Virtual Hospitality: Creating Connections with Invisible Guests

Connecting with customers is vital to the success of restaurants. These connections bring customers back time and time again – not only for their favorite meals but to interact with favorite front and back-of-house staff members. Regular customers are the lifeblood of food establishments. Not only do they bring in consistent income, but they help spread the word and bring in new clientele.

Considering the importance of connecting with customers, the need to find unique ways to build these relationships has become even more challenging with the rise in online ordering. In 2020, “the online food delivery market grew by an estimated 27%” and is expected to grow from $151.5 billion in 2021 to $164.1 billion in 2022. This shift in dynamics requires restaurants to come up with unique ways to connect with their “invisible guests.”

Barbara Castiglia of Modern Restaurant Management spoke to the phenomenon noting that “this [new customer dynamic is] what we’ve been referring to since the pandemic as virtual hospitality.” Castiglia mentioned a must-read article entitled “Being a Virtual Restaurant Regular Has Its Perks” that highlights unique ways that restaurant owners are connecting with regular virtual guests.

“Some of the things that they’re doing include, you know, a very genuine simple ‘Thank you’… to noticing what people order frequently and maybe they don’t order it, including a little extra sample in there. Or, putting in the extra little dessert or something to say, hey, you know, we noticed that you’ve ordered for us frequently and we want to thank you. It’s a way to nurture and build relationships on the level that that person is engaging with you,” Castiglia said.

The article also mentions restaurants drawing individualized art on take-out bags, putting poems in bags, and sending emails to check in on customers and collect feedback. Other ways to keep customers engaged virtually include creating at-home meal preparation kits for families to create their favorite meals at home; frequent changes to menus with new tantalizing items and daily specials; virtual meetups and happy hours; and surprise extras or specials included with orders.

“One of the great things that things like that do is that guests will spread the word. If you get something that cool, you’re going to tell your neighbor and your neighbor is more likely to go frequent that restaurant. You know, acts of kindness will always go along a long way,” noted Castiglia.

She goes on to speak to a common question she receives about if and how hospitality has changed over the past few years, “it’s not necessarily changing. The nature of hospitality is essentially still the same. But it’s just a matter of finding unique ways to reach people where they are, and about building that relationship with them.”

And in creating these relationships, it’s important that the connections are authentic to the brand. Knowing your audience and what they want is critical to success. Social media is a great what to connect with customers and find out what they are looking for as well as what promotions and experiences they liked.

Getting creative is essential to stand out from the competition. Zach Geballe, Owner of Disgorged Wine, found his unique voice during the pandemic by delivering online wine classes. While other restaurants have created meal kits to go along with online cooking classes.

In the end, it all comes down to one thing – connecting with customers and giving them an experience to remember. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “True hospitality consists of giving the best of yourself to your guests.” Do this, and your customers will surely come back again and again while spreading positive word of mouth about their experiences with an establishment.

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