the pandemic. With restaurant operators willing to pay more and offer stronger benefits, managing immediate operational challenges is at the forefront for many. Automated control over the patio or outdoor seating areas via a smartphone or tablet provides an additional layer of managerial comfort to the restaurant operators/managers.
Smart outdoor shading solutions can also integrate with third-party automation systems. If a restaurant is already taking advantage of smart lighting, heating or even air filtration, those systems can be integrated together with smart shading for a full-business solution. To make it even simpler, restaurant owners can create schedules for their smart products, lowering a screen at nightfall or extending an awning before the hottest parts of the day. In addition to this, they also have the ability to customize settings depending on customer preference.
Unlocking opportunities to thrive in the new normal is the need of the hour for the restaurant and hospitality industry. In order to do this, they need to understand changing consumer behavior and respond to emerging needs. The process of re-engaging will be challenging but continuing to provide comfort and customized experiences such as larger space to dine, and tech enabled structural installations can go a long way in ensuring they remain relevant and unique. As the trend of outdoor comfort evolves, new innovations in the restaurant and hospitality sector will help industry stakeholders to re-establish their footing and look forward with confidence to a successful, thriving future.
About the Author
Yilmaz Ozturan is the President-CEO of Somfy North America. He has over 22 years of international experience in the smart shading solutions industry with Somfy Group wherein he has held sales, management, business development and strategic marketing roles. Somfy works with a nationwide network of dealers and partners that provides motorized & smart awnings, pergolas, exterior screen shades, blinds, and more.